Comments on Hermann Hesse's Demian
B. Renner

Hermann Hesse's Demian, first published in 1919, is that rarity, a fictional memoir which actually reads, for the most part, like nonfiction.
Hesse's narrator Emil Sinclair focuses his attention both internally and externally, examining his reactions to events in his life -- often highly critical of himself in both cases -- and placing himself clearly within the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe which both nurtured and estranged him. Apparently inspired by his Jungian studies, Hesse has Sinclair pay careful heed to his dreams and to his psychic restlessness, which lead him both to be interested in, and to be of interest to, other "marginal" figures who are not satisfied by what their society instructs them to think and feel. Most notable are Emil's older friend Max Demian and Max's mother, who becomes Emil's muse.
Max, his mother, and Emil all represent the forward momentum of the human species into its next evolutionary stage, but Hesse's book succeeds not simply because one agrees (or wants to agree) with its message, but rather because it is so well and believably written: one feels that one is reading an actual autobiography. Oddly, at several points when the central characters are discussing the trials to come (remember that Demian, set in the recent past, was published immediately after World War I) and the more distant in time progress that humanity would make, I was reminded of a young adult novel I originally read in the 1970s, Dale Carlson's Mountain of Truth, another fictional hope for utopia which also clearly sees the impediments to that future.
Hesse seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence lately, with Picador now having issued attractive trade paperbacks of a number of his works. Demian is a fulcrum novel, a blend of the naturalism of Hesse's earlier work and the spiritual questing which, while present in the earlier novels, came to center stage in the later work.