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."
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 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.