Herman Hesse has always been one of my favourite writers, if not the most favourite. But most people, if they have read him at all, are only familiar with Siddhartha, that was made into a movie. Recently I read a blog written by a young Facebook friend. The ideas in it had some similarity to one of the works of Knut Hamsun, and to Knulp by Herman Hesse. On my recommendation, the young friend read Knulp and loved it. I hope that after reading the summary below, some more people will read and appreciate Knulp, written over a hundred years ago.
Knulp by Hermann Hesse was first published in German in 1915 during the first World War.
Knulp has three integrated stories. The first is narrated by Knulp himself. He is a wanderer, with no steady job or income, no wife, though he reveals that he does have a child, one whom he can never meet. He has no fixed abode, and walks or travels from one place to another. Yet he likes to dress well, to look neat and presentable, is a good dancer and singer, and can whistle a good tune. He writes poems, has his own ethics, and a soft corner in his heart, specially for women. But above all he values his freedom and space.
Knulp has been ill, and now on a cold and windy night, he reaches the house of his friend Emil Rothfuss, who welcomes him, and offers him food and shelter. Rothfuss has recently married, and after a few days rest there, Knulp moves on. He is unhappy as Rothfuss’s wife desires him, and once again rejoices in his own freedom from the pretences of family life. Before leaving he befriends a lonely young maid, who has recently been employed in a house next door, takes her dancing one night, and through the brief friendship, makes her forget her loneliness for a while.
The second story is by a fellow wanderer, who reveals some other aspects of Knulp, who was always fastidious in his habits, and did not like to drink much, or be in the company of those who did. After a brief period of travelling together, Knulp quietly left his travelling companion, after the latter drank too much one night.
In the third story, Knulp, though only forty years old, has consumption and is dying. Still travelling on the road, he meets a doctor friend, who takes him to his house, gives him food and shelter, and finds him a place in a hospital, with the hope that he could possibly be cured there. Knulp knows that he cannot be cured, but agrees to everything. He only requests that he be sent to a hospital in his hometown of Gerbersau, a place he longs to see again before he dies.
After reaching Gerbersau he does not go to the hospital, instead visiting the places familiar to him, recreating the ‘mysterious days of his boyhood’, when life was full of potential. His illness is consuming him, and he climbs a hill knowing his end is near. The winter sets in, and he thinks of going to the hospital, but finally does not do so. A snowstorm begins, and as he begins to lose consciousness his past flows before him, and he feels he is having a conversation with God. ‘He was not afraid; he knew that God can do us no harm.’ But, he wonders, couldn’t he have lived differently? Was there a certain point in time when he could have chosen a less futile direction? But God assured him that everything he had done, the way his whole life had been, was fine.
‘ “Look”, said God. “I wanted you the way you are and no different. You were a wanderer in my name and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom.” ’
And soon, life was over for Knulp. ‘He felt the snow lying heavily on his hands, and wanted to shake it off, but the desire to sleep had grown stronger than any other desire.’