Gertrude is a strange novel. You’d expect it to be about the eponymous lady, but we don’t meet her until page 84. She also disappears for huge swathes of the second half of the novel. Which, to be honest, is just as well, because she’s a paragon of womanly virtue: beautiful, charming, passive, loyal, long-suffering. Bland on the page. What is Hesse playing at?
Responding to contemporary criticism, he said ” It may be true that Gertrude does not emerge very clearly as a character: to me she was more a symbol than a character, and at the same time the stimulus behind Kuhn’s development”.
The Kuhn in question is a crippled composer; his leg smashed in a tobogganing dare gone wrong, undertaken for the love of lady friend. The aftermath is a tempering of his spirit. So when he meets Gertrude and falls in love at first sight, rather than act on it, he is content to wait. He channels his passion into his compositions, which soon attract influential admirers, among them the opera singer Muoth. Loud, brash, a drinker, a abusive womanizer, everything that the honourable Kuhn and the charming Gertrude are not.
And yet, Gertrude and Muoth end up married, and make themselves (and Kuhn) miserable. Although something spectacular results – Kuhn’s opera, his magnum opus, based on their relationship, is the successful fusion of the passionate artistic elements of Muoth’s character with Gertrude’s calm and principled nature.
That is the key to the novel and Hesse’s comments about symbolism. In essence, Gertrude is Hesse’s exploration of Nietzschean dramtic theory as expounded in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. That high art and success can result only by combining Dionysian and Apollonian natures. This was a very modish theme in 1910, and one that appears in the works of Thomas Mann, another German Nobel Prize winner.
That’s not to say that Gertrude isn’t an engaging read, or more accurately, that Kuhn isn’t a sympathetic character. I quite liked him, although his caution and his conviction, not to interfere with others, was frustrating, especially when it was obvious that the routes being taken were slow roads to perdition. Hesse’s decision to make Kuhn the central character is interesting. It means we follow him, the careful, detached artist, who suffers but avoids confrontation of any sort when all the tumult is happening elsewhere. This gives the impression of a more tranquil story than it really is, and a readerly experience that mirrors that of the narrator. As Kuhn says in old age
On growing old, one becomes more contented than in one’s youth, for in all my dreams I hear my youth like a wonderful song, ehich now sounds even sweeter and more harmonious than it did in reality.