Keller, Gottfried 1819-1890
Swiss novella writer, novelist, and poet.
Considered Switzerland's most prominent author, Keller is best known for his satiric novellas that explore societal and individual concerns of nineteenth-century life. His short fiction emphasizes the role of the individual as a virtuous, compassionate public citizen, free from the extremes of moral and religious fanaticism. Keller is praised for the humorous, ironic tone of his work, as well as for his clear, simplistic language.
Keller was born in Zurich. His father, an activist in public education and community service, died young, leaving Keller, his mother, and younger sister. The early death of his father created an intense bond among the three that lasted throughout their lives. Keller's second childhood trauma came when he was expelled from a public trade school at the age of fifteen, putting a temporary end to his formal education. After his expulsion, he studied painting, which resulted in his enrollment in an art school in Munich in 1840. After a few years, Keller returned to Zurich. Inspired by the political ferment in that city, he began writing political poetry, which garnered favorable critical reviews. As a result of this attention, Keller was awarded a university scholarship by the city of Zurich. While attending the University of Heidelburg, he was influenced by the teachings of the atheist and materialist philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach. Keller left the university in 1850 but remained in Berlin where he continued his writing of poetry and fiction. In 1855 Keller returned to Zurich and worked as a freelance writer, often publishing articles favorable to the government. In 1956 the first part of his collection of short fiction, Die Leute von Seldwyla, was published (the second part was not published until 1874) to positive commercial and critical attention. At the age of forty-two, Keller took his first job as First Secretary of Zurich. He functioned in this position until 1876, at which point he resigned to devote himself to writing fiction. Keller died in 1890.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Keller's first collection of novellas, Die Leute von Seldwyla, concerns the lives of people in and around the small town of Seldwyla and exposes the greedy, hypocritical ways in which the community members interact. In Clothes Make the Man, a young, unemployed tailor is mistaken for a Polish count by the townspeople of Golach. He plays along, demonstrating that people can be deceived by appearances, in this case, the tailor's fine clothing and aristocratic manner. Another novella, The Smith of His Own Fortune, chronicles the story of a lazy young man who agrees to act as the long-lost heir to a wealthy older man. The young man, John, cannot control his flirtatious impulses and eventually impregnates his benefactor's wife, thereby usurping his own place as heir. Keller's later collection, Züricher Novellen, is a volume of stories that are based on the history of Zurich. Many of the novellas frame shorter stories, a device that Keller used in his final work of short fiction, Das Sinngedicht, which is a series of several stories set within the novella. Thematically, these stories address the problems of love, marriage, and compatibility.
Keller's short fiction is replete with social commentary, especially his emphasis on the virtues of moderation and the fulfillment of the individual through civic responsibility, orderly living, and honorable conduct. He is praised for his often humorous presentation of plot and character, in particular his use of such devices as irony, satire, farce, the grotesque, and caricature. A paternalistic and moralistic tone has been detected in Keller's short fiction; in many of his stories, the ignorant, vain, and lazy are exposed and humiliated by others. Overall, Keller's short fiction is lauded for its poetic prose, simple language, detailed descriptions, use of color, and incorporation of the natural world.
Die Leute von Seldwyla [The People of Seldwyla] 1856-74
Sieben Legenden [Seven Legends] 1872
Züricher Novellen. 2 vols. 1877
Das Sinngedicht 1881
Stories [edited by Frank G. Ryder] 1983
Other Major Works
Gedichte (poetry) 1846
Neue Gedichte (poetry) 1852
Der grüne Heinrich [Green Henry] 4 vols. (novel) 1853-55
Gesammelte Gedichte (poetry) 1883
Martin Salander [Martin Salander] (novel) 1886
Gedichte [edited by Albert Köstler] (poetry) 1922
Sämtliche Werke 24 vols. [edited by Jonas Frankel and Carl Helbling] (collected works) 1926-54
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New York Times Book Review (review date 1914)
SOURCE: A review of A Village Romeo and Juliet, in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1914, p. 142.
[In this favorable review, the critic praises the simplicity and poetic nature of the language in Keller's novella .]
Mrs. Wharton's "Introduction" to this novelette of a hundred and fifty pages [A Village Romeo and Juliet] is both biographical and critical. Her sketch of the author's life is very brief and deals only with such of its chief outstanding facts as were concerned with his literary work. But her account of his most important books is sympathetic and illuminating, showing how the life, the work, and the character of the man interacted upon one another, and, with clear insight into his literary values, summarizing his greatness and his shortcomings. It is among German writers, she says, that Gottfried Keller must be classed, although he was born in Switzerland. In Zurich he spent the greater part of his long life, and died there in 1890. Although he has been famous in Germany for the last half century or more, this is the first of his writings given to American readers. The story is taken from a volume of tales called Seldwyla People, which Nietzsche declared to be one of the four masterpieces of German prose. Mrs. Wharton places these tales in artistic achievement upon a higher level than...
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Lindsay, J. M. Gottfried Keller: Life and Works. London: Osmond Wolff Publishers Ltd., 1968, 258 p.
Provides biographical and critical information on Keller's life and short fiction.
Clouser, Robin. "Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe: Keller's Variations upon Shakespeare." Journal of English and Germanic Philology LXXVII, No. 2 (April 1978): 161-82.
Praises Keller for successfully reworking the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet.
Ellis, John M. "Keller: Die drei gerechten Kammacher." In Narration in the German Novelle: Theory and Interpretation, pp. 136-54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Asserts that "Keller's framework of a comic anecdote is a vehicle for a serious underlying theme which emerges in a tragic form only at the end; the apparently uncontrolled and easy-going narrative was in fact a very careful and subtle study of the way people necessarily live by their aims, and of the disasters which befall them both in their achieving and their failing to achieve the arbitrary goals which are their guiding stars."
Fife, Hildegarde Wichert. "Keller's Dark Fiddler in Nineteenth-Century Symbolism of Evil." German Life and Letters 16 (1963): 117-27.
Views the fiddler in Romeo und Julia as both a...
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