Conrad Ferdinand Meyer Essay - Meyer, Conrad Ferdinand (Short Story Criticism)

Meyer, Conrad Ferdinand (Short Story Criticism)


Conrad Ferdinand Meyer 1825-1898

Swiss novella writer, translator, and poet.

A writer of both poetry and prose, Meyer is best known for his eleven historical novellas, which fictionalize the lives of such figures as Charlemagne, Henry II, Thomas Becket, Dante, and Louis XIV. His novellas are noted for their complex structure, objectivity, and attention to detail. According to W. Silz, Meyer "has no peer . . . in the artistic reanimation of history."

Biographical Information

Meyer was born in Zurich to a cultivated and wealthy family. He was a lively and healthy child until the age of six, when a bout of illness seemed to profoundly affect his personality. He became moody, alternating between tantrums and listlessness, and began to isolate himself from society. The death of Meyer's father in 1840 further affected his mental outlook; his preoccupation with death and loneliness were themes that would appear in his novellas and poetry. In his teens, Meyer tried his hand at painting and Romantic verse, but had little success. It was later, after travels to Italy and France, where he immersed himself in history, architecture, and art, that he began to develop his sense for description and historical stories. While it was the poem Huttens letzte Tage (1871, Hutten's Last Days) that first brought him fame, Meyer considered himself principally a writer of fiction. With the publication of Das Amulett (The Amulet) in 1873, he began his career as a writer of novellas; he wrote ten more novellas between 1874 and 1891. In the last years of his life, Meyer suffered from deep depression and possible senility, but he managed to complete his last novella, Angela Borgia, in 1891. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1898.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Many critics contend that although Meyer wrote about great historical figures and events, he drew inspiration for his work from his own life, in particular his feelings of isolation and rejection by society. The author once claimed, "The mediocre saddens me because it coincides with something analogous in myself; therefore I desire the grandiose so intensely." Thematically, Meyer's novellas reflect a pessimistic worldview, as they generally concern crime, revenge, love, hate, justice, and death. Even Meyer's one humorous novella, Der Schuss von der Kanzel (1878), is set amidst the horror and devastation of war. Meyer's novellas are noted primarily for their technical strengths. Edward M. V. Plater asserted that the "highly conscious and intricate style" of Meyer's novellas requires for the "reader to approach his work with the greatest care, if he is to enjoy all the subtleties of his complex narrative art." Meyer frequently employed a framework device, through which he told a story within a story. For example, Der Heilige (1880, The Saint), which utilizes fictional details to relate the life of Saint Thomas Becket, features a narrator, Hans, who recounts Becket's story within the context of his own life. Another novella, Georg Jenatsch (1876), relates the story of the Swiss national hero who liberates his country while sacrificing his ideals. Written in three parts, it demonstrates Meyer's use of ambiguity and objectivity, as well as his ability to condense vast amounts of historical material into prose.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Meyer's novellas has been varied. They were popular with the readers of his day, and Meyer lived to see many of his works go through numerous editions. Even so, early critics often faulted Meyer's stylized manner. E. K. Bennett observed that when Meyer "has to deal with passion in his works, he does not find the natural expression for it, but uses a mannered, forced style, which . . . merely chills the reader." Many commentators have attempted to interpret Meyer's novellas from a psychological viewpoint, asserting that the use of historical settings in his novellas allowed him to escape the reality of his time and own life. More recently, critics have been drawn to the technical complexity of Meyer's novellas, observing that his shifting narrative perspectives accommodate modern feelings of skepticism and relativism. They further contend that Meyer's work foreshadows the psychological writing of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Das Amulett [The Amulet] (novella) 1873

Georg Jenatsch: Eine alte Bündner ge schichte [Jürg Jenatsch] (novella) 1876

Denkwürdige Tage: Zwei Novellen (novellas) 1878

Der Heilige [The Saint] (novella) 1880

Kleine Novellen (novellas) 1882

Die Hochzeit des Mönchs [The Marriage of the Monk] (novella) 1883

Das Leiden eines Knaben [A Boy Suffers] (novella) 1883

Die Richterin [The Judge] (novella) 1885 Die Versuchung des Pescara [Pescara' Temptation] (novella) 1887

Angela Borgia (novella) 1891

Other Major Works

Zwanzig Balladen von einem Schweizer [Twenty Ballads Written by a Swiss] (poetry) 1864

Romanzen und Bilder [Romances and Pictures] (poetry) 1869

Hutten's letzte Tage [Hutten's Last Days] (poetry) 1871

Engelberg (poetry) 1872

Gedichte (poetry) 1882


Donald Douglas (review date 1930)

SOURCE: "True Romance," in New York Herald Tribune, Vol. 6, No. 34, May 4, 1930, p. 2.

[In the following review of an early English translation of The Saint, Douglas lauds the novella for its romantic elements.]

Embedded like imperishable gems in a hidden fastness, the romances of Meyer have long lain hidden from English discoverers. Perhaps there is no German writer so difficult to translate; and the translation can only be done by one whose English matches the rich, subtle and complicated prose of Meyer's German. It is not a labor of love, but a labor of genius, and in the present translation there is love, no doubt, but there is not even skill, for Professor Hauch makes Meyer sound like Sir Walter Scott—of all funny people! None the less one must welcome the inauguration with a clamor of golden trumpets, for perhaps it may mark an era when one of the finest historical novelists in the world is gradually revealed to nations who fancy that the Germans of the nineteenth century wrote nothing but incomparable lyric poetry and incomprehensible philosophy.

Indeed, the translation of Der Heilige will afford pleasure to many to whom The Monk's Marriage and The Page of Gustavus Adolphus and Jurg Jenatsch will forever remain closed and secret books unless some publisher can induce a writer of genius to take time off from his own...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

E. K. Bennett (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "The Psychological Novelle: Conrad Ferdinand Meyer." In A History of the German Novelle: From Goethe to Thomas Mann, Cambridge University Press, 1934, pp. 215-30.

[In the following essay, Bennett discusses the defining characteristics of Meyer's short fiction.]

If [Paul] Heyse may be described as the aesthete and mass-producer of the Novelle, the Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer is the aesthete and virtuoso. Meyer, like Heyse, lacks that rootedness in the bürgerliche life of his time—though in a different way. He is an observer of life rather than a partaker in it. This attitude to life in both poets gives to their work something of the exotic, something...

(The entire section is 4808 words.)

Colin Walker (essay date 1967-68)

SOURCE: "Unbelief and Martyrdom in C. F. Meyer's Der Heilige," in German Life and Letters, Vol. 21, 1967-68, pp. 111-22.

[In the following excerpt, Walker discusses the major themes of Meyer's Der Heilige and traces the religious development of the novella's protagonist, Thomas Becket.]

Critics will never agree whether the death of Meyer's Thomas Becket is the innocent martyrdom of a genuine convert, whether it is the act of an unbeliever taking revenge on King Henry for the death of his daughter Gnade, or whether the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Meyer himself indicated that the Novelle was 'absichtlich mehrdeutig', and he allowed his...

(The entire section is 4348 words.)

Lee B. Jennings (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Ambiguous Explosion: C. F. Meyer's Der Schuss von der Kanzel" in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, March, 1970, pp. 210-22.

[In the following essay, Jennings offers a psychoanalytical interpretation of Meyer's novella.]

Der Schuss von der Kanzel is at once the least pretentious of Meyer's Novellen and the one which best captures the contemporary tone of bourgeois realism. Yet in reading it we have the feeling of moving in an uncanny private world of the author amid submerged fears and portents; it is the type of story which, despite its overt claim to prosaicness and innocuousness, seems to demand some degree of...

(The entire section is 5123 words.)

Edward M. V. Plater (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Figure of Dante in Die Hochzeit des Mönchs;" in MLN, Vol. 90, No. 5, October, 1975, pp. 678-86.

[In the following essay, Plater determines the significance of the narrator, Dante Alighieri, in the novella and finds connections between Dante, the protagonist of the story, Astorre, and Meyer.]

Die Hochzeit des Mönchs is perhaps the most demanding of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's novellas. Here Meyer seems to have stretched the possibilities of the genre to its limits. He himself ruefully stated in reference to the complex interlacing of story and frame in this novella that he had created "ein non plus ultra." The evaluation of Meyer's actual...

(The entire section is 3151 words.)

George F. Folkers (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Complete Narrative Prose of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Vol. I: 1872-1879, translated by George F. Folkers, David B. Dickens, and Marion W. Sonnenfeld, Bucknell University Press, 1976, pp. 11-27.

[In the following essay, Folkers provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Meyer's novellas,]

Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1898) is a prominent figure in German literature and one of the most important of the Swiss writers. He was the son of a prosperous family in Zurich, and his maturation reflects the problematical intellectual climate of post-Napoleonic Europe and the age of positivism, a climate by nature hostile to literary endeavors because of...

(The entire section is 8192 words.)

Manfred R. Jacobson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The King and Court Jester: A Reading of C. F. Meyer's Das Leiden eines Knaben," in Seminar, Vol. XV, No. 1, February, 1979, pp. 27-38.

[In the following essay, Jacobson considers the significance of the relationship between the characters of King Louis XIV and Fagon in Meyer's novella.]

The frame of Das Leiden eines Knaben is dominated by Louis XIV and Fagon—antagonists whose very special relationship and interaction give this Novelle both its form and its meaning. The frame is a kind of dramatic dialogue and subsumes the interior tale as both an extended argument within the dialogue and as a part of the subject matter of the...

(The entire section is 4339 words.)

Edward ML V. Plater (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Alcuin's 'Harmlose Fabel' in C. F. Meyer's Die Richterin" in German Life and Letters, Vol. 32, No. 4, July, 1979, pp. 318-26.

[In the following essay, Plater explores the function of Alcuin's fable within Die Richterin, asserting that Meyer succeeded in "suggesting not only an important scene later in the narrative but also the general background of the story and the basic plight and motivation of the main characters."]

Little has been written about the passage near the beginning of Die Richterin that describes the region in which the title character lives. Yet with this passage Conrad Ferdinand Meyer provides, as he frequently does...

(The entire section is 4507 words.)

Herbert Rowland (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Conscience and the Aesthetic in Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's Plautus im Nonnenkloster," in Michigan Germanic Studies, Vol. XI, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 159-81.

[In the following essay, Rowland analyzes the interweaving of structure, motifs, and narrative perspective in Meyer's novella.]

Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's Plautus im Nonnenkloster has been called [by Alfred Zäch, in Conrad Ferdinand Meyer: Dichtkunst als Befreiung aus Lebenshemmnissen, 1973] "ein Kleinod der Novellenkunst . . . in formaler Hinsicht makellos, höchst reizvoll als ästhetisches Spiel und doch nicht ohne menschlichen Gehalt . . ." Significantly, this praise is lavished...

(The entire section is 9253 words.)

Tiiu V. Laane (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Static and Dynamic Images as Thematic Motifs in C. F. Meyer's Die Versuchung des Pescara," in Michigan Germanic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 44-67.

[In the following essay, Laane explores the variety of imagery used in Die Versuchung des Pescara.]

Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's commitment to impart pictorial force to language is well known. Profoundly influenced by Romance literature with its accent on plastic form and sharp contours, and awed by the monumental grandeur of Michelangelo's statues which transmute emotion into compelling visual representations, Meyer found a locus for these ideals in Friedrich Theodor Vischer's teachings which...

(The entire section is 7928 words.)

Deborah S. Lund (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Of Doubtful Virtue: The Virago in C. F. Meyer's Angela Borgia," in Seminar, Vol. 28, No. 3, September, 1992, pp. 208-21.

[In the following essay, Lund contends that the character of Angela Borgia "fails as a figure in the novella because of her unyielding 'masculine' strength of character."]

Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's last novella, Angela Borgia, first published in 1892, has long suffered at the hands of scholars and critics. It is frequently neglected as unworthy or untypical of Meyer's oeuvre, and has, when studied, been found to contain a series of flaws, often attributed to the waning artistic powers of the author. Uffe Hansen's...

(The entire section is 5123 words.)

Further Reading

Burkhard, Arthur. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer: The Style and the Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932, 225 p.

Critical and biographical study.

Burkhard, Marianne. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978, 175 p.

Comprehensive overview of Meyer's life and work.

Grinstein, Alexander. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and Freud: The Beginnings of Applied Psychoanalysis. Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1991, 399 p.

Provides a psychoanalytical analysis of Meyer's work.


(The entire section is 652 words.)