Hermann Hesse - Peter Camenzind (O)

Certain books come along at exactly the right moment. This is one of those books. It’s been sitting on my e-reader shelf for ages, patiently waiting. After a three week road trip through Europe, it seemed like the perfect book for the flight home. It was.

Hesse is probably my favourite writer. Definitely top three. I love both his fiction and his nonfiction. But I’d never read this, his first novel. It follows Hesse’s usual bildungsroman structure - male youth struggling to find his way in the world, torn between two worlds, falls into dark times, and eventually makes a choice. In Hesse’s epic Glass Bead Game, the choice is between the cloistered, intellectual, pure world of academia and the dirty, messy “real” world.

In Camenzind, the choice is between urban life and remote mountain life in the early 20th Century. What better way to end a road trip through the Alps than with a book about a man who must decide if he wants to leave the Alps behind?

Hesse spends more time with nature in this book than in most of them, which is why it’s special. The struggle is the struggle between nature/ instinct and intellect/ social construct. The first is pure, but lonely. The second is impure, but fulfils a human desire for achievement, progress. It’s basically the apple/ Garden of Eden story, but with more mountains, no snakes, and a sneaking suspicion that “knowledge" is a distraction rather than a gift. 

Here's how the theme develops, (leaving out the plot parts where the protagonist realizes he's a pretentious git who needs to grow up): 

I would lie for hours by the window gazing down upon the black lake and up at the mountains silhouetted against the wan sky, with stars suspended above. Then a fearfully sweet, overpowering emotion would take hold of me - as though all the nighttime beauty looked at me accusingly, stars and mountain and lake longing for someone who understood the beauty and agony of their mute existence, who could express it for them, as though I were the one meant to do this and as though my true calling was to give expression to inarticulate nature in poems.


“You are a poet,” said the girl after a moment.
I made a face.
“I don’t mean it that way,” she went on. “Not because you write stories, but because you love and understand nature. It doesn’t matter to most people that the wind sings in the trees or that a mountain shimmers in the sunlight. But you find life in all this."

And then

And what if my love of nature should enable me to speak the language of woods and streams - for whom should I be doing this? Not solely for those I was fondest of, but really for the sake of a mankind I wanted to lead toward love, even teach to love.

And then

I wanted to teach people to listen to the pulse of nature, to partake of the wholeness of life and not forget, under the pressure of their petty destinies, that we are not gods and have not created ourselves but are children of the earth, part of the cosmos.

And finally one of my new favourite quotes of all-time

I wanted you to feel ashamed of knowing more about foreign wars, fashions, gossip, literature, and art than of springs bursting forth outside your towns, than of the rivers flowing under your bridges, than of the forests and marvellous meadows through which your railroads speed.

Who doesn't want to be a poet cheese farmer here, drinking straight from those mountain streams? iPhone snap from Austria. 

What’s Next?

I read this entire book on the flight back to North America. There’s another book waiting for me at home, one that’s been sitting on my shelf for a year - this time, it’s set in the future.