Rock Crystal: A Christmas Tale by the Bohemian-born Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) was a novella marked by purity of prose, naturalism, and portents. It was first published in the original German in 1843, and appeared in translation, by Elizabeth Mayer and the poet Marianne Moore, a century later (1945). Despite the onset of holiday cheer that pervaded the start of the tale, the reader could detect that something would go wrong.
Among the high mountains of our country there is a little village with a small but needle-fine church spire. Conspicuous above the green of abundant fruit-trees, this spire—because the slates are painted vermilion—can be seen far and wide against the faint blue of the mountains. The hamlet nestles in the very center of a fairly wide valley that is an almost perfect ellipse. Besides the church, a schoolhouse and a parish house, there are a few stately homes around a square with four linden-trees and a stone cross in the center. [...] In the valley and scattered along the mountain-sides are many little huts of a sort common to such regions—whose inhabitants belong to the village [...] Even more distant huts, hidden away in the mountains, cannot be seen from the valley; the people rarely come down among their fellow-parishioners; often, indeed, are obliged to keep their dead with them over the winter till they can bring them to the valley for burial after the snow has melted.
The above passage was clipped from the extended opening of the book, a slow sequence of scenes that gradually expand to contain the traditional Christmas festivities, culture, natural cycles, social structure, and topography of the village of Gschaid and its neighboring village of Millsdorf. The way the passage culminated on the fact of the dead staying at home for the long winter signalled a dark tone to the fable-like simplicity of the tale. The landscape and mountain communities were exquisitely evoked in sinuous sentences. Something had to upset the balance of beauty.
It took some time of lingering on the natural and cultural landscape before the story alighted on the central characters and story line. A shoemaker from Gschaid married a dyer's daughter from Millsdorf. They had a son and a daughter. Something happened on Christmas eve that will affect the whole family's relationship to their extended family and to the whole community.
Although the background of the story was Christian, a valuable lesson imparted by this fairy tale for adults and young adults was not wholly religious but of the universal human variety. It was partly about how a time of crisis or calamity became the very thing that could make a community realize that everyone is equal in grief. Nature could teach a tightly knit community to accept people who were from another place, outsiders who were different from them in several respects.
This is a heart-winning story that could leave a lump in one's throat. The prose was rock crystal clear. It could render something out of nothing, like the following description of silence which had the concreteness and precision of poetry:
They stood still, but heard nothing. They stood a little longer, but there was nothing to be heard, not a single sound, not the faintest except their breathing; indeed, in the stillness reigning, it was as if they could hear the snow falling on their very eyelashes.
Read as part of German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy's Literary Life). My copy was the 1965 revised edition from Pantheon Books, with illustrations by Josef Scharl. It was reissued, without the illustrations, by Pushkin Press and New York Review Books.