- Paperback: 576 pages
- Publisher: Picador; First edition (Dec 6 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0312278497
- ISBN-13: 978-0312278496
- Product Dimensions: 14.1 x 2.5 x 20.9 cm
- Shipping Weight: 816 g
- Average Customer Review: 50 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #10,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Glass Bead Game Paperback – Dec 6 2002
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"...a genre blend of science fiction, fantasy, and fictional biography, leavened with musicology, poetry, and Hesse’s unique swirl of Eastern and Western philosophy." - The American Scholar
About the Author
Hermann Hesse was born in Germany in 1877 and later became a citizen of Switzerland. As a Western man profoundly affected by the mysticism of Eastern thought, he wrote novels, stories, and essays bearing a vital spiritual force that has captured the imagination and loyalty of many generations of readers. His works include Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass Bead Game. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. Hermann Hesse died in 1962.
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But there is a problem, and only Joseph Knecht, the Magister Ludi - Master of the Game and hero of the story - can see it. The Glass Bead Game, while being the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, has no creativity side, no ability to move beyond what it currently is. Philosophy, music, art, mathematics, sciences: All these are condensed into symbols representing, say, a piece by Bach or a mathematical equation. However, no new symbols are allowed, or if they are, the process is so mired in bureaucracy that it may as well be impossible.
We follow Joseph from childhood to Magister Ludi, and we learn through him what Castalia is and is capable of. A supreme intellect, his life culminates not in the appointment of Magister Ludi - as so many other great player's would consider it to be - but rather with his famous 'circular letter', addressed to the other members of the Board, highlighting his concerns with the Glass Bead Game.
The plot of the book is minimal, and we are all but told it at the very beginning. Rather, we are invited to take a look at this could be-world of Hesse's. Castalia, however, is not the entirety of the world, as much as the inhabitants would like to think. No, they are 'merely' an enclosed, fully-supported (but not self-supported) university like establishment, churning out works that may or may not have any real use outside of their walls.
At first, the book mercilessly attacks our time, with its commercialism, its way of turning men intelligent in one field into minor celebrities in another, its way of asking movie stars or musicians to comment on the state of the world even though there talents lie elsewhere, its way of putting wealth above all. It seems at times as though Hesse was caricaturing his own time, but the frightening thing is, in 2004, we have become this caricature. After this attack, the beauty of Castalia is revealed, as explained above. But then, as Joseph Knecht learns and discovers and becomes Magister Ludi, we learn that Castalia is not so important, not so wonderful, not so essential as first presented. It is difficult for him to accept this, but easier for us.
In the end, no solution is given. Hesse emphatically states that our present time is too shallow to be the answer, but so is the staid environment of Castalia. It is worth noticing that no character beyond Knecht has a personality; even his is poor. Females do not play a part, and there is no conflict. Is Hesse saying that a world without creativity becomes a lifeless, boring world capable of beauty but incapable of appreciation of this beauty?
Other problems with this book, besides being overly long and being bogged down in bloated conversations and philosophical meanderings, is that we're never really told how this Glass Bead Game is played. We get a general sense in the Introduction on its origins, but other than that there's no sense of how it's played, or how Knecht and his friends go about making their own sketches for future Games. And if it weren't stated in the introduction, I'd have no idea this story takes place in the 23rd century. A story set in the future doesn't have to be a sci-fi story, but it at least should be obvious that this story isn't set in the present. Where are all of the future technologies, for example, and where are all of the women? The only woman in this book is Plinio's wife, who doesn't even have a name. This book reads like it was written during WWII, which it was, not like a true book about a futurist utopia. We don't even know who's telling the story; is it an original document, a biography by an Castalian admirer, or a biography from a non-Castalian?
I also had a problem with Plinio Designori, the first person to come along and challenge Knecht to reevaluate the monastic and overly intellectual and stagnant lifestyle he's living in Castalia. After Plinio leaves the school, which he was attending as a privileged outsider, he doesn't return till their college years. He's offended and hurt that his friendship with Joseph isn't the same as it was before, and then years later, after Knecht has already become the new Magister Ludi, he confesses the depth of his feelings over this matter. I sympathise with Plinio, since this has happened to most people, but after you get over the wounded ego and hurt feelings, you usually come to realise that it's normal for friends to grow apart and develop other interests, particularly if they've been apart for awhile like he and Joseph were. People move on. This was bothering him for twenty whole years?
The poetry section and the "Three Lives" stories are so much better and much faster reading. I felt the story finally majorly picked up when there were only about 20 more pages left to go, and then bam, it ends so abruptly, in media res, with a lot of unanswered questions. I think I would have liked this book a whole lot more had it been condensed into maybe 300 pages and given more room to exploring Joseph's relationships with characters like Father Jacobus, Fritz Tegularius, and Carlo Ferromonte. I can admire Knecht for following his convictions, even though they went against the grain, and coming to these beliefs only after decades of careful thought, but I'd be able to sympathise with him a whole lot more if we got a clear idea of just how he got those beliefs, instead of being bogged down in layers of bloated and superfluous verbiage.
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