The Betrayals and The Glass Bead Game

Never judge a book by its cover, so they say. But we do. For The Betrayals by Bridget Collins, it was the cover that captured my attention. It’s hard to go past gold embossing on a dark cover. Especially an embossed gold antique clock surrounded by golden swirls and dark red flowers. It was just too hard to resist. A quick look at the blurb on the back and I was sold. 

At Montverre, an exclusive academy tucked away in the mountains, the best and brightest are trained for excellence in the grand jeu: an arcane and mysterious contest. Léo Martin was once a student there, but lost his passion for the grand jeu following a violent tragedy. Now he returns in disgrace, exiled to his old place of learning with his political career in tatters.

Montverre has changed since he studied there, even allowing a woman, Claire Dryden, to serve in the grand jeu’s highest office of Magister Ludi. When Léo first sees Claire he senses an odd connection with her, though he’s sure they have never met before.

The bond between them is strengthening: but both Léo and Claire have built their lives on lies. And as the legendary Midsummer Game draws closer, secrets are whispering in the walls…

I thought that Bridget Collins sounded familiar but it was some time before I realised that I had bought an ebook of her first adult novel, The Binding. I don’t usually go for ebooks, unless it’s a classic that is in the public domain, or like The Binding, on sale.  I generally prefer the feel of a real book in my hand. They smell better too.  

The Binding has been described as a “rich, gothic entertainment that … reminds us of the power of storytelling” and a “beautifully crafted tale of dark magic and forbidden passion, where unspeakable cruelty is ultimately defeated by enduring love.”  I loved The Binding. Another gorgeous cover!

 The Betrayals, though, was a different kind of read . From the start I found the “grand jeu” to be somewhat elusive. I couldn’t quite get a hold on it but I kept reading, hoping things would become clearer as I went on. Now for some readers, the “Magister Ludi” mentioned in the blurb and the quote at the front of the book, might have possibly flagged a connection to a classic book by Hermann Hesse, but it didn’t mean anything to me…yet. Still puzzled after a while, I flicked to the back of the book and read the author’s note where Collins explains that… 

The Betrayals was in part inspired by Hermann Hesse’s brilliant novel, The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi)… the grand jeu has a lot in common with the glass bead game…an elusive game that combines maths, music and ideas in an atmosphere of meditation…The Betrayals is set in a very different world …but nonetheless it owes a huge debt to Hesse’s masterpiece.

I thought The Glass Bead Game sounded somewhat familiar.  Perhaps it was listed on the 1001? It was. According to 1001 Books to Read Before You Die

The Glass Bead Game purports to be the biography of Joseph Knecht, a member of an elite group of intellectuals in twenty-third century Europe who live and carry out their work in isolation from the rest of society. The novel follows Knecht from his early schooling to his eventual attainment of the revered title of Magister Ludi or “Master of the Game”. This glass bead game is the raison d’être of the intellectual community of which Knecht becomes the head. Although the game’s exact nature is never fully explained, it becomes clear that it involves the synthesis of diverse branches of human knowledge from philosophy, history, and mathematics to music, literature, and logic. Despite the exquisite nature of the game, Knecht grows increasingly discontent with its players complete detachment from worldly affairs.

Ah, that made a whole lot more sense. Just reading that little summary did help enormously while reading The Betrayals. I could just sit back, relax and enjoy the elusiveness and slipperiness of the grand jeu. I ended up really enjoying The Betrayals. There were pointed subversions of history and identities, as well as personal tragedy, and the critique of politics and academia was quite thought provoking.  I immediately followed up The Betrayals with The Glass Bead Game which I borrowed from our town library. 

Prior to The Glass Bead Game, I had only read one Hesse novel, Steppenwolf (1927), which was a bit of a strange read. I don’t know whether I really understood it very much at all at the time. It has been described as a “Faust-like and magical story of the humanisation of a middle-aged misanthrope… this self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of intellectual hypocrisy.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was born in Württemberg but he moved to Switzerland in 1919, where he lived in self-imposed exile until his death in 1962. Apparently he was not a fan of Germany’s militarism during World War One. He was however reportedly influenced by music, the psychoanalytical theories of Carl Jung, and eastern thought. The Glass Bead Game was first published in 1943 and was his last novel.

The Glass Bead Game was not exactly an easy read. Framed as a biography, it can come across a little dry, however considering it was first published in 1943, I found a number of points that were still quite relevant for our own times. Such as, why the opinions of celebrities are sought for important matters like politics or world affairs. How people seek to escape the real world of doom and gloom with frivolous pursuits. And how music can be seen as the barometer of an age.

 “Therefore the music of a well-ordered age is calm and cheerful and so is its Government. The music of a restive age is excited and fierce and its Government is perverted. The music of a decaying state is sentimental and sad and its Government is imperiled.

There are also some great comments about history as… “nothing but an endless dreary account of the rape of the weak by the strong” and “an unbroken succession of rulers, leaders, bosses and commanders who, with extremely rare exceptions, had all begun well and ended badly.” We are also reminded that “ we ourselves are a part of history, that we are the product of growth and are condemned to perish if we lose the capacity for further growth and change.”

And here is something for government and civic leaders to keep in mind…

Festivities have their own peculiar nature. A genuine festival cannot go entirely wrong, unless it is spoiled by the unfortunate intervention of higher powers.”

Essentially though The Glass Bead Game follows the life of Joseph Knecht from his student days in Castalia, his years of independent study, his admission into The Order, until his rise to the position of Master. The fictional world of Castalia is a world of elite scholarship, where scholars like Knecht live a somewhat monastic kind of life. But there is something quite sterile, even dangerous, about a life that is lived purely in the mind and remote from all the pain and joy of life in the real world. 

According to 1001, much of Hesse’s work was concerned with “the importance of self-reflection as a means of discerning the ever-changing path toward self-growth and renewal.”  

Throughout my reading of The Glass Bead Game I could definitely see the relationship between the two books.  I don’t think you necessarily need to have read The Glass Bead Game to enjoy and understand The Betrayals, but knowing just a little bit about the connection and about Hesse’s book did help. It can be a bit tricky when one book is inspired by another, especially a book that may not be as well known within contemporary reading circles and I don’t know whether maybe Collins made too much of an assumption about readers recognising the connection and significance. Perhaps it might encourage readers to have a go at The Glass Bead Game. I would definitely recommend both books, although I concede that The Glass Bead Game will not be for everyone.

Happy Reading 

4 thoughts on “The Betrayals and The Glass Bead Game

  1. Phew! You certainly put your heart into understanding that book. I’m still reading and re-reading passages in the Palace Letters (Hocking) and therefore had to return Brenda Nhiall’s Friends & Rivals to the library as someone else was waiting on it. Only read the first section on Ethel Turner. And my reservation on Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony has also come available. So Hesse will have to wait for quite some time I think. (Reading W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz might have used up my allocation of deep and meaningful German writers just for the moment).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was curious about the connection between the two books, and since Hesse was on the 1001 list, which I do occasionally check books off, and it was available at the library, I thought I would give it a go. But I do agree that those “deep and meaningful German writers” are not everyday reading fare. Can require too much grey matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gorgeous covers and the Hesse connection is intriguing, I read the Prodigy by Hesse many years ago and always meant to read more of his work but for some reason I never go around to it.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s