BOOK REVIEW: The Folio Society Edition of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

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Cover design from The Folio Society’s edition of Steppenwolf illustrated by Dan Hillier ©Dan Hillier 2018

The Folio Society’s 2018 edition of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, translated by David Horrocks is a thing of beauty and its aesthetics get first mention. The book has all the qualities of a good vintage bourbon. A vanilla hardback with an oaky flock pattern that comes in a caramel case, this is no book to shelve. The front cover is a montage of men’s faces and surreal wolfish features glint in unexpected places subtly conveying the tormented psyche of main character, Harry Haller. A wolf slinks across the back cover in the finest of inks. The book is block printed and it gives Dan Hillier’s illustrations, particularly the ones inside which contrast against the cream Napura paper, a strikingly retro affect. At centrefold, a black glossy pamphlet with a psychedelic print cover presents Steppenwolf’s ‘Tract’ in inviting miniature form. In short, this is a coffee table edition. This is the book that needs to be in your Instagram flat-lay with two fingers of whiskey in a cut glass arranged next to a an Imperial typewriter.

Steppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, a social recluse who has lost his home and family living out his days with a bleak depression that threatens to finish him. In his rented room owned by an older woman and her nephew, Haller spends his days reading and self-flagellating, and by night he drinks heavily in the local taverns. He is a contradictory man fighting against his own position as single, middle-aged and purposeless, an existence firmly against his own moral principles but one he feels powerless to change. Haller despises the middle-class bourgeoisie lifestyle and engages in harsh critique of it but finds that his own life surrenders to all the excesses of a privileged life: soulless sex, inebriation, the draw of narcotics, and commodity culture. Conflicted between his need to socialise / isolate, cultivate / be feral, live / die the novel charts Haller’s mental health as he slips between his external well-masked self and the wolf inside. An invitation to a Magic Theater, a surreal interruption to the novel, functions as a metaphor for the transcendent, spiritual planes of Haller’s suffering.

unnamed-2Pamphlet illustration designed by Dan Hillier from The Folio Society edition of Steppenwolf.

Dominant themes are suicide, or the contemplation of it, and the paradox of living a life (metaphorically) dead. The contradictory nature of humanity and the struggle to achieve a moral status quo is at the height of the novel as Haller’s quest for spirituality keeps getting bitten hard by his feral wolf. This is a book about sex and debauchery, but also about love and the curative qualities of romantic intimacy.

This book is not an easy read. Harry Haller’s first person narrative brims with despair and the overwhelming sense of his misery makes it hard to find narrative balance. Fortunately, this is offset somewhat by bright snatches of language that ring with beauty:

‘Most of all I liked perfectly clean, light, modest local wines without particular names. You can drink a lot of them, and they have a good, friendly taste of the countryside, of earth and sky and woodland.’ (p.32)

Hesse wrote clean prose studded with observation and statements which could swiftly drive his narrative from a fairly mundane domestic pub scene to a place of enlightenment.

For some, the Baudelaire-style debauchery might prove tiresome. Even with clear-sightedness that this is a novel within a 1920’s social context, I felt my inner Red Riding Hood bristle at the wolf being the feral in a man that can’t be suppressed. It’s always hard to bridge the gender gap when reading earlier works from a more contemporary landscape and for me, the female as Haller’s emotional ‘rescuer’ when his mental health was so disordered didn’t feel plausible. Then there were women as accessories. Women as sexual deviants. Woman meaning yes when they said otherwise. When Haller is invited to participate in an orgy, his lover Maria ‘did, …, say immediately no, but I could sense from the glint in her eyes that his was an opportunity she was sorry to miss.’  Such clichés are peppered vigorously throughout, some of them quite cringe worthy and they dilute some of the novel’s credibility for me.

unnamed-1Frontis illustration from The Folio Society edition of Steppenwolf by Dan Hillier ©Dan Hillier 2018

Critics have said that to take Steppenwolf plainly is to do the book a disservice. In Hesse’s post-script he claims that Steppenwolf was largely misunderstood by readers, taken literally, that readers failed to see ‘that a second, higher, timeless realm exists above Steppenwolf and his problematic life.’ Whilst it’s fairly unusual to find an author prescribing how his novel should be interpreted, I think he had a point. Very little mention is made of Steppenwolf’s multi-voice narrative which functions as a triptych of theories on Harry Haller himself, who is, after all, just an ordinary man. That the novel opens with an unnamed narrator, later revealed as landlady’s nephew with strong, negative views on Haller’s character sets the tone of bias.  A more balanced and rigorous portrait of Haller emerges from his own first-person notes and then the Steppenwolf tract, comparable to an adult fairy-tale, compares Haller to a mythical wolf for ‘Mad People Only.’ This triptych holds up many mirrors that reflect back the complexities of one man from the physical right through to the metaphysical, and Hesse runs with it.

Steppenwolf is a powerful read with opulent depth and structure, and it also has a big spiritual vision rarely found in modern literature.


By Hermann Hesse

Translated by David Horrocks

Illustrated by Dan Hillier

The Folio Society Edition of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, translated by David Horrocks and illustrated by Dan Hiller is available exclusively from


Reviewed by Rachael Smart


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