All You Good, Good People (Listen to me…)

Are you all well rested and ready for another trot around central Europe?  Today, we’ll be heading over the Alps to visit some friends over the border.  I hope you had a big breakfast – this promises to be a long ride…

This time, we’re off to Switzerland, to the possibly fictional town of Seldwyla, the setting of Gottfried Keller’s cycle of novellas, Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyla).  In the introduction to the first half of this collection, the writer describes the small town and its fascinating inhabitants, a collection of lazy, cunning, work-shy speculators who enjoy nothing better than the entertainment of other people’s misfortune.  Many contemporary readers (and critics) claimed to know the true identity of Keller’s literary backdrop; whether real or invented however, the town is merely the background to the stories Keller wishes to tell.

Of the five stories in this part of the collection, by far the most famous is Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (Romeo and Juliet in a Village), a shifting of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy to a slightly-less glamorous Swiss setting. Sali and Vrenchen grow up as friendly neighbours until their fathers come to blows over a piece of land bordering both their farms.  The two families become sworn enemies, but this cannot stop the inevitable rekindling of the children’s relationship after a chance meeting years later.  Unable to forge a happy life together because of social and familial constraints, the two innocent souls decide to have at least one happy day, one last walk in the sun before parting ways – sadly, despite temptation, that day cannot last for ever…

Apart from this beautifully-written tearjerker, the best of the collection is probably Die drei gerechte Kammacher (The Three Just Combmakers), a satirical look at how the well behaved struggle when surrounded by other upright citizens (and how they can be taken advantage of by the less well inclined…).  This story shocked some of Keller’s readers with its cruel toying with the unfortunate German protagonists, who are reduced to rolling in the dirt in front of the roaring Seldwyler crowd.  They felt that the story portrayed the Seldwyler, and by extension the Swiss, in a rather poor light…

Frau Regel Amrain und ihr Jüngster (Mrs. Regel Amrain and her Youngest Son) is the tale of how Mrs. Amrain, an upright woman from a neighbouring town, tries to bring her son up wisely among the lazy ne’er-do-wells of Seldwyla, while Spiegel, das Kätzchen (Mirror, the little Cat) is an amusing fairytale-esque story in which a shady character bites off more than he can chew when making a Faustean deal with a poor little kitty cat.  This story is another example of the Germanic literary device (cf. Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter) of setting the tale in the distant past in order to make use of supernatural elements which would seem out of place, and ludicrous, in a more contemporary setting.  

The four stories above are all entertaining, and I felt that only the first of the five novellas, Pankraz, der Schmoller (Pankraz, the Sulker), a story about a native of Seldwyla who goes into a big sulk (for a very long time…) was less than worth the effort.  In the story, the returned sulker relates his travels and adventures in the far east to his mother and sister, who promptly fall asleep.  I  almost joined them.  Luckily, I decided to press on through this story and was rewarded by the other four, much better tales 🙂

The eagle-eyed reader may have noticed above that I referred to the first half of the collection, and that is because there are actually ten stories in the whole Die Leute von Seldwyla cycle.  The five I read were published in 1856, and five further novellas appeared between 1860 and 1875, when the complete collection was published for the first time.  All of which means that I have another five waiting for me on my Kindle when the mood strikes me, including another of the all-time classic German novellas, Kleider machen Leute (Clothes make People or, perhaps, Clothes make the Man).

Ach, ist das Leben schön…


4 thoughts on “All You Good, Good People (Listen to me…)

  1. What? There's a bus? How come everyone else is on horseback then?! 😉

    More scenic tours to come very soon – many a story to be reviewed before (and after) the end of August!


  2. Will do 🙂 It's always nice to have someone back up your judgement, especially when you're not sure if any of your followers have ever read (or will ever read) the book you're reviewing.

    I've been trawling your back catalogue, and although it had registered that you had read a few of these 19th-century German novellas, I wasn't aware quite how many. I'll definitely be over looking for some more recommendations!


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