Conrad Ferdinand Meyer 1825–1898
Swiss novelist and poet.
As the author of some of the most intricate psychological narratives of nineteenth-century European literature, Meyer exemplifies the artistic movement known as poetic realism, which sought to objectify the inner life of characters through the use of stylized gestures, settings, and images. Meyer is perhaps best known for his sophisticated use of narrative frames in his prose, as well as for his perceptive attention to detail. Although his major novellas are set in the past, his work reflects the transitional character of his time; his relatively conventional political and religious outlook contrasts with the innovative complexity of his narratives and his modernist representation of the ambiguity of human thought and feeling.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on October 11, 1825, to a bourgeois family, Meyer grew up in an intellectual environment. His father held a position as a history teacher at a gymnasium, or high school, and had close ties to the incipient University of Zurich. After his father's death in 1840, Meyer's mother, a pious and intelligent woman, strongly influenced both Meyer and his younger sister, Betsy, who would later become Meyer's secretary and close companion. As a young man, Meyer oscillated between listlessness and hyperactivity, and he pursued an interest in German history and literature. Between 1837 and 1843, Meyer attended the Zurich Gymnasium, but he found it difficult to concentrate on his studies. In 1843, he was sent to Lausanne for a year, where he was introduced to French literature, began composing Romantic poetry, and decided to pursue a writing career. He recognized the mediocrity of his early poetic efforts, however, and plagued by depression, isolated himself from all social contact beyond his immediate family and a few close friends.
During this period he read voraciously—primarily historical works and German Romantic novels—and became increasingly discouraged about his own artistic prospects. He began to suffer from neurotic symptoms and hinted to his family that he planned to commit suicide. His mother, concerned by his mental deterioration, took him to the Préfargier mental hospital in 1852, where he was diagnosed with an "irritation of
the nerves." In 1853 Meyer moved back to Lausanne to study French and there resumed the relationships he had abandoned in 1844, including his friendship with the translator and historian Louis Vulliemin, who supported his literary ambitions and intensified Meyer's interest in history. Because of Vulliemin's influence, Meyer secured a position teaching history and soon began translating Augustin Thierry's Récits des temps Mérovingiens (1840), which earned critical praise and provided him with an introduction into the Romantic literary scene. Unimpressed by these accomplishments, Meyer's mother convinced him to return to Zurich at the end of 1853. Meyer again found himself alienated amid bourgeois social life; he continued to translate French historical works and to write poetry, and he produced his first novella, Clara (first published in 1938). In 1856 his mother's mental health had degenerated to the point that she was institutionalized at Préfargier, where she committed suicide. At the same time, Meyer and his sister, Betsy, inherited from a longtime friend a large estate, which brought them financial independence. After spending time in Paris, the Swiss Alps, and Italy, Meyer returned to his translating work and to writing poems, 20 of which eventually were published anonymously as Zwanzig Balladen von einem Schweizer (1864). Still others were published in periodicals beginning in 1865. During this period, Betsy became the principal supporter of his literary work, and for most of his career his works were dictated to her. In 1869 Meyer published at his own expense a collection of poems, Romanzen und Bilder, and in 1871 had his first major literary success with the publication of Huttens letzte Tage [Hutten 's Last Days], a verse portrayal of the Reformation hero Ulrich von Hutten. During the next 20 years Meyer published a total of 11 novellas and 5 editions of his collected poems. He enjoyed both popular and critical adulation. In recognition of his accomplishments, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Zurich in 1880.
In 1875 Meyer had married Luise Ziegler, the daughter of a wealthy Zurich family. His marriage inaugurated a tense relationship between Betsy and Luise that would increasingly disrupt Meyer's ability to write, and may have contributed to a mental and physical breakdown that culminated in a year-long hospitalization in 1892-93. For the remaining six years of his life, Meyer wrote very little, while his sister continued to supervise new editions of his work. He died of a heart attack in November 1898.
Meyer's work tends to focus on heroic figures of European history—including Thomas à Becket, the Swiss leader Jürg Jenatsch, the Spanish general Fernando Avalos, and the Swedish king Gustav Adolf. Many of these historical figures had not only political, and specifically nationalist, significance, but played a part in religious conflicts as well. Although Meyer researched these figures and their time, he also frequently modified historical details to introduce ambiguities of motivation, complexity of character, and dramatic tension in his writings. The historical novellas are notable for Meyer's sophisticated employment of frame narratives, particularly in Der Heilige [The Saint] (1880), Das Leiden eines Knaben [A Boy Suffers] (1883), and Die Hochzeit des Mönchs [The Monk's Wedding] (1883). The frames do not function merely as transparent vehicles for the internal story. Rather, the interaction between frame and narrative calls attention to the ambiguous nature of artistic construction: the narrators often claim to be confused by the very story they are recounting. Similarly, Meyer's work manifests a fundamental indeterminateness with regard to the central characters' intentions, thus allowing contradictory but equally plausible interpretations of the narratives. Meyer's subtle characterizations correspond to what George F. Folkers has called an "ambivalent objectivity"—his insistence on describing events, actions and gestures in the fullness of their opacity. The resulting pessimistic tone of his novellas has been read by recent scholars as an implicit critique of the bourgeois mores and self-stisfaction of Meyer's Europe.
In addition to prose works, Meyer wrote two verse narratives early in his career, Huttens letzte Tage and Engelberg (1872), and in his lifetime published five editions of his collected poems. The poems particularly show the arduous revisions of his work that Meyer undertook as a regular part of the writing process. The poems, like the novellas, employ naturalist motifs in both traditional and original symbolism, and often contain Meyer's deeply personal reflections on his own intimate relationships, his interest in the tension between piety and sensuality, and the anticipation of his own death.
Although Meyer's earliest writings met with critical indifference, Huttens letzte Tage was proclaimed a literary success at its publication and has remained one of Meyer's most popular works. The stylistic precision, psychological insight, and complex structure of this and other novellas are consistently praised by both Meyer's contemporaries and more recent critics. Many consider his masterwork to be Der Heilige; as Tiiu V. Laane has written, "His tendency toward the pictorial and dramatic; his striving for symbolization, concentration, and the grand gesture; and his demand for strict objectivity reach their epitome in this novella." Meyer's own favorite work, Die Richterin [The Judge] (1885), became the subject of one of Sigmund Freud's essays. He considered the dramatic narrative dealing with incest, murder, and justice a confirmation, in nascent form, of his own psychoanalytic concepts. Although Meyer himself thought his poetry secondary to his novellas, he is viewed by critics as a precursor of the German symbolist movement for his use of imagery.
Critics of Meyer's work point to the contrived plots, the occasionally cumbersome and over-explicit use of symbolism, and to his refusal to affirm any single interpretation of events—an insistence that leaves some readers feeling the narrative has been left unresolved. Yet this last characteristic is also applauded by more recent critics as a further manifestation of Meyer's abiding interest in the enigmatic aspects of reality and the contradictory nature of inner life. Meyer's work is generally considered reflective of both the strengths and weaknesses of the transition from Romantic to modern literature: his cosmopolitanism, attention to psychological detail, and objective style contrast with his instinctive patriotism, anti-Catholicism, and apolitical stance.