German-born Swiss novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 and shortly afterwards the Goethe Prize in Germany.
Born at Calw near Württemberg, Hesse was the son of Christian missionaries who had worked in India and grandson of a distinguished expert on Indian languages. An emphasis upon spiritual values, especially as formulated in Indian mysticism, was to mark his most important later writings, particularly after his own visit to India in 1911. As a child he lived in Basel (1881–86) and had Swiss citizenship. He spent a short period studying at a seminary in Germany but soon left to work as a bookseller in Switzerland. From 1904 he devoted himself entirely to writing. After a first volume of verse (1899), Hesse established his reputation with a series of lyrical romantic novels – Peter Camenzind (1904; translated 1961), Unterm Rad (1906; translated as Beneath the Wheel, 1968), and Gertrud (1910; translated 1915) – and the short story Knulp (1915; translated 1971). After his journey to India in 1911, he lived for a time in Bern. Having proclaimed his pacifism in 1914, Hesse was denounced in Germany (he took up permanent Swiss citizenship in 1923) and his reputation suffered there until after World War II. In 1916–17 he underwent Jungian analysis and the experience had a profound effect on his subsequent work. In 1919 he left his family and published Demian, a novel that broke with the rather provincial romanticism of his earlier work and shows the impact of Jung's psychology in a pattern of conflicting oppositions. The novel ends with a disaster to civilization (i e World War I) but looks forward to a future rebirth.
Hesse's major work was published between the wars and enjoyed not only an initial success but a very influential revival in the 1960s and 1970s with the popular interest in oriental religion, meditation, and mysticism. Siddhartha (1922; translated 1954) is a novelistic rendering of a Brahmin's search for and attainment of the spiritual goal. Der Steppenwolf (1927; translated 1929) refers to the human and bestial elements in the character of the protagonist, Harry Haller, and is a surrealistic tale of how the hero resolves this conflict. Narziss und Goldmund (1930; translated as Death and the Love, 1932), set in the Middle Ages, again explores conflicting aspects of human nature in the two contrasting central characters. Hesse's last notable work and the one that attempts to summarize his views is Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; translated as The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi, 1970). Set in the future (in twenty-third century Castalia), the novel is Hesse's final statement on the need to discover an as yet untried spiritual solution to the problems and contradictions of human nature and culture.