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Shelf life: How Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf gave Dave McGinn a lifeline

Globe and Mail reporter Dave McGinn.

The Globe and Mail

Is there a book you return to again and again, a work that would make life on a desert island bearable? Each weekend, until Labour Day, Globe writers will share their go-to tomes – be it novel, poetry collection, cookbook – and why the world is just a little better for them.

The German-Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse was in a dark place when he wrote Steppenwolf at the age of 50. I was in a dark place when I discovered the book at 14.

Something changed in me that year. I was overcome with self-consciousness. Although I hung out with the cool kids, I felt there was something in me that would always be apart, alien, something that would never allow me to be happy. With the frightful powers of exaggeration and certainty known only to teenagers, I felt a loneliness I was sure would be my lifelong condition.

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But a small miracle also happened that year.

A friend's mom, a woman who practised yoga and had Buddhist figures throughout her house and who, I'm pretty sure, was smoking more pot than we were, one day gave me a copy of Siddhartha, Hesse's most popular novel.

I still don't know why she gave it to me. All I had read until then was comics. She never gave any of my other friends books.

I took it home and crawled up to my room and read it that night. I was transfixed. Set in India, the novel tells the story of a man who sets out on a spiritual quest to find peace with himself and his rightful place in the world.

It wasn't just a story to me. It's embarrassing to say this now: It was a lifeline.

The next day I went straight to the library in my high school. It was there that I found Harry Haller, the protagonist of Steppenwolf, first published in 1927.

Is there any man more lonely in all of literature than Harry Haller? If there is, I have yet to meet him.

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He is a tragic figure who takes himself to be possessed of two natures: man and a solitary, sneering wolf of the steppes forever at war with each other, forcing Haller to suffer "extraordinary and frightful loneliness."

He is 47. He is a writer. His wife has left him. He rents a room in a small town. He has no friends. He has promised to kill himself by the time he is 50, although right when we meet him he wonders if "it isn't time to follow the example of Adalbert Stifter and have an accident while shaving." It's the first of many times he considers suicide.

Eventually he meets a beautiful young woman named Hermine who teases him for taking himself too seriously, admonishes him for standing apart from the enjoyments of others when he has never had the courage to find humour – "perhaps the most inborn and brilliant achievement of the spirit," as Hesse calls it. She promises to pull him out of his abyss and makes him promise to kill her once she has done so.

Hermine teaches him to dance. She teaches him to appreciate jazz (Harry's a serious Mozart snob). She sets him up with a prostitute. She teaches him "the game of living for each fleeting moment."

The story culminates in "the Magic Theatre," a place "for madmen only," where, after taking an unnamed drug, Haller confronts the possibility that he is not mere man and wolf but a thousand selves and that the choice between despair and humour is his to make, but to do so he must work to unburden himself of weights both real and imagined. "True humour begins when a man ceases to take himself seriously." He sees how much joy he has missed out on in his pitiful life because he hasn't been able to get out of his own head. He stabs Hermine to death.

Eventually, I would read every one of Hesse's books, including the Glass Bead Game, the novel that won him the Nobel Prize in 1946. If Siddhartha was life-altering, Steppenwolf was life-saving.

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Isn't this what we most want from literature and art itself: to feel less alone in our sufferings, to feel understood by at least one other person and from that communion find the strength and courage to move through and beyond them?

Like opening your childhood diary, there is a strange ache to the experience of rereading Steppenwolf. It's the force of being pulled back to who you were then. There is embarrassment and pride and something akin to longing for how strongly you felt the things you felt then.

Steppenwolf is not a perfect book. Objectively speaking, I'm not even sure it's a very good book. It has many faults – chief among them its self-seriousness (a fault of all of Hesse's work). But I will always cherish it.

I have reread the novel many times since the summer when I was 14. Sometimes I have visited it in periods of darkness, sometimes in joyful days. Sometimes I have picked it up for no other reason than to check in on an old friend who has been and always will be unspeakably dear to me.

By the end of the novel we don't know what happens to Harry Haller. Did he really kill Hermine and perhaps go to prison for the murder or was it only a drug-induced hallucination? Did he eventually succumb to the wolf still inside him and take up the razor to free himself once and for all?

Each reader is free to answer these questions for herself. But I know that Harry Haller is still out there. I hope that he has found joy. I hope that he has found love. I know the wolf still haunts him. I hope he has learned to laugh.

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