Narziss and Goldmund is set in a timeless medieval Europe. It is a dreamy, episodic novel with a kind of beauty that reminds me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It deals with similar questions to Wilder’s novel: the deepest questions of what life is for, of what type of life we should lead.
The monk Narziss sends his student Goldmund out into the world to experience it and live it to the full because he senses in Goldmund something Narziss – a cold scholar – can never have: passionate intensity. So, for the bulk of the novel, we follow Goldmund on his life as an adventurer or a vagrant as he goes from bed to bed and house to house, this shining youth who all women fall for. He puts down no roots until he sees a beautiful carving, decides he must become a sculptor and works for a couple of years as an apprentice, carving a magnificent statue of Goldmund.
Yet his old itchy feet return; he cannot settle (the theme is similar to Alain-Fournier’s Le Grande Mealunes) and he goes travelling again. Things take a dark turn as plague descends on the country and the death around him ages him and leaves him wiser.
The pattern continues, though, until finally he is aged enough that eternal youth is no longer an option and he returns to the monastery, finally settled, but deathly ill.
There are pages of densely beautiful, insightful writing. Perhaps this extract sums up the theme better than any other:
Oh, it was high time to accomplish something, carve out some figures to leave behind him; something with longer life in it than he. Small fruit was born of all these wanderings, these years since he escaped into the world. He had saved so little from time; a few figures, carved and left in a workshop, the best of them all his Johannes – and now this unreal picture-book in his head, his fair and agonized image-world of memories. Could he ever manage to rescue some of them, setting them forth for all to see? Or would his life go on like this to the end, always with new cities, new country, new women, fresh experiences, other pictures, one piled up over the other, from which at last he would have nothing, save the restless, painful beauty in his heart? Life tricked so shamelessly. It was enough to make men laugh or weep. A man could live, letting his senses have free rein, sucking his fill at the breasts of Eve, his mother – and then, though he might revel and enjoy, there was no protection against her transience, and so, like a toadstool in the woods, he shimmered today in the fairest colours, tomorrow rotted, and fell to dust.
Or he could set up his defences against life, lock himself into a workshop, and seek to build a monument beyond time. And then life herself must be renounced; the man was nothing but her instrument : though he might serve eternity he withered, he lost his freedom, fullness, and joy of days. Such had been the fate of Master Nicholas.
And yet our days had only a meaning if both these goods could be achieved, and life herself had not been cleft by the barren division of alternatives. To work and yet not pay life’s price for working: to live yet not renounce the work of creation. Could it ever be done?
Some men could do it, perhaps. There might be husbands, and honest fathers of families in the world, whose senses had not been blunted by their fidelity. There might be industrious burghers whose hearts had not been tamed and rendered barren, by their lack of danger and its freedom. Perhaps. He had met none yet.
– pp. 237-238
I thought for a while it was a perfect novel. But the ending feels rushed. The greatest shift in Goldmund – his wearying and rootedness, the end of his youth – seems to accelerate dramatically in the last chapters. But perhaps that’s not a flaw, perhaps it’s even true to how life is sometimes.
Indeed, there is a sense of Hesse knowing he can’t show some of this transition. There is a gap as Goldmund sets out one last time at the end of the penultimate chapter and then returns at the beginning of the next. We only ever learn fragments of what finally broke him or matured him as he feverishly relates it to Narziss while dying.
A beautiful, important novel – as you will either think or not from the extract.