18 November 2011

Rock Crystal (Adalbert Stifter)

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.


  1. I read "Rock Crystal" last year and thought it such an iconic story that I immediately rushed out and got my own copy (the Marianne Moore/Elizabeth Mayer version with the weirdly mesmerizing Scharl illustrations). But shortly afterwards I read Thomas Bernhard's "Correction," which alludes to Stifter unflatteringly (as does Franz Innerhofer's "Beautiful Days" which I just now read for German Literature Month, and which contains an explicit reference to "Rock Crystal"). Given the disparagement by these later Austrian authors, I'm finding it frustratingly difficult to think of "Rock Crystal" anymore as the same seductively innocent and evocative tale I'd read the first time around. Still, it's a gem of a sort, don't you think - especially if one can invoke the willing suspension of dismissiveness long enough to let its magic work.

  2. No matter how feverishly I read G-Lit, there's always someone out there that I haven't got around to yet - and Stifter is definitely one of those (sigh...).

    Looks like I should try to amend that soon though, judging by your review :)

  3. Scott, I was also taken by Scharl’s ‘pointillist’ illustrations. I wonder why the reissues scrapped them.

    Stifter’s style appeals very much to me. At the back of my mind, there’s Max Sebald appropriating Stifter’s luminous prose in his own fiction. Bernhard responding strongly against Stifter tells a lot about Bernhard too, how their subject matters are obviously at variance with each other. And how modern Austria was a far cry from the ‘ideals’ of the past.

    Tony, I think he's a writer worth investigating, especially if 'Rock Crystal' is representative of his outputs. I think it's safe to say he's in the public domain in German. I also saw an English translation by Lee M. Hollander in Gutenberg and a recording of it in Librivox.

  4. I always meant to read his Nachsommer but it's on the chunky side.
    Yes, from what I've read so far, Rock Crystal is typical Stifter. His writing is like the crystal of the story's title. Luminous indeed. I'd have to exlpore the problems Bernhard and Innerhofer had with him. I think he is a master storyteller.
    This is certainly one of those stories I'd like to re-read.

  5. I must get around to this one, on my shelves somewhere, but I am particularly curious having just read Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters, where poor old Stifter is verbally lacerated by Bernhard's protagonist.

  6. Caroline, I also would want to read a long novel by Stifter. To see how he sustained it. And then some Thomas Bernhards to contrast it with. :p

    Anthony, great review of 'Old Masters'. It's a book I'd like to get a hold of. I'm always a willing listener to Bernhard's tirades. Like Caroline and Scott, I'm also intrigued by this Stifter-bashing in his and Innerhofer's novels.

  7. Many of Bernhard's problems with Stifter are not with his writing but with "Stifter," the cultural figure, with his adoption as some sort of representative of the despised Austrian bourgeois culture.

    Reading Stifter through Sebald is useful in pulling out the uncanny Stifter, the not-so-innocent or comforting Stifter.

  8. Interesting, Tom. I can barely imagine what kind of figure Stifter will be elevated to.

    Note to self: must read more Stifter, more Bernhard, and Innerhofer.

  9. i am reading nachsommer just now. can confirm the luminosity of the style and now i can see why nietzsche said it belongs to those 5 german books that deserve to be read by posterity...

  10. *, now I'm really intrigued by "The Indian Summer". I looked up some reviews, and they were mixed. But they made the book seem very attractive.