Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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!

12 Responses to “Gottfried Keller – A Village Romeo and Juliet”

  1. Care

    I learn the MOST INTERESTING things here! I had no idea about a Swiss literary preoccupation and you explain things so clearly.
    And who doesn’t love star-crossed lovers? (or villagers)

  2. Biblibio

    1856? Why am I not that surprised it’s got melodramatic dialogue…

    I’ve never read any Swiss literature (that I know of, at least…) but this sounds very nice and I really like the writing in that final passage.

  3. びっくり

    Forgiveness is such a difficult thing. How do you maintain a friendship with someone who has tried to cheat you? It is easy when some agreement is achieved, or some compromise; however, the true test lies in those situations where the other party gives no ground.

    Sorry to latch onto just that one point. Your post brought up all sorts of moral concepts to ponder. When I was younger I would have eagerly read the book about the murder, but am afraid my heart could not handle the sadness right now. It would be interesting to see the impact of the event on the perpetrators.

    Thanks again for provoking thought.

  4. Steph

    I’ve said it before, but I love the international bent of your posts. I learn about so many authors and titles that I would otherwise overlook or not even know existed. This sounds like another really interesting read. I will have to check out OneWorld Classics, since it’s one thing to say I want to broaden the borders of my reader and another thing entirely to actually acquire the books!

  5. verbivore

    Care – the star-crossed villagers had me interested from the beginning, and it really is a lovely little book, sad but well-done

    Biblibio – If you’re interested in Swiss literature, I really recommend checking out a writer named Durrenmatt, most of his stuff is translated (from German) and he’s got a lot of dark humor. Aside from Ramuz (who is more pastoral, less biting), Durrenmatt is my other favorite.

    Bikkuri – I think you would enjoy looking at this short little story, lots to chew on in terms of forgiveness and how people can get stuck in a broken mindset. It was really tragic and even the hope at the end didn’t leave much room for real happiness.

    Steph – OneWorld Classics is really worth investigating. I’ve become a big fan of their catalogue and am looking forward to placing my next order.

  6. zhiv

    What a nice post. You know I’m a sucker for Schweiz stuff, and this hit the mark perfectly. I’ve heard of Keller, I suppose, but knew nothing, and haven’t noticed anything you’ve written on Ramuz–even less recognition of that name.

    I thought of your Swiss-presence when I was reading this, this morning:


    Any further thoughts on Silas Marner? Did your copy of Mill on the Floss turn up yet?

  7. litlove

    I love this publisher – they are bringing out all my university texts in new editions! I read this as an undergraduate and loved it. I’ve ordered Theodore Storm’s novellas as well, for old time’s sake!

  8. Sarah

    I confess the only Swiss book I’ve read is Heidi, this sounds like a good place to change that.

    Oneworld classics seem to have an eclectic and interesting catalogue. I’m glad to see some of my favourite books there (e.g Life of a good for nothing and The Goblin’s King’s Bride). It looks like they have The Black Spider planned as well, which Ive wanted to read for ages.

  9. nicole

    I’m so glad you wrote about this, because not only does it sound wonderful, I’m positive one of my university friends read this years ago and I had only the vaguest memory of what it was, though I’d meant to get around to reading it at the time.

    I’m also fascinated by this Swiss preoccupation with villages–you may recall from my bar chart I’ve been reading a lot about villages lately! English ones, though. This could be, ahem, a very interesting future project…

  10. verbivore

    Zhiv – the basketball article was really nice and I’m happy to see Switzerland getting some nice press. Silas Marner is up today and The Mill on the Floss should be arriving any day now – can’t wait!

    Litlove – I had just placed an order when I read your review of Goethe and they have that book, so I may have to make a second order. I love their catalogue and am very keen, actually to see if they are interested in any of my Ramuz translations…that would be lovely!

    Sarah – I’ve got The Black Spider on its way and am really looking forward to it. Isn’t their catalogue nice? I love discovering new publishers like this.

    Nicole – Yes, the villages! Comparing Swiss village life with English village life in literature would be a fascinating project, I hope you do it. Selfishly, of course, so I can benefit without having to do all the work.

  11. Dorothy W.

    I’d never heard of Keller before, or the idea that Swiss writers are often preoccupied with village life, and I’m glad to be learning these things! I’ll have to investigate One World classics more, because it sounds like they put out great stuff.

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