Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Book Review - Jurg Jenatsch by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer

Jurg Jenatsch by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, translated by David B. Dickens

In The complete narrative prose of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Volume 1. (Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 1976)

ISBN 0838715478

This title was mentioned by Count Harry Kessler in his diaries, which I reviewed here. Kessler referred to the story as one about an anarchist, something which is one of my little areas of interest, so I thought I'd see if I could hunt it out to read.

Jurg Jenatsch is the story of a man who sets out to free his country Bunden from tyranny. It is a tragedy, as Jenatsch himself becomes the tyrant. The novel begins in childhood, with the links between the major characters Jenatsch, Waser and Lucretia Planta formed in school. We then see Jenatsch as a young Protestant preacher hounded out of a Roman Catholic part of Bunden, and his wife killed. This formative period in his life, witnessed by Waser, leads him to become a leading figure in a civil war between faiths, during which Jenatsch murders Lucretia's father. This act is the keystone of the narrative - Lucretia and Jenatsch love one another, but his heinous act forever casts a pall over their relationship, with Lucretia sworn to revenge, and Jenatsch, now with no hope of being with his one love, sworn to gain the freedom of Bunden from the wiles of the French and Spanish.

Over the course of years, Jenatsch forms an alliance with France to free his country from Spanish domination. When France is unable to give Bunden the no-strings-attached freedom he desires, he secretly makes a deal with the Spanish, his till-then mortal enemies, to push France out. He even converts to Catholicism to make his negotiations with Spain easier.

By doing all this he destroys himself as a man, betrays the very thing he was after in the beginning (from trying to convert Catholics to Protestantism at the beginning of the book, by the end of the story he's ceding more than half the country to Rome), and destroys the love shown to him by his friends.

This is a moral tale, telling us that the ends do not always justify the means, and is of it's time - although set in the 17th century, it reflects the recent (for Meyer) past, the unifcation struggles in Germany and Italy, and how it can be futile to want to ride against the tides of history.

The end of the book is particularly tragic, with no-one getting what they want, except perhaps Jenatsch, as Lucretia finally takes her revenge in an unexpected way.

Read on a whim, this book has introduced me to a very skilled writer.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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