Hermann Hesse Museum, Montagnola, Switzerland
I carried a ratty old paperback copy of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund with me on the train to Lugano, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, Switzerland. Upon arrival, the station didn’t seem all that huge. There were only a few platforms. As with every Swiss station, the signage featured the same ubiquitous white Helvetica font on a solid blue background.
But I never even saw the place. I didn’t explore the lobby or look at the classic facade out front. From the platform, I walked straight out the rear of the station and across the street, dragging my carry-on roller suitcase along the sidewalk to a bus stop. From there, I caught a bus that slowly snaked its way up a hill to the tiny village of Montagnola.
Aside from Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse authored Steppenwolf, Demian, Siddhartha, Magister Ludi and many other splendid works of alienation. He was a voyager of the inner landscape, a unique anti-man-about-town who often attempted to harmonize his own internal conflicts through his novels. And he won the Nobel Prize for doing it.
Born in Germany in 1877, Hesse spent the last half of his 85 years in Montagnola. At the age of 42, he separated from his family and his country, moved to Switzerland, and started all over again.
While en route to Ticino, he produced the short book Wandering, a juxtaposition of poems, prose and watercolor paintings of panoramic landscapes he found along the way. After settling in the Baroque-style Casa Camuzzi, he immediately wrote Klein and Wagner, followed by Klingsor's Last Summer. Both novellas are based on Hesse's conflicted life against the scenic backdrop of Ticino.
Upon my visit, the Fondazione Hermann Hesse included a small museum in the tower adjacent to Casa Camuzzi, filled with many of the author’s personal artifacts—his typewriter, desk, eyeglasses, books, watercolors and much more. I perused displays, posters, photos with audio accompaniment in Italian and German. A garden provided a regular setting where children took painting classes. Throughout the facility, collections of photos occupied the walls, accompanied by two different sets of texts. One set functioned as explanatory material, while the other provided passages from Hesse’s works that related to the particular photographs displayed.
Regina Bucher, the museum's director, led me around, explaining various components of the museum. Next door, the Boccadoro Literary Cafe hosted concerts, readings and other events. Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye had just been there one year earlier, performing together for a few hundred people, while thousands jammed the cobblestone lanes outside.
“Our success is partly because we are very active,” Bucher told me me. “Sometimes a museum is a calm, rather boring place. We try not to be boring.”
The main room presented a powerful experience, beginning with several of Hesse’s personal items in a glass case—his hat, umbrella, pairs of eyeglasses, ink bottles, a lamp, a suitcase, a stapler and one box that said, “paint colors” and “revolver.” Other cases contained first editions of his books and several of his favorite books that he recommended others to read. The Bible sat right next to the Upanishads and books on Buddhism. I spotted Edgar Allan Poe, Goethe and Oscar Wilde.
But the primary focus was on Hesse's own typewriter, sitting atop his own writing desk—quiet, calm and still, almost as if it was meditating. Hesse posters flanked the walls on either side of the desk. It was the typewriter on which he wrote Magister Ludi, Narcissus and Goldmund and The Journey to the East. This was like experiencing the Bodhi Tree in India.
Hesse did not write Siddhartha on this machine, however.
“Siddhartha he wrote by hand,” said Bucher, as she led me up to a small area on a landing. We then gazed at an original printed version of Siddhartha sitting behind a locked case, one of a few dozen copied by the publisher and hand-bound by Hesse for his close friends. This version was entirely handcrafted with a hard patterned cover. The original manuscript sat in archival storage in Germany.
“Siddhartha is a book that is even more important now than when it was originally published,” Bucher said, hoping the novel’s message could find a way to resonate with teenagers in our current fast-paced world. As a mother of a teen herself, she said teens had shorter and shorter attention spans these days. They’re always online and communicating in a multitude of ways. They can’t concentrate and focus, she said.
Any visit to Montagnola necessitated a walk through the village path to Hesse’s grave, so after completing my museum experience, the gracious employees allowed me to stash my suitcase in the foyer, just since they knew I would face difficulty trying to drag it across the gravel at the cemetery. I spent about an hour in the museum, then took a stroll through the village, along the Hermann Hesse trail, which featured placards of texts Hesse wrote while wandering down the exact same route. One particular clearing presented a breathtaking, unreal view of Lake Lugano, as it disappeared over the horizon, between jagged hills and snowcapped peaks.
Continuing, the pedestrian path followed a seemingly ancient stone wall through the village and several estate mansions with wrought-iron gates, a walk that took about ten minutes before emptying out onto Via Collina d’Oro. To the right of me, a narrow path flanked by tall finger-shaped cypress trees led from the road up to the Church of San Abbondio, a Catholic endeavor dating back centuries, and officially a Swiss National Heritage Site.
I was now about a mile from the Italian border. The natural light in Ticino was a photographer’s dream come true. The sun distributed immense streaks of light, washing the landscape in faint yellows and oranges.
On the opposite side of the road, a wrought-iron gate marked the entrance to the cemetery. The gate looked fresh and maintained, compared to the rest of the façade, where faded yellow gothic columns rose to a maroon-tiled roof. Two more of the same skinny cypress tress flanked the entrance. From there, walls encircled the graveyard, blocking it off from parking strips of finely manicured grass and flower arrangements that someone worked hard to maintain. Natural light seemed to wash over everything.
I reveled in the color scheme emerging before me. On each side of the road, a solid red bench designated a bus stop and solid blue pedestrian crossing signs rose nearby, their hues complimenting the varying nuances of the surrounding greenery. As the cement colors of the intersection and the ample parking lots cut through the color palette, they forged an intrinsic flow with the landscape. It all seemed gorgeously natural and asymmetrical. One could not have painted this scene any better.
The graveyard was petite and concise. Gravel walkways crisscrossed patches of land from which sprouted a variety of headstones, some old, some new. Not a single one looked the same.
The landscape was dramatic yet non-agitated: both church and cemetery against a sweeping hillside of greenery and rock, overlooking the curled finger-like swoons of Lake Lugano. The church tower soared into the sky, as if reaching directly for the heavens. The lake, a crystal body of deep blue liquid, seemed to rest, peaceful and Olympian, just close enough to appear friendly but distant enough to retain its mystery. I felt right at home, in-between such binary opposition. As I surveyed the scene, the water went on as far as I could see, worming between hills and valleys before disappearing far beyond the horizon.
At the cemetery, Hesse’s grave was situated in the far right corner. Tiny lizards darted back and forth across the thick gravel paths. There was no epitaph, just his name, along with the pertinent dates.
As I waited for the bus back to Lugano, an employee of the Hesse Museum drove my suitcase back to me, pulling up to the bus stop while I sat there. We’d agreed to this ahead of time. Within moments, the bus showed up and I was on my way back down the hill to Lugano. I could almost feel my own inner conflicts beginning to resolve.
(c) 2011/2019 Gary Singh