When a very nice person from Oneworld Classics contacted me and offered me the chance to review one of the titles from their classics publishing program, I jumped at the chance to look at Swiss author Gottfried Keller, with whom I have very little experience.
I selected this title for two reasons. First, because the premise for the book reminded me of a novel that Jacques Chessex, a contemporary Swiss writer, recently published called Un Juif pour l’Exemple, a really devastating novel about a group of men in the 1940s from a small town who kill a Jewish man for no other reason than his being Jewish. Like Chessex’s novel, Keller took inspiration from a real-life event to create a haunting and poetic narrative of tragedy in a small Swiss village. And second, because the title, A Village Romeo and Juliet, was too interesting to pass up.
As I’m sure you can guess, the story concerns the suicide of two young lovers, pushed to the farthest reaches of despair by a long-standing family feud. Where this book differs from Chessex’s novel is that I believe Keller had no real first-hand knowledge of the actual event. He took the fact of their death and invented a story to justify it, tackling at the same time what I consider one of the greatest Swiss literary preoccupations – village psychology.
Switzerland, even today, is a vast countryside, dotted with small villages and towns. There are very few big cities. Zurich is the only agglomeration with over a million people, the next largest has less than 500,000 and there are only five cities in the entire country with more than 100,000 people. Village life is pretty much the norm and there is a particular psychology that goes along with village life, something Swiss writers and artists have been exploring forever.
My favorite Swiss writer, Ramuz, was a genius at getting to the heart of the villager mindset but I was equally curious to see how Keller, writing a generation before Ramuz, would go about the same project…and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
A Village Romeo and Juliet (first published in 1856 and translated from German in 1966 by Ronald Taylor) is a slim novella that reads very much like a fable – an idyllic opening, a fateful dispute, a slow decline and overall worsening of the situation and then a detailed dénouement. In many ways this is a very simple tale. But where the book truly succeeds is in how Keller positions these necessary elements within his particular vision of village life.
The fathers of the two feuding families begin as friendly neighbors and eventually fall into an argument over a piece of land. What Keller is quick to point out is that each man’s anger and behavior is not only a result of his flawed character but that the dispute becomes irresolvably entrenched, and both men morally bankrupt, because of the way the village reacts to the fight.
Since their entire case was corrupt, they both fell prey to the worse kind of trickster, who inflamed their perverted imaginations and filled their minds with the most despicable thoughts. Most of these enterprising gentry, for whom the whole affair was a gift from the gods, belonged to the town of Seldwyla, and in a short time the two enemies each had their retinue of mediators, scandal-mongers and advisors who knew a hundred ways of relieving a man of his money.
A number of years pass and both families fall into desperate poverty. It is at this point that the son (Sali) and daughter (Vrenchen) from either side of the dispute, who as children had been devoted playmates, meet again and fall in love. The story begins to build a new momentum. And again here, Keller throws the inner character of his protagonists up against the collective character of the village. The following scenes, which include a wonderful and otherworldly mock-wedding celebration, test Sali and Vrenchen’s integrity and their ability to break free of the stifling village atmosphere.
As the title announces, Keller’s answer to Sali and Vrenchen’s ordeal is pessimistic and the book can be read as a detailed critique of 19th century Swiss village psychology.
To wrap up, let me just mention Keller’s lovely writing. Except for much of the dialogue, which was unfortunately often melodramatic, his descriptions were simply beautiful. I marked line after line and passage after passage throughout the entire text, but I think my favorite passage comes from the very beginning of the book:
From a distance they looked identical representatives of the countryside at its most characteristic; to a closer view they appeared distinguishable only in that one had the flap of his white cap at the front, the other at the back. But this changed when they ploughed in the opposite direction, for as they met and passed at the top of the ridge, the strong east wind blew the cap of the one back over his head, while that of the other, who had the wind behind him, was blown forwards over his face. And at each turn there was a moment when the two caps stood erect quivering in the wind like two white tongues of flame.
One last quick note – Oneworld Classics is a lovely publisher with a fantastic catalogue of well-known favorites as well as lesser-known translations. Highly recommended!