HERMANN HESSE'S novel "Siddhartha" (Modern Library: 130 pp., $16.95) is a countercultural icon, a totem of youth in revolt. First published in 1922, this fable about a contemporary of the Buddha struck a chord in the 1960s among a generation alienated by the affectations of the middle class.
For them, Hesse's Siddhartha was a role model, a wealthy Brahmin who turned his back on privilege to become a Samana, or wandering ascetic, then gave up that path as well to pursue a destiny uniquely his own. Subtitled "An Indian Poem," the novel -- which has just been reissued in a luminous new translation by Susan Bernofsky, with an introduction by novelist Tom Robbins -- is perhaps best read as a kind of allegory, a parable of the examined life.
Although Hesse won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946, he has often been dismissed as a gateway writer, one whose work is significant primarily for helping lead readers to harder stuff. Yet such a characterization is unfair on many levels, not least in regard to this novel, which may be his most misunderstood. For all its youth culture resonance, "Siddhartha" is hardly a book for young readers -- its subject is the way a single life goes through many incarnations, from, in Siddhartha's case, student to mendicant to businessman to seeker to saint.