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Steppenwolf, At Last
December 31, 2010

Finishing Steppenwolf marks the completion of a goal I set myself back in my 20's: to read all of Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse's novels. Within a few years, I'd read them all--with the exception of this one. I tried, but surprisingly couldn't get into it. I say surprisingly, because I had no problem slogging through the dense and lengthy Magister Ludi. Later I learned that Hesse himself had commented that, as he had written Steppenwolf when he was 50, and the main character, Harry Haller, is about that age, the book would be best understood by readers of that age, too. So I made a mental note to pick it up again at age 50, and did so, but after two more attempts then I still had no interest. Finally just recently I tried again, and the fourth time was the charm.

Now I understand Haller perfectly: he has become depressed; retreats more and more into classical music, literature and other refinements of the mind; has become more and more a loner; feels alienated from mainstream culture and contemporary politics; abhors the war fever he reads about in the newspapers; and mistrusts relationships. For a sensitive person, a few decades of disillusionment could easily do that to you. At the very brink of suicide, however, Haller meets a woman who gradually leads him out of his bitterness and fear into a new appreciation of the pleasures of life. At that time she extracts a promise from him that keeps the reader hooked until the end. She begins by insisting that he learn to dance, then oversees his finding a girlfriend, and the story unfolds from there with some remarkable explorations on Haller's part, both external and internal.

Although published over 80 years ago, Steppenwolf describes a society not much different from ours. Phrases like "this ravaged earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance" sound startlingly contemporary. If you like to be challenged to see ordinary aspects of life in extraordinary ways, you may enjoy Steppenwolf--but bear in mind you may not "get it" until/unless you're over 50.