One of the greatest pleasures of summer is the opportunity the season affords me to catch up on reading. I have been mowing through books lately, taking my time with larger tomes such as Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Plutarch’s Lives, and Knausgaard’s My Struggle Book 1 — books that require diligence and patience and are best savored slowly in languid hours. Because I teach college, I am lucky to have the hours to dwell in those tomes during time off. I seem always to be juggling several books at once, and I like to balance the long and dense ones with shorter, less clotted books. Yesterday I finished Hermann Hesse’s Rosshalde. Like all of Hesse’s books that I have completed to date, it was a fast read. I got through it in a day. Hesse has a clean, direct prose style, and the effortless translation by Ralph Manheim probably has a lot to do with that.
Rosshalde tells the story of a famous painter Johann Veraguth, who lives on a palatial estate with his wife Adele. He has an older son Albert, home from school for the summer, who hates him, and a younger son Pierre whom he adores. All is not well at the house of Veraguth, despite the painter’s fame and enviable lifestyle. Johann and Adele live in separate quarters, and generally speaking can’t stand each other’s company. Little Pierre is caught in the middle. Johann loses himself in work. In all other respects he has become numb to life. An old friend of Johann’s visits him, and, after learning about how bad the home life is, invites Veraguth to join him later in the fall on a journey to India. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I’ll say this — the book ends tragically but also on a note of rebirth. Hesse artfully and seamlessly captures the mixed feelings that occur when a phase of your life ends and is confronted by absolute loss alongside fresh possibilities. Something is lost irretrievably and something is gained. I’ll finish with an insight towards the end of the novel:
“Sauntering on along the wet paths, he tried to follow back the threads of his life, whose simple fabric he had never before seen so clearly. It came to him without bitterness that he had followed all those pathways blindly. He saw clearly that despite his many attempts, despite the yearning that had never left him, he had passed the garden of life by. Never had he lived out a love to its bottommost depths, never until these last days.”
Rosshalde is the kind of novel that awakens your sense of being in time, and how we become aware of this at pivotal points in life, when circumstances erupt and change becomes inevitable.