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Gottfried Keller (1819-1890)


German-Swiss short-story writer and novelist of the late 19th century realistic school. However, Keller wanted to become a painter. Of his works, Green Henry, a story of a failing artist, has been called by some critics the greatest Swiss novel. Keller was involved in the Swiss civil disputes of the time. He opposed the idea of a Swiss national literature, insisting that every writer should remain within his own language community, and regarded his own works as belonging to German literature.

"To tell this story would be an idle imitation, were it not founded upon an actual occurrence showing how deeply rooted in human life is each of those plots on which the great works of the past are based. The number of such plots is not great, but they are constantly reappearing in new dress, and then they constrain the hand to hold them fast." (from A Village Romeo and Juliet, 1876, translated by Paul Bernard Thomas)

Gottfried Keller was born in Zürich, the son of Rudolf Keller and Elisabeth Scheuchzer. His father was a lathe-worker who died when Keller was five years old. The second marriage of Keller's mother was unfortunate; he left the home after some years. Keller attended Armenschule zum Brunnenturm; Landknabeinstitut to the age of 13, and then Industrieschule (1832-33). At the age of 15 he was expelled from the school for a very small prank, and forced to find an occupation. In 1834 he apprenticed himself to the landscape painters Peter Steiger and Rudolf Meyer (1837). About this time he began a diary.

Perceiving Zürich as backward, Keller went to Munich to study painting at the Academy. Through the efforts of the Bavarian king Ludwig I, the city was developing into a centre of German art and increasingly attracted Nordic artists, too. Living on a meagre allowance and on his mother's money, Keller was unable to take lessons from renowned teachers, and he went hungry for days at a time.

After two years, Keller returned to Zürich, where he abandoned art for writing in 1842. During this period he did not have a paid job. Later he referred to these years as the lost years of his life. For a period he had a studio in his mother's house.

Keller's first collection of poems, which came out in 1846, went unniticed. Inspired by the democratic ideals that swept through Europe in the 1840s, Keller associated with German political refugees and participated in demonstrations against the Catholic reactionary leaders of Luzern. A number of his early works were written in the manner of such liberal political poets as Georg Herwegh (1817-1875) and Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810-1876), who later became a strong admirer of Bismarck.

With the help of his new friends, Keller received a stipend of 800 from the Zürich government to study abroad. From 1848 to 1850, he studied at Heidelberg where he attended the lectures of Ludwig Feuerbach, a German materialist philosopher and critic of religion. Feuerbach's influence is seen in  Sieben Legenden (1872). It treated the early period of the Christian era and focused on all kinds of temptations, sexual mostly. In 'Eugenia' a young Roman woman refuses the offer of marriage by Aquilinus, a young proconsul. She chooses philosophy instead of love, dresses as a man and becomes a monk. When a pagan woman falls in love with her, Eugenia rejects her advances. The woman accuses her of rape. Eugenia secret is revealed, and she marries Aquilinus. Keller's writings attracted the attention of Nietzsche, who admired the author's fight against romanticism and and saw in this a sign of strength and inner wellbeing. However, Keller never adopted Feuerbach's atheism, but remained faithful to Christian humanism which he had inherited from his mother.

Between the years 1850 and 1855 Keller studied at the University of Berlin. Keller's economic situation was difficult, but with literary hackwork, he managed to keep starvation at bay. These years saw the maturing of his first major work, the long autobiographical Der grüne Heinrich (Green Henry). It appeared in 1854-55; the revised edition, in which Henry does not die at the end, was published in 1880. Green Henry is customarily identified as a Bildungsroman, in succession to the seminal work, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1821, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). Keller greatly admired Goethe, but Green Henry has been placed rather in the company of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895). Émile Zola (1840-1902), the great French naturalist writer, who observed the nasty side of humanity, Keller considered a mean person. "Indeed, the most compelling charm of his [Keller's] genius is his characteristic serene cheerfulness," Erich Auerbach wrote in Mimesis (1946), "which is able to play its game of benign irony with the most incongruous and repulsive things."

Green Henry has connections with Balzac's La Recherche de l'absolu and the short story 'Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu'. It is partly an autobiographical story of the frustration and defeat of an artist. The protagonist, Heinrich Lee, is called green because all of his boyish clothes were made from his father's green uniforms. Heinrich loses his father at an early age, he is fired from the school, and he studies painting in Munich. Heinrich has wavered between two women: Anna represents for him heavenly love, and Judith, a widow, the earthly needs. He finally discovers that he can never achieve more than a moderate competence as an artist. After the death of his self-sacrificing mother, Heinrich dies of shame for having impoverished her. In the revised version he lives on in dispiriting bureaucratic service. Keller himself hated the early version, written in a third-person narration, and burned it. He improved the later one by using the first-person form, and tried to avoid any excessively melodramatic scene at the end. Whereas the first version had not gained much attention, the change of the tragic ending contributed later to the wide acclaim of the book.

"Je weniger aber ein Seldwyler zu Hause was taugt, um so besser hält er sich sonderbarerweise, wenn er ausrückt, und ob sie einzeln oder in Kompanie ausziehen, wie z.B. in früheren Kriegen, so haben sie sich doch immer gut gehalten. Auch als Spekulant und Geschäftsmann hat schon manchen sich rüstig umgetan, wenn er nur erst aus dem warmen, sonnigen Tale herauskam, wo er nich gedieh." (from Die Leute von Seldwyla, 1856-74)

In 1855 Keller returned to Zürich and became a cantonal secretary (1861-76) without any legal or other training. To the satisfaction of his supporters, he performed his duties with great dedication. His mother, who died in 1864, liveed long enough to witness her son's rise to literary fame.

Keller's acquaiantances included the German composer Richard Wagner, who described him as strikingly helpless and fragile, but honest and wise person. Much of his later life Keller spent without any signs of Bohemian tendencies, although he was often seen in Weinstubes of the city, sitting reticently at his table. Keller never married after having had misfortunes in love. The most important person for Keller was his sister, who took care of him, and whose life he made miserable by his hypochondria.

During his 15 years of service, Keller came to recognize the deepening antagonism between soulless capitalism and artistic individualism. Keller attacked the sometimes brutal economic development that transformed Swiss society and supported forces of liberalism – "more than once a change of government and the expansion of freedom have resulted from an unjust cause or untrue pretence," he once wrote.

Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (1876), one of Keller's most famous books, was an adaptation of Shakespeare's famous plot, but set in a Swiss village. To save his bride, Vrenchen, from the violence of her father, Sali hits him on the head with a rock. The two young lovers manage to steal one day of happiness and at the end of the story their dead bodies, sleeping on a hay bed, are found from a river boat. Keller's last novel, Martin Salander (1886), reflected his bitter fears of an ever-growing gap between the spirit of business and the spirit of art. His other works include Die Leute von Seldwyla (1856), a collection of humorous novellas, all set in the fictional town of Seldwyla, Züricher Novellen (1878), and Das Sinngedicht (1882). – Keller died in Zürich on July 15, 1890. Nowadays Keller's fame rests mainly on his short stories, in which he portrayed middle-class. Together with Jeremias Gotthelf and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Keller is generally regarded as one of the three major writers of 19th-century Swiss-German literature.

For further reading: Poietischer Realismus: zur Novelle der Jahre 1848-1888: Stifter, Keller, Meyer, Storm by Lars Korten (2009); Nietzsche-Spuren: zeitkritische Ordnungsreflexionen bei Gottfried Keller und Theodor Fontane by Sven Bergert (2004); 'Gottfried Keller' by Jeffrey L. Sammons, in Encyclopedia of The Novel, Vol. 1, ed. by Paul Schellinger (1998); Gottfried Keller and His Critics by Richard R. Ruppel (1998); The Poetics of Scepticism by Erika Swales (1996); Nature, Science, Realism by Thomas L. Buckley (1995); Gottfried Keller: eine Biographie by Emil Ermatinger (1990); Readers and Their Fiction in the Novels and Novellas of Gottfried Keller by Gail K. Hart (1989); Gottfried Keller by Richard R. Ruppel (1988); Artistische Schrift: Studien zur Kompositionskunst Gottfried Kellers by Winfried Menninghaus (1982); Gottfried Keller: Das gedichtete Leben by Gerhard Kaiser (1981); Gottfried Keller by Adolf Muschg (1977); Wirklichkeit und Kunst in Gottfried Kellers Roman 'Der Grüne Heinrich' by Hartmut Laufhütte (1969); Gottfried Keller by James Lindsay (1968); Gottfried Keller, Grundzüge seines Lebens und Werkes by Hermann Boeschenstein (1948); Gottfried Keller by G. Lukacs (1947); Gottfried Keller by Ricarda Huch (1904); Kellers Leben, Seine Briefe und Tagebücher, 3 vols., by Jakob Berchtold (1894-97)

Selected works:

  • Gedichte, 1846
  • Neuere Gedichte, 1852
  • Der grüne Heinrich, 1854-55 (rev. edition, 1880)
    - The Green Henry (translated by A.M. Holt, 1960)
    - Vihriä Heikki (suom. J. V. Lehtonen, 1921-22)
    - film 1989, dir. Thomas Koerfer, screenplay Barbara Jago, starring Thibault de Montalembert, Andreas Schmid and Florence Darel
  • Die Leute von Seldwyla 1-2, 1856-74 (volume one: Pankraz, der Schmoller, Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe, Frau Regel Amrain und ihr Jüngster, Die drei gerechten Kammmacher; volume two: Kleider machen Leute, Der Schmied seines Glückes, Die mißbrauchten Liebesbriefe, Dietegen, Das verlorene Lachen)
    - The People of Seldwyla (translated by M. D. Hottinger, 1929); Seldwyla Folks: three Singular Tales (translated by Wolf von Schierbrand, 1919); The Misused Love Letters, and Regula Amrain and Her Youngest Son (translated by Michael Bullock; Anne Fremantle, 1974)
    - Seldwylan asukkaat 1-2 (suom. 1887-88; osa 1: suom. Gerda Lindgren & Antti Nuuttila; osa 2: Olli Nuorto & Oili Suominen, 1971)
    - films: Kleider machen Leute, 1921, dir. Hans Steinhoff; Die mißbrauchten Liebesbriefe, 1940, dir. Leopold Lindtberg, screenplay by Horst Budjuhn and Kurt Guggenheim; Kleider machen Leute, 1940, dir. Helmut Käutner, starring Heinz Rühmann, Hertha Feiler, Hilde Sessak;  Kleider machen Leute, TV film 1962, dir. Paul Verhoeven, teleplay Leopold Ahlsen; Der Schmied seines Glückes, TV film 1963, dir. Claus Peter Witt; Die mißbrauchten Liebesbriefe, TV film 1969, dir. Hans Dieter Schwarze, teleplay Wolfgang Mühlbauer
  • Sieben Legenden, 1872 (edited by K. Reichert, 1965)
    - Seven Legends (with The People of Seldwyla, translated by M. D. Hottinger, 1929) / Legends of Long Ago (translated by Charles Hart Handschin, 1911)
    - Seitsemän legendaa (suom. Lauri Viljanen, 1953)
  • Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe, 1876
    - A Village Romeo and Juliet (translated by A.C. Bahlmann, 1914; Peter Tegel, 1967; Paul Bernard Thomas, 2008)
    - Maakylän Romeo ja Julia (suom. V. A. Koskenniemi, 1921)
    - films: Espoirs (Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorf), 1941, dir. Willy Rozier; Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe, 1984, dir. Siegfried Kühn, prod. Deutsche Film (DEFA); A Village Romeo and Juliet, 1991, dir. by Petr Weigl, based on the opera by Frederick Delius
  • Züricher Novellen 1-2, 1878-79 (contains Hadlaub, Der Narr auf Manegg, Der Landvogt von Greifensee, Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten, Ursula)
    - The Banner of the Upright Seven, and Ursula (translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan, 1964); The Governor of Greifensee (translated by Paul Bernard Thomas, 2008)
    - films: Hermine und die sieben Aufrechten, 1935, dir. Frank Wisbar, starring Karin Hardt, Heinrich George, Paul Henckels, Lotte Spira; Ursula, TV film 1978, dir. Egon Günter, teleplay Helga Schütz, starring Suzanne Stoll;  Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten, 2001, dir. Simon Aeby, starring Urs Bihler, Silvia Jost
  • Das Sinngedicht: Novellen, 1882 (contains 'Regine' etc.)
    - A Formula for Love: the Epigram: a Translation of Das Sinngedicht (translated by Lawrence M. Washington, 2006)
    - Seitsemän rakkautta (suom. Toini Heikinheimo, 1948)
    - films: Regine, die Tragödie einer Frau,1927,  dir. Erich Waschneck, screenplay Ernst B. Fey, prod. Eiko Film GmbH; Regine, 1935, dir. Erich Waschneck, starring Luise Ullrich, Anton Walbrook, Olga Tschechowa; Regine, 1956, dir. Harald Braun, starring Johanna Matz
  • Gesammelte Gedichte, 1883
  • Martin Salander, 1886
    - Martin Salander (translated by Kenneth Halwas, 1963)
    - Martti Salander (suom. Kyösti Wilkuna, 1908)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1889 (10 vols.)
  • Gottfried Keller's nachgelassene Schriften und Dichtungen, 1893
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1926-1944 (24 vols., edited by Jonas Fränkel and Carl Helbling)
  • Gesammelte Briefe, 1950-53 (4 vols., edited by Carl Helbing)
  • Sämtliche Werke in acht Bänden, 1958-1961 (edited by H. Richter)
  • Sämtliche Werke und ausgewählte Briefe, 1964 (edited by C. Heselhaus)
  • Der Briefwechsel zwischen Gottfried Keller und Hermann Hettner, 1964 (edited by Jürgen Jahn)
  • Stories, 1982 (edited by Frank G. Ryder)
  • Sämtliche Werke in sieben Bänden, 1985-97 (7 vols., edited by Th. Böning and G. Kaiser)
  • Sämtliche Werke: historische-kritische Ausgabe, 1996- (edited by Walter Morgenthaler) 
  • Schön ist doch das Leben!: Biographie in Briefen, 2001 (edited by Peter Goldammer)

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