Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Re-reading The Glass Bead Game

The 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.

It 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.

But today I see that it is precisely what the novel does.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

What 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.

This 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 advice.