Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse – Chosen by Nathan Cooper

I read Steppenwolf between finishing A-levels and starting work. I had done well enough at school. To quote a friend of my Mum, “The world is your oyster.” Which is all very well, unless you don’t like oysters. I knew I didn’t want to go to uni – “I’m not paying nine grand a year for someone to tell me what books to read,” – but the thought of a career was equally uninspiring.

For the first time in my life I had to make a choice with an air of finality. School wasn’t a choice, you were just there. You turned up, listened to the interesting bits and sat the exam. And if you’re good at exams they said “well done.” Now the world of work was lined up like a thousand different doorways. It wasn’t the doorways themselves that were daunting. It was knowing that in choosing one, many others would close and never reopen.

I had no sense of purpose to guide my choice. All my friends had moved onward or away. My ambition in life was to read books and listen to music. With no responsibilities and no job, I had achieved everything and I had achieved nothing. It was perfect and it was hellish. It was tiresome, incredibly lonely and incredibly miserable. I read all day to escape the loneliness, and was lonely because all I did was read. I lived in the third person; received emotions second hand like music from next door’s speakers. Sometimes I was happy, sometimes I was sad, and I never cared which; but the sun insisted on rising so what else was there to do but read?

Read and think. In a grey existence I chose thought over life. A man can maintain that for so long but, “he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same and one day he will drown.”

That quotation is one of two from Steppenwolf  that I wrote down in a notebook I kept at the time. In a section at the front I recorded any phrases that particularly resonated with me. Looking through them now, they were collated over a year or so from sources as wide ranging as Allen Ginsberg, Fidel Castro and Winnie the Pooh. Only Steppenwolf has two quotes.

Despite this, it is certainly not the book I know best. I have only read it twice. My patchy memories of the plot are from the second reading a couple of years later. I couldn’t write you a book review or comment on Hesse’s writing style. What has marked me indelibly is the astonishment and joy at opening one more book from the library to find my own life written down.

The main character, Harry Haller, may have been a man in his 40s, but all his internal conflicts described my own feelings with devastating accuracy. Every dilemma and folly, every ridiculous conceit, the sense of being out of kilter with society and with himself. All of these struck a chord that rang piercingly clear. Each passage could have been drawn from the river of thought in which I was drowning. Every page seemed to contain yet another perfect description of a feeling I had waited unknowingly for someone to articulate. Steppenwolf became the passing branch I could cling to. It may not have led to the “solid earth”, but it reminded me where the bank was. I was still lost, but now there were two of us floating. Most astonishing of all, this was all written by a German man in 1927.

I have said before that if you read Steppenwolf anFd then Fever Pitch, you will know me completely. This piece could just as easily have been about Arsenal away-days. It could have been Catch 22 or On the Road. Everybody’s “favourite book” is “books” plural. At heart though, I think everyone can pick That One Book. The one that marked you deepest. It might not have bit first or hardest, but it bit at the right time, because That One Book isn’t really about the book. It’s about everything else: who you were before and who you were after.

Harry Haller is a man caught in the limbo of not wanting to live and not wanting to die. The finale of the novel finds him faced with a magic hall of doors. Out of the endless possibilities he enters three. By the time he returned, we had both learned how to live. In avoiding choosing a door I was avoiding failure. Steppenwolf reminded me that in avoiding failure I was avoiding everything. In trying to live the perfect life, you risk not living at all, and life’s too short for that. After all, as my notebook reads, “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”

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