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...
(The entire section is 91,070 words.)