Gottfried Keller’s prose sparkles with a robust, generous goodwill and a delightful irony; the fertile imagination evident in his work was unexcelled in the second half of the nineteenth century in German. Although his literary settings are almost exclusively Swiss, he succeeded in giving them a significance and poignancy that saved him from being merely a regional writer. He did have a strongly didactic bent, but this rarely dominates a fiction that bubbles with rare warmth and luxuriates in concrete detail. The term “poetic realist” is particularly applicable to Keller, as he was concerned with the boundary between the imaginary and the actual, between appearance and reality.
In Keller’s fictive world, there is evil—or, at least, human weakness and inconsistency—and this sometimes lead to tragedy, but taken as a whole, his writings exude faith in humankind and joy in life. This faith and joy manifest themselves most clearly in his humor, which Walter Benjamin says is as much at home in this world as Homer’s was among the gods. It is a sovereign humor in which author and reader are able to see characters and situations bathed in a golden light of aesthetic enjoyment. Even when Keller exercises moral judgment over his characters, he still, as a poet, affirms them and refuses to give up on them entirely.
Even though Keller believed in no life after death, he was not overwhelmed, as was his contemporary Theodor Storm, by the...
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