“For all these events spoke the loud and unbroken language of God, which never crossed the lips of man. If you have heard God’s words proclaimed in this fashion during childhood, you will be able to hear them echo within you for the rest of your days, sweet, strong, terrible; you will never escape their spell.”
The first novel by Nobel prize-winning author Hermann Hesse. A bildungsroman, it deals with the coming of age of Peter Camenzind. Peter is a resident of Nimikon, a small villiage nestled in the alps, but he dreams of far off place and exciting adventures. The novel is largely episodic, the only consistent themes being a preoccupation with nature and the growth of the individual. Those new to Hesse might consider starting elsewhere; Peter Camenzind is simply not as engaging as much of his later work.
The novel begins bombastically: “In the beginning was the myth.” A description of the surrounding countryside dovetails nicely with a skillful portrait of the town, and a few characters are introduced, along with Peter’s family. This exposition contains many of the same elements of Hesse’s later novels: the protagonist’s mother is either emotionally distant or dead, he is a dreamer who fantasizes of visiting far off lands, his childhood is cut short by the necessity of work, and he experiences a short, early romance that is never fully resolved.
Peter sets off to Zurich to “conquer a piece of the world and to prove as quickly as possible to the roughnecks back home that (he) was made of different stuff from the other Camenzinds”. He meets a musician, Richard, who introduces him to Zurich society and proclaims that he should be a poet. Peter sets about to teach himself philosophy and history, and transform himself from a provincial youth into a cultured man. He makes some money selling short treatises, and spends most of his time with Richard.
He then meets a young painter named Erminia, and then a woman named Elizabeth, infatuations that are doomed from the outset. He begins to cultivate a love of wine, and when a tragedy befalls him, wanders from place to place, experiencing various emotional and spiritual crises.
Like Hesse’s Siddhartha, Peter’s travels eventually lead him to find wisdom from an unexpected source. For Siddhartha it is found with Vasudeva, the ferryman. For Peter, it is Boppi, a “poor, half-paralyzed hunchback”. In a modern author’s hands, this story might be maudlin, contrived, or melodramatic. In Hesse’s it is simply heartbreaking. Boppi lives with his sister’s family, and is often left alone for hours at a time; he cannot move by himself and they can’t be bothered to arrange for companionship for him. When Peter rushes home to keep the man company, he stands outside the house and hears the most unlikely sound: the man is singing to himself.
Eventually Peter coaxes Boppi out into the world, and they build a deep and abiding friendship. This part of the novel more than makes up for any meandering that occurred during the first half. At the end of the novel, having had his fill of the world, Peter returns to his village and becomes a fixture in the place where he was born. His homecoming is inevitable; in the final pages he realizes that while his travels were necessary and indispensible, that he can only find happiness in one place: his birthplace.
Peter Camenzind isn't for the casual reader; it drags in parts, and is almost as slow as Rosshalde, Hesse's still life about a painter in a tortured marriage. I would recommend this book for those who want to round out their understanding of Hesse's oeuvre; some passages directly foreshadow scenes in his later works. It is like the first novel of many great authors: a little unsure of itself, more than a little grandiose, but worth the effort.