The Pequod Review:
Hermann Hesse’s last major novel is by far his deepest and most complex, and one that considers nothing less than the entirety of human intellectual history, and how we organize information and pass it along to future generations. Set in a fictional Central European country in the distant future (Hesse claimed sometime around 2300 or 2400), the book describes a monastic order of scholars who run a boarding school and play something called the Glass Bead Game. The game is perhaps akin to chess — the rules and moves aren’t specified — but it requires deep knowledge of cultural history as well as the ability to make abstract connections among subjects like philosophy, music, and mathematics. The game is presented not merely as an enjoyable diversion, but as a route to self-fulfillment and meaning; Hesse would later say: “The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palate.”
Written over 10 years, The Glass Bead Game is in many ways the culmination of Hesse’s lifelong obsessions: spirituality, asceticism (and the history of monastic orders, including the Pietists), intellectual curiosity, and the preservation and transmission of knowledge. And it is furthermore a quiet piece of resistance against Hitler and the Nazis (who had ascended to power while Hesse was writing the book) as it describes a spiritual and intellectual alternative to the inhumanity of Nazi authoritarianism. The novel has several flaws — the game’s mechanics are not well described, the characters are thinly developed, and Hesse is unfortunately a poor writer. But its themes are so thoughtfully and deeply explored in such an effective structure that it remains the most powerful of his works.