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Book Review

Herman Hesse
The Glass Bead Game (1943)

from the fanzine YHOS #59 (2002)

For Westercon LV ("Conagerie", 55th annual West Coast Science Fantasy Conference, July 2-5, 2002, Los Angeles) I suggested discussions of s-f classics. Mike Glyer, head of programming, took my suggestion and my list of books, which were printed in Progress Report 3 so people could read up and make ready.

The books were Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956), Cameron, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954), Clarke, The City and the Stars (1956), Heinlein, Farmer in the Sky (1950), Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (1943), Schmitz, The Witches of Karres (1966), Shelley, Frankenstein (1831), Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). As the PR noted, two were written by women, two were not written in English, two were written in the same year, two were written before 1900, two were written for children, two had been done in films: a pretty accident.

Of these, Hesse's Glass Bead Game (also published in English as Magister Ludi) is surely the most neglected among us. Yet it won Hesse the Nobel Prize; it is one of very few good s-f novels by an outside writer; indeed it is a masterpiece.

You are welcome to ponder whether this is a good list, whether any of these books is a classic, or whether in s-f we can have any. Charlie Brown says mainstream writing is about the past, s-f is about the present, no one can write about the future. Perhaps that is so. I believe we can have classics if we make a book, or a painting, or whatever may be s-f, which outlives its own time; which we find merit in even after times have changed. With decades passed since the most recent of these books, that may be more interesting than whether the future actually turned out, or will, as written.

In Hesse's book the glass bead game is what differs from our world. Some hundreds of years from now — he 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 began, or was 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 booktitle 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?