I picked up this small novel in a charity shop some time ago, although I cannot now remember where. I read and enjoyed Hermann Hesse’s magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game a few years back, as well as a short work called The Prodigy, and after finishing The End of the Affair I spotted this on the bookshelf and decided to see what it was about.

Like the other two Hesse works mentioned above, the narrative has a calm, steady feel to it with a focus more on the internal emotions of the protagonist rather than on action or dialogue. In this particular book we are presented with the memories of Kuhn, a quiet, shy man who, despite a fairly unhappy life, manages to find some success in later life as a composer.

Gertrude by Hermann Hesse

After Kuhn is involved in a serious accident, he initially feels angry and depressed, yet the time he spends alone convalescing provides him with the opportunity and emotion he needs to focus on writing music. One of the songs Kuhn composes during this period attracts the attentions of Muoth, an up-and-coming young opera singer with an impetuous personality. Kuhn is both attracted and repelled by this bold, talented young singer, and the two develop a friendship of sorts, which grows and deteriorates over the next few years. Then Gertrude, a beautiful young lady who is also a singer, enters the scene and (yes, you’ve guessed it) both men fall in love with her.

I won’t say too much, but suffice it to say that things do not progress happily for either our protagonist or the other two in this sad trio and Hermann Hesse goes on to explore the affects of unrequited love, the challenges of the artistic temperament, the impulses of youth and the destructiveness of a performer’s egotism. What solace can be found, Kuhn suggests, is in art and the creative process of making music. So, on balance, not a happily-ever-after kind of tale, but an intelligent, well crafted book nonetheless.

That life is difficult, I have often bitterly realized. I now had further cause for serious reflection. Right up to the present I have never lost the feeling of contradiction that lies behind all knowledge. My life has been miserable and difficult, and yet to others, and sometimes to myself, it has seemed rich and wonderful. Man’s life seems to me like a long, weary night that would be intolerable if there were not occasionally flashes of light, the sudden brightness of which is so comforting and wonderful, that the moments of their appearance cancel out and justify the years of darkness.