Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (NYRB - September, 2008)
Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) was born in a region of the Austrian Empire that is now in the Czech Republic, the son of a linen weaver and flax merchant. Thomas Mann called him: “one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature”. And his novella Rock Crystal recently revived by NYRB Classics (available on Amazon) comes with an introduction – a rather haphazard one – by WH Auden.
When you read Rock Crystal it should become apparent that Stifter enjoyed a small but respectable reputation as a landscape painter as well as a writer. His novella is a close translation into language of landscape:
As far as the eye could reach there was only ice. Pointed masses and irregular clumps thrusting up from the fearsome snow-encrusted ice. Instead of a barricade that could be surmounted, with snow beyond, as they had expected, yet other walls of ice rose from the buttress, cracked and fissured, with innumerable meandering blue veins, and beyond these walls, others like them; and beyond, others, until the falling snow blurred the distance in its veil of grey.
High up in the Alps, the terrain is the single most important factor in shaping the lives of his characters. He opens his account with an objectively described mountainous region and the two villages of Gschaid and Millsdorf that lay three miles apart in the valley. Both sets of villagers cling to the old traditions and ancient ways of their forefathers but in other ways are worlds apart, by virtue of the different occupations they follow. So when the cobbler of Gschaid marries the daughter of the dyer of Millsdorf against her father’s wishes (herein lies an autobiographical thread) and brings her to his village to live, she is treated, along with their two children, as strangers by the locals. ‘That’s the way it was and no use talking about it.’
Thus far the story seems to be a simple folk tale. But then the narrative becomes graver and more urgent when the two children, Conrad and his little sister, Sanna, make one of their regular trips on foot through the valley to visit their grandmother and grandfather in Millsdorf. It is Christmas Eve day, the weather fine and all is well with the world when they set off. But as they are making their return, the weather breaks and they lose their way in heavy snow; the landmarks all covered in a mantel of white. Not being able to see more than a few feet and as night falls they wander unwittingly onto the glacier with its sheer drops into the void. The prose that continues to make visual this darkening landscape has also become almost unbearably stressful.
Conrad finds some shelter afforded by two giant boulders leaning against the other on the edge of the moraine. As they wait for daybreak Sanna keeps falling asleep on Conrad’s arm. Knowing from his father that they will freeze to death if they fall asleep, he shares with her the bottle of strong coffee extract their grandmother has packed in their bag for their parents. But will it be enough to help them survive?
Knowing this much doesn’t spoil anything as what distinguishes the book is the sheer power of the writing. Stifter powerfully synthesises the three crucial elements of fiction: landscape, objects and character, and while it is a story celebrating family and community, it just as lovingly lingers over the treacherous Alps that can destroy them.
Stifter struggled in his life with depression and family tragedy, and at the age of 61 committed suicide. Rock Crystal is his art of transference, of personal emotion onto landscape.