This was Herman Hesse’s first novel, published when he was 26, and like many of his others depicts a man who struggle to fit in to western society and is suffering from a spiritual crisis.
Peter Camenzind grew up high in the Swiss Alps, the son of a ‘peasant’, who in childhood is close to nature but whose intelligence earns him a scholarship and he moves to towns and cities to continue his education.
He is a loner by nature but craves companionship and a need to be accepted by the ‘civilized society’ in which he now lives rather than be branded as an educated peasant from the mountains.
Yet he seems destined to be alone – his best friend Richard dies in a boating accident and the women he falls in love with fall for other men. Hesse portrays his narrator as an often arrogant and solitary man, who drinks too much and although Camenzind attains some success as poet, story-writer and journalist his disillusion with society continues to fester.
“… it was in Florence that I first became conscious of the threadbare stupidity of modern culture. It was there too that I was overcome for the first time by the feeling that I would always be a stranger in our modern society and the impulse first awoke in me to lead my life outside it…” P82
He dismisses his successes as a writer and has the constant feeling that he has it within himself to write something great but that he is not ready for it.
“… I was conscious of vague stirrings within me, convinced that when my time came I would success in producing some valuable work and at any rate snatching a modicum of good fortune from this frail life of ours… I was conscious that latent sources of power lay dormant in me, still untapped. And I again examined myself to see what sort of obstacle or daimon was causing my spirit to stagnate and to increasingly weigh me down. I was obsessed with myself as an outsider, an imperfectly developed human being whose suffering no-one knew, understood or shared.” P95
Camenzind is spiritual without being religious in the orthodox sense and he sees artistic creativity as an expression of the divine.
“Art it seemed to me, has always been at great pains to find expression for true innate longing of the divine element in us.” P104
Yet he still distrust society and how it has moulded him despite his instincts:
“I was amazed to discover that what above all differentiates man from the rest of nature is a kind of protective coat of lies. I soon noted this same trait in all my acquaintances – the result of the fact that every person feels it incumbent upon himself to cut a well-defined figure, whereas the truth is that no-one knows his true, inmost self. It was with some misgiving that I observed the same trait in myself and I now gave up the attempt to probe the heart of people.” P129
He is a lifelong admirer of St Francis of Assisi and it is from his life that he learns about the true nature of humanity, abandoning the artistic set in which he had moved to keep company with simpler people and eventually to look after and find true companionship with a cripple called Boppi.
When Boppi dies, Camenzind returns to his mountain village to look after his ageing father and reflects that despite his bohemian rather debauched lifestyle that this is where he truly belongs and that despite his attempts to integrate with ‘civilized’ society he is still truly a ‘peasant’ at heart.
I don’t think this really works as a novel – for while it has some great passages and an intriguing narrator it is too self-consciously novelistic and full of little flourishes. But the theme was an interesting one – the idea that we have to compromise our true instincts to fit in with the conventions of the society in which we live.
Hess returns to the theme with much better results in later novels and perhaps Peter Camenzind is best read as an interesting insight into how an eventual Nobel Prize winner first limbered up with the novel form and paved the way for future greatness.