Well I feel like a bit of a fool for not responding to the hoards of messages that y’all have kindly taken the time to post up here. I’m not a facebook or a twitter dude, and most of my time spent on the internet is saved exclusively for following AFC Wimbledon in the English Football League, or else watching Youtube videos of Johnny Flynn again. And again. And also reading but not really replying to emails, to my shame (“sssssorry about that”).
Meanwhile, I thought it was high time to publish another book report (NOT a book review – “I am no prophet, and here’s no great matter…”), and this time it is the long awaited Narziss and Goldmund, by Hermann Hesse, that features alongside The Pearl by John Steinbeck cos it’s high time we gave that fella a bit more love.
It was our fine banjo player Win, aka The Dowggefather, aka Duh Dowgge, aka Tres Sikh, aka Country Winston, who forced me to read the Hesse. And I won’t lie, it has taken a long time to conjure the courage and headspace both to finish and write something about N&G. It’s dense, that’s for certain. And though not the longest book ever (I confess to being one of those people who picks up a book and at least notes the number of pages presented to me as a reader), it’s meaty and it’s challenging. Upon finishing it, I can’t deny the bitter sweet taste that it leaves me with, and I’m not even sure if I can say for certain that I loved it. I can certainly say that I’m glad I read it, and that it made me think the most of any book I’ve read in the past year. But it was also the kind of book that would take me about 30 minutes to get through and make notes on just one page, and the kind of book that I would pick up, read ten pages, and then put down for a few weeks and pick up something lighter to fill in the time. Like watching a really intense film on the plane, and then compensating by watching a trashy comedy immediately afterwards. I’m grateful for both to be honest.
But the way in which Hesse explores this man, Goldmund, his character, his journey, his mistakes made out of nature and nurture, and his relationship with the sort of heroic figure of his friend and mentor Narziss is amazing. The story centres around Goldmund, who is Narziss’s pupil at a medieval monastery in Germany, and who leaves his sheltered life to “plunge into a sea of blood and lust” in his dangerous adventures on the road, and tries to make sense of the physical world around him against the backdrop of the philosophical world he’s come from. Without giving too much away, he quits his life of structured prayer and sacred safety to go a-whoring and a-stealing, and most of the book is about his exploration of the benefits and dangers of living a lawless lifestyle. Hesse takes the opportunity to really focus in on the dichotomy between a free life and a structured life, and between the artist’s and the philosopher’s way of seeking meaning in life. All pretty, pretty big themes, yes. But it’s done beautifully, and a lot of the meat of the text comes from the storyline, descriptions of Goldmund’s actions and choices, and from his conversations with Narziss, which are truly brilliantly written, in my opinion. I guess it verges a lot on the philosophical and spiritual as well as the corporeal, which is challenging for someone more simple-minded like myself, but it really is worth it, I think.
If you’re looking for light relief (relatively!), then The Pearl by John Steinbeck is that kind of book that you can smash through in an afternoon. It is so freaking beautiful. If you’ve read Steinbeck before, I think this book displays some of his quintessential skills in a really concise, direct, unassuming little story. It is painfully aware and emotive writing about human beings, community and man’s most basic nature. Kino is a Mexican pearl diver from a poor community in Baja California where he lives in a hut with his wife, Juana, and their baby son Coyotito. Kino discovers the priceless ‘pearl of the world’ when diving for pearls one day, and the story is about how The Pearl changes this poor family’s life. They try to sell it, and all the wealthy city-dwellers try to cheat them. I don’t want to say any more – all I can say is read it, if you can. It’s beautiful in every way. There is hardly any dialogue, and Steinbeck uses a soundtrack in Kino’s imagination to do a lot of the story-telling: there is a Song of the Family, which is soft and tender and ancient music in Kino’s head, and there is the Song of the Enemy which he hears when he and his family are threatened. It’s an amazingly powerful device. I don’t know if this is the kind of book they teach in schools in America, we studied Of Mice and Men at school, but this book is so concise and spot-on that it really displays Steinbeck’s ability to cut through to the core of human nature in his writing, and his exploration of injustice, greed and poverty/wealth is mind-blowingly stirring and direct. His self-control as a writer (despite his obviously more expansive books like East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath) to be able to have a huge emotional effect on a reader with so few words makes him still my favourite writer I think.