In a recent post, I talked about how I joined Roof Beam Reader’s 2014 TBR Pile Challenge – and failed miserably. Well, in my mind, The Glass Bead Game makes up for all of it: this book has been on my TBR pile longer than any other book. That’s right: I tried reading it (WHY?) when I was about 14, and I got maybe an eighth into it and gave up. There’s no way I could have finished this novel then, and I’m not even sure why I started. It probably had something to do with trying to impress someone because I was 14 and dumb.
So. Why did I pick it up again so many years later? I randomly found the audiobook and thought I’d have a better chance with it. And I finished it! That in itself is an accomplishment: The Glass Bead Game is one of the hardest books I’ve ever waded through. It makes The Satanic Verses seem like simple, easy reading.
That said, it’s a good book. Is it worth slogging through some 800 pages of dense prose? Probably not. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone I know.
I’m not going to discuss the plot in detail. It’s structured as a formal biography of Joseph Knecht, who became Magister Ludi, or Master of the Glass Bead Game. The game itself is what fascinated me so many years ago, and I think that part of my frustration then (and now) involved its never being explained. We know it’s a game about connections, like a melody being played then followed by related variations. But multiple fields of knowledge are involved – usually mathematics. The game is played with symbols. It’s really complex. The biography follows Joseph Knecht from early childhood through mid-adulthood, then switches to “legend” about what he did after he left his post. Last are three “lives” he wrote while he was a student.
The tone is serious and a bit lofty – definitely not easy reading. Audiobooks are great for books like this (it’s how I got through Anna Karenina, which I hated): you still absorb the contents well enough, but it’s a more passive experience because it’s much harder to go back and reread, and it’s much easier because no matter what, the narrator just keeps going.
Keep in mind that Hesse won the Nobel Prize for this novel. It’s his last and is considered by many to be his magnum opus. I’m ambivalent. I can see how The Glass Bead Game is a Great Novel (certainly moreso than the aforementioned Anna Karenina, which, again, I hated), but I didn’t experience the strong feelings I was expecting. Most of it was pleasant and interesting enough, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, and I won’t recommend it. If you want to read something difficult, I suggest some Rushdie – you won’t be disappointed with Satanic Verses or Midnight’s Children if you manage to get through them.
(A note about the featured image: it’s from Pretini by Mario Giacomelli and is one of my very favorite photographs.)