Caroline proposed a few books for the Hesse week and I chose ‘Klingor’s Last Summer’ for which I read the other two Novellas ‘A Child’s Heart’ and ‘Klein and Wagner’ which I will review in my next posts. I left it far too late to read in German and went with the original English translation by Richard and Clara Winston, proving to be a very lucky choice, for the language from this version just flows from the page!
As the story begins, Hesse presents us Klingsor (Who in reality is Hesse himself), the famous artist and painter. Through third person accounts we learn of Klingsor’s death and his frame of mind at the end of this, his last summer, a tendency towards melancholia.
‘At certain times in his life, and therefore during his last months….. He would also deliberately drown his pain and his sometimes almost unbearable melancholy in wine.’
We then relive this last summer with him, we feel him being pulled towards the here and now, living out life to the full, as an artist, a libertarian, with his high octane lifestyle, on which he depends to feed his art.
‘Suddenly he laughed and stretched. He remembered that he had often before felt like this, often before thought these thoughts, had these fears. In all the good, fruitful, and ardent periods of his life, even in his youth, he had lived like this, had burned his candle at both ends, with a half jubilant, half mournful feeling of wild extravagance, of burning himself up, with a desperate greed to empty the cup to the dregs, and with a deep, hidden dread of the end. Often before he had lived like this, often drained the cup, often burned with high, darting flames.’
Klingsor was obsessed by the idea of ‘Carpe Diem’, he tells us
‘this day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity.’
Klingsor recognised the contradictions within himself between youth and waning maturity, between weakness and strength, between artistic certainty and personal doubt. He is visited in the second chapter by his only real friend, Louis, another famous artist like himself, living for the here and now, similar to Klingsor in his pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of the baggage of life. Klingsor knew his friend well but was still drawn to revealing his self doubts to him.
‘But Louis did not like to see these weaknesses. They pained him, they demanded sympathy. Klingsor made it a practice to reveal his heart to his friend, and realized too late that in so doing he was losing him.’
As the summer advances, Klingsor loses all relationship to the immediate needs of life around him, eating, sleeping at set times and drinks to greater and greater excess as he paints using bright summer colours more and more earnestly. Hesse sums up for us in many different sensory descriptions the Italian countryside at this time of year, here for instance Monte Gennaro, with shapes and shadows, with rock glistening and air shimmering, the blues and greens, I can almost see it.
‘Monte Gennaro, high and unreal, piled up out of endless steep, sharp pyramids and cones, the sun aslant behind it, each plateau glistening enamel floating on deep violet shadows. Between it and themselves the vast areas of shimmering air, and lost in infinite depths the narrow blue arm of the lake, resting amid the green flames of the forest.’
But we are aware of his recognition of the autumn to come, the season of course but also the autumn of his life, he was an artist who gained energy and creativity from his exuberance, but if he could no longer keep up this way of life would he still be an artist, would his art have any meaning?
‘Klingsor loved old pictures, especially when they came his way unlooked for; he loved such frescoes; he loved the way these beautiful works returned to dust and the earth………I feel and act like a man who does not believe in tomorrow and regards every day as his last.’
As we move into August ‘the burning fever month which mixes so much fear of death and timorousness into its ardent cup.’ Klingsor becomes less stable, his doubts and melancholia increase. He questions himself and his own futility more and more.
“Can a man change fate? Is there freedom of the will? Can you, astrologer, guide my stars differently?”
‘But what for? What were all these sheets smeared with color for? Why all the toil, all the sweat, all the brief, drunken lust of creativity? Was there redemption? Was there tranquillity? Was there peace?’
As his life slowly disintegrates before our eyes, we are left with the understanding that he recognises partially what is happening to himself, revealed by the understatement in a final letter to his friend Louis.
‘Everybody reaches an end some day, my Louis, and so will I, so will you. God knows what I’m writing you; it’s plain that I’m not feeling well.’
The final chapter describes his self portrait carried out at the end of the summer in question, the portrait is itself a huge contradiction, it contains all of his experiences, where he comes from, his dreams and so many other things
‘He saw many, many faces behind the Klingsor face in the big mirror, between those silly twining roses, and he painted many faces into his picture: sweet and wondering children’s faces, young manhood’s brow and temples, full of dreams and ardor, scoffing drinker’s eyes, lips of a thirsting, persecuted, suffering, seeking libertine, of an enfant perdu. But he built up the head majestically and brutally, made it into a jungle idol, a jealous, self-infatuated Jehovah, a totem to whom firstborn babes and virgins might be sacrificed. Those were a few of his faces. Another was the face of the doomed and decaying man who accepted his fate: moss grew on his skull, the old teeth stood askew, cracks ran through the white skin, and scales and mold grew in the cracks.’
Yet at the same time
‘everyone who knew Klingsor recognizes him immediately and infallibly in this picture, although no portrait was ever so remote from a naturalistic likeness.’
What can I say,? The banal, this is a wonderfully written story we are pulled along with, we float with his protagonist through this his last summer buoyed up by the magnificent description of the passing of this short time illustrated by the colours and shapes, the characters and the encounters as well as the doubts and the loneliness of the artist.
First Published in German as “Klingors Letzter Sommer” by Fischer Verlag in 1920
Translated into English by Richard and Clara Winston and published as “Klingor’s last Summer” by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 1970