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.