The Glass Bead Game PDF Print E-mail

Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (1943)

Reviewed by John Hertz
August 2013

Reprinted from the amateur publication The Drink Tank; copyright remains with the author. Used by permission.

The Glass Bead Game (also published in English as Magister Ludi) is largely neglected among us. Yet it won its author Hermann Hesse a Nobel Prize; it is one of very few good s-f novels by an outside writer; indeed it is a masterwork.

In this book the glass bead game is what differs from our world. Some hundreds of years from now — Hesse does not say, though to a friend he wrote of imagining the year 2400 (T. Ziolkowski, The Novels of Hermann Hesse (1965), p. 308) — the world has re-organized. People grew tired of what they came to call the age of wars. Intellectual ability found a new place. The change was begun, or concentrated, by a toy, a wire frame on which glass beads could be strung in various colors and shapes. The beads were used to symbolize ideas — all kinds of ideas — an architectural design, a theme in a Gabrieli sonata, a line of verse. Over time there grew up a notation, the physical beads fell out of use, the game took on international proportions. The best players were celebrities; the least were precious schoolmasters. The book does not mention, but from hints Hesse surely knew, that similarly knowledge of the Confucian classics, and skill at a kind of essay-writing, were the backbone of China for two thousand years.

By the time of the story a kind of order had formed, like our religious orders, its members renouncing material wealth, family, politics, to serve society by virtue of their training. A Master of Music, and a President of the Order, are important characters in the novel. The alternative book-title Magister Ludi, i.e. “master of the game” in Latin, is the name of the office held by the protagonist, in which capacity he among other things led public games with great ceremony. This particular Master of the Game, a man named Joseph Knecht, became a subject of legend. His work excelled, but his career ended strangely. Well after his death a biography was thought possible. It is compiled by another member of the order, writing for the general public. He summarizes the history of the game, tells what is known of Knecht’s life, adds with reluctant scholarship the legendary matter, and closes with some of Knecht’s student exercises and poetry.

The Glass Bead Game is a model of s-f writing. Hesse’s subtlety never fails. All the big questions about elitism, practicality, creation, skepticism, the risk of panacea, the place of religion and the nature of allegiance, are handled by implication. Nor does he digress to explain technology. Why should he? The characters take it for granted. The book is first about them, how they strive and succeed and fail; second about their world, what shape it has as a result of its choices.

In a virtuoso display Hesse disdains the technique of throwing us into the middle of things; he puts the explanatory matter in front, and fascinates us by using it to characterize the narrator. By the time the narrator is ready to start on Knecht’s childhood our suspicions are roused and the game is afoot. The narrator is sure, but not so smug or stupid as to make the book cheap. Women are largely off stage, while Hesse with little touches shows the consequences of that. The detail is telling throughout, and the language even in translation has admirable grace.

The structure of the book is masterly. The student episode of Plinio Designori foreshadows the meeting of Designori and Knecht as adults, and then, the alarm having sounded, Knecht’s letter to the Board of Educators, where Knecht in all the power of his mind displays what he reproved Designori for. When we come to the closing matter we burn to know what signs Knecht gave in his youth. They are all there. We need not wonder what difference Knecht made; the presence and tone of the narrator at the beginning tell us. The end of Knecht’s life is as right as any tragedy. In sorrow and horror we were expecting it.

By the miracle of genius this book is not mired in its time. Written in Switzerland, in the middle of Europe, in the middle of World War II, it is not about National Socialism — the one cut at Hitler is made so much in passing that we are jolted into recalling the year 1943 — or Communism, or the West and the East shaking each other awake. Its reception cannot be called silly to an audience who knows the history of Stranger in a Strange Land. Even today there are people who say they are founding the Province of Castalia or playing the glass bead game. In this his final work Hermann Hesse, if we may say so, surpasses Jane Austen and reaches the level of Jack Benny. Who can regret the cost?

(A substantially similar form of this note first appeared in the amateur publication YHOS ["Your Humble Obedient Servant"].)

Last Updated ( Friday, 17 June 2016 )
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