“The Journey to the East” by Herman Hesse

For those who noticed the quotation marks in the title, rather than italicization, yes, this is a novella, not a novel, though it is published in book form. The version of the “The Journey to the East” I read is the translation by Hilda Rosner, and this is a little book I picked up at The Strand in New York when I visited several years ago. Having a hankering for shorter books these days, I dove into it this afternoon.

I discovered that it is a far different book from what I expected. It is advertised, in the back cover copy, as follows:

In simple, mesmerizing prose, Hermann Hesse tells of a journey both geographic and spiritual. H.H., a German choirmaster, is invited on an expedition with the League, a secret society whose members include Paul Klee, Mozart, and Albertus Magnus. The participants traverse both space and time, encountering Noah’s Ark in Zurich and Don Quixote at Bremgarten. The pilgrims’ ultimate destination is the East, the “Home of the Light,” where they expect to find spiritual renewal. Yet the harmony that ruled at the outset of the trip soon degenerates into open conflict. Each traveler finds the rest of the group intolerable and heads off in his own direction, with H.H. bitterly blaming the others for the failure of the journey. It is only long after the trip, while poring over records in the League archives, that H.H. discovers his own role in the dissolution of the group, and the ominous significance of the journey itself.

However, this would probably not be such a workable novel, if told straightforwardly anyway. Much of the “action” above is mentioned in passing, but by the narrator H.H. as he attempts to write a book about his experiences… and faces the fallout for this and other sins he has committed against the League.

I can’t say the book quite worked for me. Some of that probably has to do with the silly piety that appears here and there — especially when the character is berated for passing up a chance to pray and meditate; another reason is because the concept seemed so interesting as suggested, that when it mostly turns out to be about how H.H. can’t seem to write the book he’s trying to write, it comes across as a letdown.

There’s also the fact that a full chapter here is a blind alley: H.H. visits a friend for help in writing his book, and gets a little, but not much, and then the friend dismisses him and does not reappear, or seem significant, to the final outcome of the tale. Perhaps there are subtleties I’m missing, but it seemed a bit like distracting filler, the kind of thing I myself, in writing, strive either to cut or to make more relevant to the story.

There are lovely passages, and there are tantalizing hints at a much longer story that Hesse must have imagined, but declined to tell. He does very interesting things with implication — but it’s a bit like reading an SF novel where all the throwaways are more interesting than the main speculative conceits. I picked this book up hoping to stumble on an early classic of fantastical fiction, but for me, it doesn’t represent that.

Likewise, there are hints of the kind of dreamlike quality of, say, a Jungian adventure through consciousness, except that the Jungian adventure keeps getting sidelined for a more prosaic tale of a man who is trying to write a book that doesn’t want to get written. The ending, mind you, is quite interesting, and plays (in a fashion people would now like to call postmodernist) with metafiction of the sort that brought to my mind the more interesting novel by Flann O’Brien titled At Swim-Two-Birds.

Perhaps rereading it again more slowly would help me pick out more, but it isn’t just my own hard work that seems missing to me here. The comment a German acquaintance made to me once, about Germans not being half as impressed by Hesse as non-Germans, makes much more sense to me now than when I only had Demian (the favorite Hesse book among Koreans) and Siddhartha (the favorite among Anglophones) to draw upon. (For my money, Siddhartha is fine, especially if read at a certain age; the popularity of Demian in Korea was simply my first clue that most Koreans value very different things in fiction than Anglophones tend to do.)

In any case, “The Journey to the East” is not a bad book, and definitely easy to read in a single sitting, but also one you can probably skip unless you’re particularly interested in stories about secret mystical societies that transcend the boundaries of space and time and reality. (I found it instructive on that level, as I consider writing something in that vein myself, some time in the future.)

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