Hermann Hesse’s Knulp was a complete chance discovery in a second hand book shop. I think it was the third book by Hesse I’d read after his equally overlooked Wandering and Steppenwolf. I had also tried The Glass Bead Game (I say tried because I soon gave up, not thinking I was clever enough to take it all in at the time, and to be honest I still don’t).
I don’t think anyone would call Knulp one of Hesse’s major works, but all the same I thoroughly enjoy it. In terms of not only the date of its writing, but also the themes it explores, I’ve always thought of it as something of a stepping stone between Hesse’s earlier work (Peter Camenzind springs to mind) and his later 1920’s output. While I’m not claiming that Knulp is the equal of later linked works like Siddhartha, I do think that if you enjoyed the latter then you will get a lot out of the former.
I would describe Knulp as a novella. Written in 1915, its subtitle is “Three Scenes from the life of Knulp”, and as this suggests it consists of three episodes that shed some light on the character. Knulp the man is in fact a tramp. On one level he can be seen as a happy-go-lucky itinerant, who never settled on any one form of employment, just as he could never settle in one place. Rather than a settled orderly life of work and domesticity, he prefers to wander from town to town, making friends along the way and generally approaching everyone and every situation with an open and optimistic outlook. Hesse is keen to emphasise this aspect of his character’s nature. Indeed, Knulp is told by someone late on in the book (and I won’t say by whom because that’d be a giveaway for those who haven’t read it), “you were a wanderer […] and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom”. In other words this wanderer’s presence serves to bring a little light and levity into the lives of the people he encounters, a carefree and happy counterpoint to the humdrum workaday lives of those he encounters.
Taking all this on board, Knulp starts to take on more significance, and as a character he symbolises the tension between the conflicting pulls of domesticity and freedom, between responsibilities to others and loyalty to one’s own needs and desires. Add Knulp, then, to the lineup of Hesse characters caught between society’s expectations of what they should be and how they should behave, and their own yearning for the freedom to do things a different way.
Part 1 of Knulp is entitled “Spring” and introduces us to the eponymous hero, his ways and his way of life. Taking place in southern Germany in the 1890’s, Knulp’s encounters in this episode epitomise the kind of character that he is. Dropping in unannounced during early Spring on old travelling companion Emil Rothfuss (now a tanner), Knulp awakens in this old friend nostalgia for his younger days. Other people Knulp encounters in the village also find their lives enhanced by the stranger’s open, honest and attractive nature. Rothfuss’s reflections on his friend help give a flavour of the effect Knulp has on these people:
“Lucky man”, the tanner reflected with a twinge of envy. [Knulp] wanted nothing of life but to look on, and the tanner could not have said whether or not this was asking too much or too little. a man who worked hard and got ahead was better in many ways, but he could never have such delicate, graceful hands or walk with so light and jaunty a step. No, Knulp was right in doing what his nature demanded and what few others could do, in speaking to strangers like a child and warming their hearts, in saying pleasant things to ladies of all ages, and making Sundays out of weekdays. You could only take him as he was and when he needed a roof over his head it was a pleasure to give him one, indeed you almost wanted to thank him, for he bought lightness and gaiety into the house.
However, Knulp is no one-dimesnsional figure, and not everything in his life is sweetness and light. Part Two of the book is called “My Recollections of Knulp”, and it consists of what an unnamed, unidentified narrator remembers of a short spell spent tramping through the country with Knulp. This is a far denser and more philosophical part of the book, far too detailled to try and summarise here, since it mainly takes the form of conversations between the narrator and Knulp. However, my general impression is that it adds force and depth to Knulp’s portrayal, giving some insight into why he lives the life he does and his justification for it. For example, explaining why he never married Knulp has this to say:
Every human being has his soul, he can’t mix it with any other. Two human beings can meet, they can talk with one another, they can be close together. But their souls are like flowers, each rooted to its place. One can’t go to another, because it would have to break away from its roots, and that it can’t do. Flowers end out their scent and their seeds, because they would like to go to each other; but a flower can’t do anything to make a seed go to its right place; the wind does that, and the wind comes and goes where it pleases.
Whether we as readers agree with this or not, such thoughts of Knulp’s serve to highlight one of the many contradictions in his life: while he goes out of his way to be courteous and upbeat in his dealings with others, at the same time he feels an essential loneliness and isolation from others.
It’s just occurred to me on re-reading this particular passage that Hesse is trying very hard to press the symbolic significance of his character. I’m loathe to identify any fictional character with his or her creator too much, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the time of writing Knulp Hesse’s own life and work were at something of a crisis point. The author’s marriage and home life were breaking down, and he was an increasingly unpopular figure in his native Germany given his views on the War, something that would lead him to a life outside that country. I’m not saying that Knulp is Hesse. However, I think that in general terms Knulp the book is in part an investigation of what it might be like to live on the margins as a completely free spirit, and he represents that yearning many people have to just let everything drop and get away from it all. I also think that on some level Knulp’s loneliness and restlessness can be seen to represent the struggles of an artist. After all, Knulp partly earns his way on the road by singing songs, playing the accordion and telling tales. As we have seen, he brings a little light and life to others, but at some cost to himself. To follow his star he’s had to forsake the comforts of a stable home, love and even- it is heavily implied at one point- his own child.
To go into too much detail about part three would be to give a lot away, since it’s a crucial part of the book. The title- “The End”- gives you a lot of its flavour. By this time a consumptive Knulp, now in his 40s- runs into an old schoolfriend who is now a doctor. Cue a lot of reminiscing, some surprising revelations about Knulp’s own past, and a touching and somewhat uplifting ending.
My verdict on Knulp is that it’s certainly worth reading if you have read other works by Hesse. It’s certainly not as polished and fully realised as his other novels, but I don’t get the feeling it was meant to be: its episodic and fragmented structure works well on its own terms in order to shed different kinds of light on Knulp at different stages on his journey through life. In fact a bit like Knulp himself, the book quickly draws you in, gives you a little food for thought, doesn’t outstay its welcome but sticks around in the memory.
Other Hesse works are justly more celebrated and cemented his reputation as a great writer. All the more reason, though, not to overlook some of the lesser known works in his canon like this.