Stories of Five Decades
Hermann Hesse's STORIES OF FIVE DECADES (1972), edited with an introduction by Theodore Ziolkowski, contains 23 short stories of widely varying quality.
The first three stories--"The Island Dream," "Incipit vita nova," and "To Frau Gertrud"--are from 1899 and are semi-autobiographical prose poems with mild erotic fantasies. They are rather uneventful and vague and not particularly interesting. The next three stories--"November Night," "The Marble Works," and "The Latin Scholar"-- are from 1901 to 1906 and are relatively realistic and enjoyable despite several rather sad events within each of them.
Next, "The Wolf" (1907) and "Walter Kömpff" (1908) are two of the best stories in this collection. Both satirize society rather strongly, both have unhappy endings for their main characters, and both seem designed as didactic works that send powerful "messages" to us as readers. "Walter Kömpff" reminds me most of Herman Melville's great story "Bartleby the Scrivener." By contrast, "The Field Devil" and "Chagrin d'Amour," and "A Man by the Name of Ziegler" (all 1908) are relatively slight but clever fantasy-premise works.
"The Homecoming" (1909) is one of the most realistic and mature stories in this collection, and it has a skillful plot and a thoroughly pleasing ending. "The City" (1910) is a kind of punch-line story that struck me as being too drawn-out and annoyingly implausible in its buildup. Two stories from 1913--"Robert Aghion" and "The Cyclone"--both struck me as flawed in different ways: "Robert Aghion" is very skillfully written for 98 percent of its length, dealing vividly and maturely with a Christian missionary in India, but then it falls apart with what seems to be a "joke" ending; "The Cyclone," which seems very un-unified, involves a young man recalling his key experiences during his last day in his home town: a huge number of supposedly interesting odors, an implausibly described cyclone, the warm embraces and kisses of a beautiful young girl who has a crush on him, and the sight of his favorite trees uprooted--and we're left with the very odd but very strong impression that those uprooted trees were what made him decide to move somewhere else "to become a man."
"From the Childhood of Saint Francis of Assisi" (1919) and "Inside and Outside" (1920) strike me as two more slight works with rather minor points to them. In the first, Francis's mother coincidentally thinks of her son with the same word he will later apply to himself; in the second, a man named Friedrich, who rigidly believes only in logic and science, has his mind expanded somewhat by a friend with a different mindset. "Tragic" (1923) is a vivid and effective fantasy-premise work: in this story's world, poetry has been completely dead for decades, and an old man who was once a poet tries to win over an editor to the view that word-usage and grammar and style (at least in a prose newspaper) ought to have some importance still.
Somewhat less effective than "Tragic" is "Dream Journeys" (1927), which also centers around a person who is a writer, and sometimes a writer of poems, in another "world" where great poetry is impossible to create anymore, for reasons that are covered in considerable detail but which may not conclusively persuade many readers. "Harry, the Steppenwolf" (1928) seems a slight, satirical piece with a rather lame target. "An Evening with Dr. Faust" (1929) involves a look into the future, a look that amounts to the punch-line of a fifth-rate joke. And "Edmund" (1934) struck me as even worse--it has a twist-ending that I was able to guess about 3 pages before its conclusion: a twist-ending that seems both senseless and quite unpleasant.
Finally, Hesse's "The Interrupted Class" (1948) is an enjoyable, realistic story of an old man reminiscing about an experience he had in school long ago which involved him in some moral choices and an outcome that he never totally got full knowledge about. I would rate this final story among the best five of this collection.
As for the Introduction by Theodore Ziolkowski, I would rate it "C" for competent. It provides us with some biographical background that will be useful to many readers, and it provides insights into some of the sources and themes in Hesse's stories. I read this Introduction after reading all 23 stories, and I disagreed with about one-fourth of Ziolkowski's judgments, sometimes considering them to be focused on subordinate aspects of the stories rather than primary ones. I expect that some other readers will likewise not see totally eye-to-eye with his views, but perhaps for quite different reasons.
POSTSCRIPT: As far as the translations of the stories are concerned, for the most part they are vividly and skillfully done. My only quibble is that the punctuation of the resulting English sentences is occasionally sub-standard: nearly every page, on average, contains a mildly annoying "comma splice" (i.e., two independent clauses are linked together solely by a comma instead of a conjunction or a semicolon).