This is a strange and complex novel. A long, winding, dense and serious tome that manages to be set hundreds of years in the future without incorporating a single element of science fiction.
It is about (and mostly set in) “Castalia”, a province dedicated entirely to the intellect. Within the province, the pinnacle of intellectual expression is seen to be the eponymous “glass bead game”, a (vaguely described) sport involving calligraphy, meditation and the rendering of every possible subject or idea into a comparable visual symbol. Participants play by drawing links between disparate disciplines, finding the shared characteristics of a piece of music, a mathematical formula or the conjugation of a Latin verb. For example. The novel tells of the rise and subsequent disillusionment of Joseph Knecht*, who excels at the game and becomes Master Ludi – the chief administrator of the game.
Stylistically, the text is dense, most of the novel written in chunks of page long, dialogue-free paragraphs. Which makes for quite a draining read. The first four hundred pages form the text of a (very literary) biography of Knecht, which is then appendixed by “Jospeh Knecht’s Posthumous Writings”. These consist of about ten poems (all of which deal with the themes of the earlier part of the novel), and then three “Lives”, each a 30/40 page short story detailing the passage and triumph of spirituality in three historically and geographically different men. The Lives and Poems were, in the world of the book, written when Knecht was a student, before his career began. Ending the novel with these sections gives a rather odd feeling – although the earlier thematic movements and notions are maintained, the changes in place, character and (crucially) pace jar a little with the flow of the text.
The men of Castalia live a life free of family, of children and of women, dedicating themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. They create nothing except for essays and their glass bead games. This homosocial world is stilted, old-fashioned and, as Knecht notices the numerous similarities between it and the Catholic Church (which seems to be the only religion in the text to have survived the “Age of Wars”), he transcends it, moves into the outside world, to the state that pays for the privileges of its male elites.
It is a text about personal growth through meditation, through the importance of honesty to the self and self-determination. It is about the beauty of music, of knowledge, of communication and exchange. But it also bears a rather unpleasant tone of acceptable misogyny (particularly the “Lives” the book ends with), and a confused, conflicting notion of how a person should live. The development of Knecht through the text is towards a man who is honest to himself, and wishes to engage with and live in the world, yet choosing to end with three stories idolising thought and separation gives a somewhat hollow/ambiguous conclusion.
I enjoyed the world of the novel, and I enjoyed the themes, and Knecht’s changing opinions and cares and wishes, but I ultimately found the piece as a whole a little… I don’t know… the spiritual tone was pleasant, the deep engagement with a character’s mental progression made it very much of the time it was written.
However, I found the escapism, the oft-occuring bucolic pleasure, the peace of intellectual freedom, the growth to self-knowledge, to be a little long-winded, almost tiresome. This book was dense, but not necessarily difficult. I don’t feel changed, or rather improved for having read it, and nor did I laugh or cry. It’s rather too philosophical for my tastes, and though I enjoyed parts of it, at 530 pages, my patience was wearing thin a little by the end. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in literature of the period, with the importance of meditation, with big books, but I’m not certain I’d ever push it hard at anyone. I may read the much shorter Siddhartha at some point.
Overall: Good, not great, but not really my cup of tea. (Which, incidentally, would be a coffee.)
*Which immediately brings to mind a more famous German language Josef K, compounding the idea of Knecht being a man whose life is not necessarily in his control.