A Story that Might Be on the Move

Ho hum. Spring pollen has me committing so many of my energy-bearing resources to the struggle simply to stay awake that my ability to put two coherent thoughts together, much less post them, has been significantly impaired. But I did manage to finish the little two-novella collection I was reading by Gottfried Keller, The Banner of the Upright Seven and Ursula.

Zentralbibliotek Zürich

What a great read– maybe because the initial feeling that you’re entering into a world of old-school starched collars and self-conscious diction soon gives way to the sense that something transitional is going on here, and that Keller, trained as a painter and for a time, at least, into radical politics, probably wouldn’t have enjoyed sitting around in stiff salons and drinking very proper tea. The author is considered a literary realist, but something about the first story, at least– that vaguely transitional “something” I mentioned and that almost seems to catch a glimpse of modernism on the horizon– keeps it from exemplifying that school.

(What follows are purely personal interpretations, which I know would be slammed by any literature scholar worth the name, but here goes.) Young Karl in “Upright Seven,” for example, seems too tickledly detached from everything except Hermine, and the couple somehow too good-naturedly airy, or aware of the slight goofiness of their infatuation and situation, to fall in with the creations dreamed up by the Big Russians (except, maybe, for Chekhov). What really fascinates me about this story, though, is its ending. (Insert obligatory spoiler alert here.) Our young couple has finally overcome the objections of their fathers, and is sharing a happy post-proposal moment, when a former military colleague of Karl’s shouts out to them in recognition. And then, “[t]he betrothed sat down on the steps at his feet and chatted with him for a full half hour, before they returned to the company.”(1) End of story. This pair, who’s been sneaking around and scheming ever since the tale began, and who’s cocooned into a little universe all its own, suddenly pops out of it and goes to hang out with a guy Karl doesn’t know all that well anymore. There’s something– I don’t know what– about the fact that it was a “full half hour,” and not just a half hour, that’s also contributing to my reaction of “Huh? Interesting.” Sure, it would’ve been rude not to have acknowledged the sentry’s presence, and the couple was probably bursting with eagerness to broadcast the engagement all over the place. But that apparent ability to snap out of one engrossing emotional situation, right into another, and thereafter to head back to the oldheads, is curious, even if young adults were probably just as flighty in their own way then as they are today.

Maybe I’ve undermined my own initial assertions about the tale’s impatience with its assigned genre. Oh well. The only other observation I have is that with “Ursula,” Keller managed to make a fictional account of mass Reformation nuttiness interesting– maybe because he let the implications of religious upheaval play themselves out without really overtly discussing religion in general.

So: a short-ish review of a short-ish book. That seems appropriate for a Friday, especially one on which the ol’ nasal passages are suffering fits of ticklishness. In that spirit, I’m setting down the metaphorical pen and going in search of some Kleenex.

(1) Gottfried Keller, “The Banner of the Upright Seven,” in The Banner of the Upright Seven and Ursula, transl. Bayard Quincy Morgan (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1974), 67.


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