last book I read in 2019 (or in the 2010s if you insist) was Hermann
Hesse's The Glass Bead Game,
one of the very, very few books, books as physical objects, that have
followed me through all moves and other hurdles in the last fifty
years. Its dust jacket is falling apart, its pages are yellow. I am
not sure why I suddenly decided to re-read it; possibly it happened
in the short interim when I didn't yet have internet in my new home
and couldn't download whatever was queued on my Kindle. I opened the
moving box marked “Books” and pulled out a book at random. This
was a moving box from Gatehouse where I only had a handful of books.
The fact that Glass Bead Game
was in that box is telling.
was a cult book in Russia – as elsewhere – fifty years ago,
during my so-called formative years when certain books could be
life-changing. Everybody read it, young and old. Translated books
were rare in the Soviet Union then. Translated books other than by
explicit supporters of the Soviet regime were exceptions. Translated
books that didn't describe the horrors of capitalism were more than
exceptions. Considering it now, I wonder how this book could be
published in the Soviet Union at the time when every attempt at
freedom of speech was crushed. Of course Hesse was anti-Fascist, and
there was something called “the subtle art of forewords”; and
indeed the foreword, written by a literary critic, promptly explains
to the ignorant Russian reader that the novel presents the decline of
spirituality in capitalist society. I am not even sure I read the
foreword fifty years ago, but if I did, I probably laughed at it,
together will my Russian fellow readers. We recognised the rhetoric
only too well.
today I see that it is precisely what the novel does.
wonder how much I understood reading this extremely complicated novel
at the age of seventeen. I wonder how much my parents understood.
There is almost no plot, dialogue is sparse, and paragraphs go on for
page upon page. Did I skim the pages? Wasn't I bored to death? Did I
fake my fascination just to show off? However, I do remember that the
novel made a strong impression on me – as already said, strong
enough to save my precious copy for fifty years.
also remember that I re-read it a couple of years ago. What strikes
me now is that I have no memory of the book from this re-reading.
Surely, a few years ago I would read it slower and deeper; I am also,
I believe, more educated and knowledgeable than fifty years ago, with
years and years of literary studies to equip me in both understanding
and enjoying the novel. Yet when I re-read it now it was as if I
hadn't re-read it since fifty years ago. I remembered the beginning
and the ending of the minimal linear plot. I had even forgotten that
there were also appended stories, purportedly written by the main
character. Metafiction. I may not have known what metafiction was
fifty years ago. But surely five years ago.
had forgotten that the story takes place in the distant future, two
hundred years from now and told by someone even further away in the
future. Goodness, I have written tons of critical work on narrative
temporality, and I didn't notice it in Glass Bead Game? And of
course it is a dystopia. I wasn't as well-versed in the genre fifty
years ago as I am now, but I had read 1984 and We, and
I was living in a totalitarian state. But Glass Bead Game is a
much more subtle dystopia than Orwell's or Zamyatin's. It is a
seductive book, and I believe we were all seduced back then. I
remember in my upper teens and early twenties we referred to our
existential conversations as glass-bead games. We genuinely believed
that it was the highest intellectual achievement of humanity. But why
then does the main character, Magister Ludi, give it up? If we saw
him as our role model, shouldn't we at the very least question his
choice? We didn't. Probably we simply ignored the ending, which is,
as reading research shows, a common reaction to unsatisfactory
resolutions. And of course the Game continues – they still play it
in the narrator's distant time.
I clearly see now – and again, how carelessly must I have read it
three or so years ago that I didn't even contemplate it – is that
the narrator is unreliable (another favourite scholarly subject I
have put much effort into), that he – only men could become Game
masters – admires the legendary Magister Ludi whose objective
biographer he pretends to be. But the reader is supposed to see
through it and realise that the Game is a parasitic, pointless escape
for a handful of self-proclaimed geniuses who have rejected science,
arts, religion, social life, human relationships, for the sake of a
safe and secure life within a strict hierarchical structure. Didn't
we see it when we were young? No, because we saw what we wanted to
see, extreme spirituality, and ignored the rest. But three years ago
I should have noticed.
is a rather long reflection on the tricks of memory. I always tell my
students: Don't trust your memory, re-read! I should listen to my own