A Swiss Passion

Green Henry

by Gottfried Keller, translated by A.M. Holt
John Calder/Riverrun, 706 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Gottfried Keller
Gottfried Keller; drawing by David Levine

In a brilliant essay called “Unbehagen im Kleinstaat” (“Petty-State Malaise”), the Swiss writer Karl Schmid has described the difficulty that many of his country’s leading writers have had in identifying with the land of their birth. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Amiel, Jakob Burckhardt, Jakob Schaffner, and Max Frisch have been among those who were oppressed by the feeling that Switzerland was, in a sense, excluded from history, that it has a peripheral and insubstantial existence among other states and cultures; and, as a nation, was incapable even of making its own decisions, which were preordained by its policy of neutrality. All of them, in varying degrees, yearned after the “greatness” that they could not find at home.

Meyer, for example, who once wrote to a friend, “Swissness repels me!” devoted himself to the writing of stories about strong and self-willed figures of the past (Ulrich von Hutten, Jürg Jenatsch, Gustavus Adolfus), whose uncomplicated heroism he underlined by portraying most of his Swiss characters as calculating, cautious, and incapable of noble impulse. Jakob Schaffner, like Meyer an uncritical admirer of Germany, spent most of his mature life in Berlin, where he died as a supporter of National Socialism; Frisch, untouched by any attraction to other countries, has yet resisted belonging to his own, alienated both by its smallness and what he considers to be its pharisaical morality, and has found his refuge in irony and work.

Conspicuously missing from Schmid’s account is the figure of Gottfried Keller, and this is as it should be, for it would never have occurred to Keller (as it would not have occurred to Swiss writers of comparable stature like Pestalozzi and Jeremias Gotthelf) to question, let alone regret, his Swissness. Indeed, Keller’s positive identification with Switzerland, his pride in the accomplishments of Swiss democracy and his faith in its future, characterized virtually all of his work. It also protected it from the salient weaknesses of the German literature of his day which, as a result of the failure of the revolutions of 1848, had lost its confidence and its critical capacity and had shriveled into provincialism and agrarian romanticism. In contrast, a story like Keller’s “Romeo and Juliet in the Village,” which is on the surface a trivial tale about property disputes and their effects upon the lives of the children of the disputants, assumes a force of which German writers like Berthold Auerbach and Wilhelm Raabe were quite incapable, precisely because Keller’s pride in his country and its ancient democracy, and his tendency to see his land in Homeric terms, invests its passions and ultimate tragedy with an epic quality.

Gottfried Keller was born in 1819 in Zurich, where his childhood was made unhappy by the early death of his father, the poverty of his family, and his expulsion from school in 1834 as a result of a student riot in which his role had been…

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