In many ways re-reading Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse was the re-read of all re-reads. It was a novel I read in high school and considered it to be one of my favorite books. It was also the first Hesse novel I read and it spurred me on to read most of his other novels and short stories over the years. Vaguely remembering what it was about (think medieval monastic cloisters) I wasn’t sure if I would still find it interesting. When I read it the first time I was highly impressionable and read it for a very specific reason. As a young gay-in-training in the mid 1980s in smalltown Minnesota, I often found myself reading gay novels that were over my young head but venerated them anyway because they were hard to come by. My only source of gay fiction was to buy them at A Brother’s Touch bookstore in Minneapolis and my $3.35 an hour part-time job at the Elk River Public Library didn’t leave much spending money for books.
In one of those contemporary gay novels–I think it may have been A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White–the main character talks about reading various books and references the gay subtext of Narcissus and Goldmund. Since this could easily be found at the library–perhaps even the school library–I was quick to pick it up and dive in. And the author wasn’t wrong. The story of monk-in-training Narcissus and the slightly younger, and beautiful pupil Goldmund was just the thing to warm the heart of a young gay boy who often felt isolated in a sea of hetero classmates all able to live their high school romances out in the open. Narcissus and Goldmund have a chaste but very close relationship that ends when Goldmund meets a girl and spends the rest of his life drifting, and boozing, and womanizing, and murdering, and sculpting. When the two are reunited towards the end of the book they speak of their love for each other in a way that is hard to believe is not homosexual in nature. I know that in less macho times, same-sex friendships were written about using much more intimate language than we would today, but even taking that into account there is something that feels very gay about these two. And so I choose to believe that were indeed in love with each other. I need to go find out what Hermann Hesse had in mind when he wrote this, because it seems to me that it couldn’t have been an accident.
For decades I have conflated Hesse (1877-1962) and the composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Not that I ever got them confused, but in my head they just seemed to go together. Both are of Teutonic origin and of a similar vintage, and both explore fate, love, existence, faith, art, body, and soul. And Narcissus and Goldmund certainly does that. No doubt the young practicing Catholic me would have appreciated the religious exploration more than the agnostic adult me, but not so much of difference that I couldn’t still appreciate it.
Overall I was surprised by how much of this novel stayed with me over 30 years and how much of it didn’t. There were more than a few moments when I could vividly remember what it felt like to read it the first time. In particular I remember reading it one day in class when we had a substitute teacher. In the first place I remember how great it was to be transported by this book into a lovely, interesting place while I sat in the middle of gabbling high school students. In the second place, the young female substitute teacher we had that day said “Oh, you are are reading one of my favorite books.” Words to make a young book nerd’s heart soar for sure. And then, it wouldn’t be high school without the bullies, one of my regular tormenters said “It must be written by [insert name of well-known local gay]”. I was crushed that this a-hole had ruined a lovely moment I was having with the sub, and self-conscious that he had somehow guessed the gay content of my book. Of course he didn’t, but the threat of exposure seemed real enough. I tell this story somewhat apropos of nothing other than how much this book, and the reading of this book made a mark on my young reading life–and in some ways on life in general.
So did it hold up after so much history? It did. I liked it for some of the same reasons I did 30 years ago and was intrigued to become reacquainted with the plot and some forgotten themes. Is it still one of my favorite books? No, not really. I don’t even think it is one of my favorite Hesse books, but a fantastic book nonetheless.