“In no other literary work of the nineteenth century can the developments which have determined our lives even down to the present day be traced as clearly as in that of Gottfried Keller.” So begins the fourth essay in W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country entitled “Death draws nigh, time marches on: Some Remarks on Gottfried Keller.” Keller embodied the kind of writer Sebald deeply admired and, one would imagine, the way Sebald might have seen himself as a writer. To begin with, he loves Keller’s prose, often quoting it at great length. But just as importantly, Sebald sees in Keller an astute and prescient observer of the social mores and political issues of his time. “Among the outstanding German writers of the nineteenth century, Keller – along with the younger Büchner – is perhaps the only one who had an grasp of political ideals and political pragmatism.” Keller also held a skeptical view toward organized religion, detesting “bigots” and their “self-righteous authority.” In its place, Keller found his own secular peace within himself and within Nature.
Keller achieves this reconciliation with death in a purely earthly realm: in the satisfaction of work well done, in the snowy gleam of the fir wood, the peaceful boat journey across the lake with the pane of glass, and in the perception, through the gradually lifting veil of mourning, of the beautiful clarity, undimmed by any hint of transcendence, of the air, the light, and the pure shining water.
In this essay Sebald also touches on the issue of gender relationships, noting that Keller often reversed the “prevailing gender roles as prescribed by society.” Writing about one of Keller’s short stories, Sebald says: “The scenes where the lovers are united, which he pictures in such loving detail, are not only among the most touching in literature; they are unique, too, inasmuch as in them desire is not immediately betrayed by the fixed masculine gaze.” Examining some pencil sketches of the young Keller, Sebald even muses on the writer’s possible androgyny.
Sebald ascribes Keller’s empathy to a need “to overcome the feelings of social and physical inferiority from which he suffered.” Among other difficulties, Keller (1819-1890) came from a background of great poverty, which allows Sebald to advance his theory of the history of capitalism a bit further.
Keller’s critique of the economic system of laissez-faire was kindled by the fact that he was obliged to experience at first hand how what has been painstakingly saved up by means of self-denial is carried over to the next generation as debt, but goes far beyond any personal sense of resentment, and is, rather, directed at the dangers – growing ever greater in proportion to the rapid increase in money in circulation – of a universal state of corruption.
As Sebald puts it, Keller’s work “presents a counter-image of an earlier age, in which the relationships between human beings were not yet regulated by money.”
Click here to see all of my posts on A Place in the Country, newly translated by Jo Catling. (And yes, somehow I managed to post my comments on the fourth and fifth essays out of sequence. Don’t ask.)