My afternoon with Herman Hesse

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Herman Hesse probably didn’t know it but he was a Third Culture Kid. He was born in the Black Forest area of Germany to an Estonian father and a Swiss mother. Both his parents had been missionaries in India at one time or another. When Hesse was three his family moved to Basel, Switzerland where they lived for six years. Most of his school years were spent in boarding school in Wuerttemberg in southern Germany. So he was multi cultural and multi lingual. 

On May 11, 1919, Herman Hesse moved to the village of Montagnola, just up the mountain from Lugano in the Italian section of Switzerland. His marriage had just fallen apart. He rented rooms in a beautiful building called Casa Camuzzi. He referred to his first year there as one of the happiest and most prolific of his life. No wonder, it was so beautiful it was easy to imagine god was everywhere. Casa Camuzzi was built in 1853 in the style of a Russian Country house with terraced gardens. In Klingsor’s last Sommer, written in 1920, he described the garden of Casa Camuzzi:

“Below him, dizzyingly precipitate, the old terrace gardens dropped away, a densely shadowed tangle of treetops, palms, cedars, chestnuts, judas trees, red beech, and eucalyptus, intertwined with climbing plants, lianas, wisterias. Above the blackness of the trees the large glossy leaves of the summer magnolias gleamed pallidly, the huge snow-white blossoms half-shut among them, large as human heads, pale as moon and ivory. From the massed leafage, penetrating and rousing, a tartly sweet smell of lemons drifted towards him.”

Casa Camuzzi

Last time I visited, the area was changed with new construction but it still had the charm of an old village huddled on the side of a mountain. The street in front of his house was cobblestoned and there was a low archway at the entrance of his street. I could not go into his apartments because they were private and people were living there. When I was a teenager I lived nearby. At that time there was no gate, we went through the archway and down down down to to the bottom of his building where there was a beautiful little garden. We called it Hesse’s garden. We would sit in that garden and it was totally private. At least we thought it was. It was idyllic.

One of his best known works, Siddhartha, about the life of Buddha, was published in 1922. In 1923 he received Swiss citizenship. In 1931 he married his third wife, Ninon Ausländer, and moved about 10 minutes away to Casa Rossa where he had his own garden to tend to. Casa Rossa is also a private house today and cannot be viewed except from the outside.

Casa Rossa
Casa Rossa

The rise of Nazism in Germany concerned him greatly. He helped Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann make their way to exile. His works were banned in Germany even though he never openly spoke out against the Nazis.

The Glass Bead Game was his last work and was published in 1943. In 1946, Herman Hesse received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He also received the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt in 1946 and the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers in 1955. He continued to write short stories and paint until his death in 1962 at the age of 85. He was buried down the mountain from Casa Rossa in the San Abbondio cemetery.

Abbrozio Cemetery
Abbondio Cemetery

Alas, I couldn’t go into the house where Hesse lived and see the garden I used to frequent but I did go to the Herman Hesse museum. It was next door to the Casa Camuzzi in one of it’s towers.

The museum had on show some of Hesse’s personal belongings, books, and paintings. The museum had temporary exhibits, lectures, concerts, walking tours, and readings. It was a beautiful setting to learn about an amazing writer, thinker, philosopher, spiritual man.


The museum

The village itself was also worth the trip. A little further up the road was a small square with a restaurant and pensione. And further up the mountain were marked paths though the forests of Switzerland with breathtaking views.

I spent the afternoon sitting outside at the restaurant. The owner made his own grappa and gave us a tasting. I ended up buying a couple of bottles from him. A lovely day.

Inside the museum
Inside the museum