As you finish one of these stories you might have the sensation that you’ve awakened abruptly in unfamiliar territory, far afield from where you thought you were headed, and that while you were busy reading, something was done to you—that, for instance, you were implanted with some device that resonates to the frequencies of the cosmos.
At least that’s what happens to me. Evidently, Adalbert Stifter has always had plenty of detractors, to whom absolutely nothing, or at least nothing of interest, happens. His formidable critics Friedrich Hebbel and Arno Schmidt, to cite two examples, were tirelessly contemptuous of what they saw as the triviality of Stifter’s subjects and meticulous renderings of the natural world. “Even as a boy I was always a great friend of the reality of things, such as they present themselves in God’s creation or in the orderly course of a human life,” Stifter wrote. What Schmidt had to say was, “It’s hard to imagine a more insistent Magna Carta of escapism.”
On the other hand, those who have been susceptible to Stifter’s freakish magic include Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Hermann Hesse, Peter Handke, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and W.G. Sebald, as well as (obviously I’m not about to let this opportunity lapse) me. Isabel Fargo Cole, the translator of Motley Stones, puts Walter Benjamin in this company too, though he compared Stifter unfavorably to the German writer Johann Peter Hebel, whose “realism,” Benjamin wrote, “was always strong enough to protect him from the mysticism of the petty and the small, a mysticism to which Stifter occasionally succumbed.”
Stifter’s literary reputation fluctuated dramatically during his life, and afterward too. He wrote rather a lot before he committed suicide in 1868 at the age of sixty-two—stories, novellas, and novels, two of them immensely long—but very little of his work exists in English. Motley Stones is the first complete English-language translation of his 1853 collection of stories, Bunte Steine, subtitled Ein Festgeschenk (A Present), although a 1945 translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore of one of its stories, “Rock Crystal,” has been separately available for years in a New York Review Books edition, with an introduction by Auden.
Stifter was born in 1805 in Oberplan, Bohemia, a village now called Horní Planá near the Austrian border of the Czech Republic. His passionate sensitivity to his surroundings was clearly integral to his thinking and his view of life; he was a painter as well as a writer, and the stories are sumptuously pictorial. They share certain highly original formal and stylistic eccentricities—which Cole takes effective pains to render into English—but there is nothing flashy about them. On the contrary, they are stately and reticent, the elements of their narratives are almost bizarrely simple, the characters are largely devoid of distinctive personalities, and until and unless one is thunderstruck by their transporting and ineffable mystery, they might seem not all that different from fairy tales, without the fairies.
In fact, the stories affect even Stifter’s ardent admirers very differently; some find in them an elevating serenity, others riddling melancholy—or some combination of the two, or some other indefinable quality. Although their ingredients are, so to speak, pantry staples, the finished concoctions, with their stealth oddness and enigmatic reverberations, foil practiced responses.
Motley Stones contains, in addition to Cole’s informative foreword and translator’s note, the author’s preface and introduction, which, like the stories, give at once the impression of plainspokenness and utter elusiveness, of humble claims that clothe vast ambitions. Stifter’s preface begins:
It was once said against me that I fashion only small things, and that my people are always ordinary people. If that is true, I am now in the position of offering readers something smaller and more insignificant still, namely an assortment of fancies for young hearts.
The wounded author continues in this operatically self-effacing and plaintively seething way over a slippery, convoluted high road, along which he asserts that he prefers the “small” and the “ordinary” and that besides, the “small” and the “ordinary” are actually the basic materials from which nature’s bubbling crucible is bound occasionally to fashion its showiest displays:
The force that makes the milk in the poor woman’s pot swell and boil over is the same that thrusts the lava upward in the fire-spewing mountain and makes it flow down the mountain slopes. These phenomena are merely more striking, more apt to draw the gaze of the ignorant and inattentive.
Okay, so who’s trivial now?
And while it’s up to each reader to decide whether these stories concern the negligible or the fathomless, the mundane or the marvelous, all would probably agree that the miraculous specificities of place—landscape, architecture, weather, artifacts—are as active in each narrative as the human characters. Such elements do not function as “telling details,” let alone decor. Human behavior and nature are understood as an alloy, and Stifter’s physical descriptions are so concrete as to seem palpable; the words make a thin film that blows quickly away to reveal the place or moment they describe.
For a long time—far too long a time for someone with his drive to write—Stifter made his living as a tutor, and his gifts brought him to the notice of increasingly powerful and wealthy families. He had an unusual degree of empathy with children and an unusual ability to communicate with them, and children have most of the central parts in these stories.
When Stifter was a child he amassed a trove of arresting or beautiful stones, and these stories—or novellas, as they are sometimes called—are titled “Granite,” “Limestone,” “Tourmaline,” “Rock Crystal,” “Cat-Silver,” and “Rock Milk.” And stones are excellent emblems for these pieces of fiction, which seem to be densely composed of many elements from a hidden world to form their own beautiful sorts of objects.
The stories have weird rock-like shapes, too, and although several of them—“Rock Crystal” and “Cat-Silver” especially—teeter at the edge of the miraculous, the events they describe are just as easily attributed to the world we know as to forces outside its confines. They are all set in the country, except for the unnerving “Tourmaline,” which takes place largely in Vienna and concerns a disastrous friendship between an eccentric known as “the pension man” and a famous actor. The story is relayed by several sources over the course of years, weaving a screen of gossip and hearsay through which we blurrily see a long chain of violence and grief.
“Limestone” could hardly be more different in mood—delicate, contemplative, and dreamily elegiac. It also concerns a friendship and is also—like most of the stories—tiered, containing stories within a story, or a story leading to other stories. The friendship in this case is between a land surveyor and a country pastor, and “Limestone” displays, perhaps in the purest way of all of them, Stifter’s extraordinary gift for enabling the reader to feel what it’s like to change and to enlarge emotionally and mentally.
The dramatic “Cat-Silver” tells of three children, nicknamed Blond-Locks, Black-Locks, and Brown-Locks, who are brought by their parents to stay with their grandmother in the country every summer. One summer another child, “the brown girl,” appears as they are playing in the woods. The siblings are enthralled, and the children strike up a friendship, which intensifies year after year, though the brown girl remains mysterious. In two dangerous crises—a hailstorm and a raging fire—the brown girl performs heroic acts of courage, but although the entire family adores her and tries to entice her to live with them, things do not go that way. The story reads as a study in bourgeois cluelessness, but its power lies in its evocations of what can and cannot be communicated, of love and of sorrow.
“Rock Milk” is the only one of the stories that could be considered explicitly “political” and thus presumably not “escapist.” And yet this is the one that eludes me entirely, though like all the others it has its own fumy atmosphere. It is set during the Napoleonic Wars, and the protagonist is an aging, wealthy man whose surrogate granddaughter is entranced, to his horror, by a German soldier who is fighting for the French. “Rock Milk,” amusing and very energetic, ends the book, so it’s probable that for Stifter it was a summation of sorts, and there’s plenty going on in it—paradoxes of love and loyalty, owning and renting, nationalism and revolution—but I don’t really know, in all the commotion, exactly what I’m being told.
With “Granite,” on the other hand, I feel on suitably solid ground. It opens with a young child sitting on a smooth granite block that serves as a bench “outside the house where I and my fathers were born,” while his mother scrubs the parlor floor. A peddler of wagon grease happens by on his customary rounds and mischievously offers to grease the boy’s feet:
The liquid spread beautifully on the skin, extraordinarily clear and golden brown, and sent up its pleasant resinous fragrance. Following its nature, it gradually spread down my feet and around their curves.
The delighted child runs inside to show off this loveliness to his mother:
For a moment she hovered there, either struck by admiration, or looking about for an instrument to greet me with. At last she cried, “What has this unholy son of my flesh gotten up to this time?”
The little boy is stunned. And his grandfather, to restore the boy’s amour propre—and relieve the mother from her child’s exasperating presence while she labors to get the revolting glop off the newly cleaned floor—takes the child for a long walk to a neighboring valley where he has an errand to do, promising to tell him a story.
As they walk, the grandfather observes that the peddler, Andreas, is an inveterate rascal but that he
is not as guilty as we others think; for how should old Andreas know that wagon grease…can make such a mess in the house? For him it’s a ware that he’s constantly handling, that he lives from, that he loves…. And how should he know about scoured floors when he’s on the road with his cask rain or shine year after year, when he sleeps in barns at night.
The story the grandfather has for his grandson, he says, is “about pitch-men like old Andreas, a story that took place long before you were born, and before I was born, and that will show you the marvelous fates that people can have on God’s earth.”
As the two companions walk along, the grandfather points out various local features—a spring with excellent water, the unusual vegetation underfoot, the mighty spruce trees allotted to the villagers according to their tax status. And as they pause at the top of a rise, the grandfather confirms the child’s knowledge of his surroundings, asking him to name first the various mountains, then the forests they can see from where they are.
That accomplished, the grandfather directs the child’s attention to the numerous columns of smoke rising from the forests, which indicate the presence of the people who make their living there—the woodcutters, the charcoal burners, the haymakers, the gatherers, the pitch burners—all of whom need fire, as he explains, for their particular endeavors. Finally the grandfather has the child point out and name all the villages they can see, from those on the most distant slopes down to their own.
Now that the child’s orientation—and ours—is secure, the grandfather says:
You’ll come to see how much life there is in those villages, how many people labor there day and night for their living, and enjoy the happiness granted us here below. I showed you the woods and the villages because that is where the story took place, the one I promised to tell you as we climb….
Once upon a time in the spring, when the trees had just come into leaf, when the petals had just fallen, a terrible sickness descended on this region, and broke out in all the villages you saw…and even in the forests you showed me…. The white petals still lay on the road, and the dead were carried out over them…. Before that tales had been told in winter evenings of a sickness in other lands, of people perishing as though by divine judgment; but no one had believed it would come into our woods, for nothing foreign ever came, until it did come.
The end of the plague—heralded by the instructive song of a little bird said to recommend certain herbal medicines—was as unexpected and inexplicable as its arrival. Once it subsided the people in the region put it out of their minds, and its only vestiges are a few commemorative designations that time has emptied of their significance—Plague Meadow, Plague Path, Plague Slope, and the Plague Column, which noted the dates of the plague’s duration and which no longer stands. The devastation occurred in the time of the grandfather’s grandfather and has been grown over by history; only the old remember hearing stories of it.
The child and his grandfather have arrived at the farmhouse where the grandfather is to do his errand. The narrator tells us:
They let me sit out in the yard…and sent me bread and butter to eat. I rested, and looked at the things that were there: the unloaded carts that stood nested together beneath the shed roof, the plows and harrows crowded in a corner to make space, the farmhands and maidservants going back and forth, doing their Saturday chores and preparing for the Sabbath; and they joined the things that already filled my head, triple spruces the dead and the dying and little singing birds.
On the homeward journey through a landscape newly animated by detail and historical perspective, the grandfather finally tells the promised story: during the time of the plague some of the villagers fled to the forests with their families in order to evade the illness. But the illness followed.
The sole survivor of one such family is a little boy who, foraging for food after the death of his parents, eventually comes upon a little girl at the edge of death herself. The grandfather vividly describes the boy’s daily ordeal as he nurses the girl back to health, and how, when they’re both strong enough, they find their way down from the forests and are settled back within the villages where they were born, not to reencounter each other for years.
At this point, the story of the two children and the plague fuses with the story of Andreas the wagon-grease peddler, culminating, as the grandfather has promised, in illustrations of “the marvelous fates that people can have.” But instead of leaving us to ponder the sweep of generations, the trajectories of lives, and the weighty workings of destiny, Stifter airily performs something like a triple-twisting double summersault, returning us for a moment, by means of his narrator, who is now clearly a mature man, to the enfolding story, and out from behind the story we’ve just been told peeks another we have not been told, whose arc begins many years earlier, with a dirty floor.
The effect of most pieces of fiction can be suggested by a description of their subjects or themes or plotlines, yet other pieces—although they, too, are composed of nothing but words—leave an impression that is as resistant to verbal description as the effects of a piece of music. I won’t describe the final paragraph of “Granite,” and I wouldn’t be remotely capable of describing its effect. But suppose there were somebody who could describe it and even analyze its mechanics and the mechanics of its relationship to what precedes it. The result might be something like program notes for a performance of Pelléas et Mélisande, or an exercise requiring students to write in the manner of Virginia Woolf. That is, such an enterprise would have precious little to do with the experience of the work, nor would it—heaven forfend—enable the eager apprentice to execute something with a similar or equal effect.
The most enduringly famous story in the collection is the dazzling “Rock Crystal.” It’s wonderful to have the two translations, and I recommend keeping both the Moore and the Cole on hand; comparisons underscore the challenges presented by the original, and the loving care and thought entailed in rendering its subtlety, density, and vibrancy into another language.
“Rock Crystal” begins with a description of the celebration of Christmas. As translated by Cole, it is
a splendorous night Mass, to which the bells send their summons through the pitch-dark wintry still midnight air, and the people hasten with lamps or on dark familiar paths from snowy mountains past rimy woods and through creaking orchards to reach the church from which the solemn sounds emerge and which looms with its long lit windows in the middle of the village girded by ice-sheathed trees.
Children are given presents from the Holy Child and
are shown the advent of the Holy Christ Child—a child like them, the most wondrous child that was ever in the world—as a joyful shining festive thing that works upon you all your life and sometimes, in old age, amid dim somber or poignant memories, appears as a glimpse of times gone by, flitting on bright shimmering wings across the bleak, sad, emptied night sky.
At this point, the tone of the story alters completely. The abstract rumination gives over to a tale that concerns Gschaid, an Alpine village; Gars, the mountain that lies between Gschaid’s valley and the region’s market town; and two small children—Konrad and Sanna—who, as we learn, will cross the mountain on Christmas Eve to have lunch with their grandmother. The opening passage seems like a free-standing reflection about the inextricability of joy and loss, the intensifications of memory, and the protean shapes of events as they pass through time. But “Rock Crystal” would be a very different sort of thing without the intense colorations of elegy and joy that fall faintly over it from this prelude as if through a stained-glass window.
Essential to the significance of events is the isolated and homogeneous nature of Gschaid:
No roads pass through the valley…. And so the inhabitants make a world of their own, they know everyone by name and by their stories…they all mourn when someone dies, when someone is born they know his name….
If a stone falls out of a wall, the same stone is put back in, the new houses are built like the old ones, and if a house has brindle cows, it always raises brindle calves, and the color stays with the house.
Though Konrad and Sanna were born in Gschaid, they are not an unquestioned part of it like the brindled calves. Their mother, Susanna, is the daughter of a prosperous dyer who lives in Millsdorf, the great market town in the lush valley across the mountain. Susanna was imported by Gschaid’s ambitious shoemaker in his flamboyant youth, when, despite her parents’ reservations, he succeeded in marrying her. The villagers admire Susanna for her beauty and excellent character, but they have never come to fully accept her or the children.
The majestic mountain, with its two great prongs, or horns, presides over the village. Its forests provide wood for the villagers and its streams “superb, oft-praised” water, and villagers boast of their familiarity with its hazardous, thrilling terrain, and they gauge their skills and prestige by it: “This mountain is the pride of the village, as though they had made it themselves…. They often speak of it when they sit together in the inn, telling of their adventures and their marvelous experiences.” In the heat of the summer, the snow on the lower slopes melts and a shimmer of blue and green is exposed: “At the edge of this shimmer, what looks from afar like a fringe of splintered gems is, seen close-up, a jumble of gigantic rugged blocks, slabs and rubble, jostling and interlocked in chaos.”
Susanna’s father continues to disdain his son-in-law, though the shoemaker has settled down and is now responsible and hardworking. In fact, he is so consumed by his work that Susanna feels he doesn’t truly love the children. Susanna’s mother dotes on her grandchildren, but her health has been declining, and she can no longer cross the saddle between the two horns of the mountain to see them. So from time to time they make the crossing to visit her, and, because Konrad is a very responsible child, they are now just old enough to be sent on their own, if the weather allows.
On this day before Christmas, Konrad is charged with the care of his little sister, and the children are bundled up to visit their grandmother. She is anxious to send them back expeditiously, before the cold intensifies and it gets dark, so after lunch she bundles them back up and packs Konrad’s satchel not only with the presents they are to be given from the Christ Child the next day but also with two loaves of bread and a flask of potent black coffee, an elixir against the cold, for their mother.
Not long after the children start back, an entrancing snow starts to fall, and soon everything is cloaked in twinkling white. They walk on for some time, increasingly puzzled by their surroundings and the absence of familiar landmarks:
There lay great slabs, covered with snow, but with their walls showing smooth green-hued ice, hills lay there, like foam pushed together, but with a dull inward glimmer and gleam in their sides, like jumbled bars and rods of gemstones.
In the seventeen absolutely harrowing pages during which the children are lost, the mountain comes to seem almost creaturely in its unpredictability, staggering beauty, and danger. Every downward trail leads either to a sheer drop or an impasse, so the children are forced to climb, searching for one of the switchback approaches to the valley. But at each attempt they are stymied, and dark descends.
More hair-raising, even, than the vast lunar landscape is the way the children absorb the reality of their situation. Stifter never tells us what they’re thinking—and they don’t tell each other; they don’t need to. As the time passes arduously and fruitlessly, Konrad’s words of reassurance and encouragement, and Sanna’s trusting repetitions of “Yes, Konrad,” begin to sound like the consolatory code used by people who love each other very much and are determined not to lose their dignity as they face the likelihood of death. And yet it was only hours ago that they were just children:
“We’ve come to the ice now,” the boy said, “we’re up on the mountain, Sanna, you know, the mountain that’s so white in the sunshine when we look out from our garden. Mark my words well. Do you remember how we often sat in the garden in the afternoons, how beautiful it was, how the bees hummed around us, the lindens smelled so sweet, and the sun shone from the sky?”
“Yes, Konrad, I remember.”
Far into the night, the children find a rocky overhang that provides shelter. Konrad makes sure Sanna eats most of the bread, and he exhorts her to stay awake, though she insists she isn’t cold and only wants to sleep. When she seems just on the verge of falling asleep he remembers the flask of the grandmother’s coffee and uncorks it with difficulty, telling Sanna, “Mother would give it to us if she knew what we need it for.”
As the children sat there, in the sky before them a pale light blossomed amid the stars, and traced a faint arc between them. It had a green glimmer that drifted gently downward. But the arc grew brighter and brighter, until the stars receded before it and faded. It sent a light to other regions of the sky, spilling glimmergreen gentle and alive among the stars. Then sheaves of variegated light rose like a crown’s prongs from the apex of the arc and blazed. The light spilled brightly through the neighboring regions of the sky, it sent out soft showers, and passed through long spaces in gentle tremors…. Bit by bit it grew fainter and fainter….
Nothing unusual happened after that. The stars gleamed, sparkled, and quivered, and now and then a meteor shot through them.
A natural atmospheric phenomenon, a vision produced by exhaustion and terror, or a divine visitation—whatever it was that the children saw, they have experienced something that could only have been seen from where they were on the mountain, something grand, indelible, and incommunicable. And by the time the search parties, composed of pretty much everyone in Gschaid, exultantly find them the next morning, their relationships to their father, to the villagers, and to the mountain—and they themselves—have been radically and irreversibly altered. The opening of “Rock Crystal,” complex to begin with, has now been further complicated by the costly and ambiguous present Konrad and Sanna have received.
The word that comes irrepressibly to mind regarding Motley Stones is “sublime,” in its now rather archaic sense that encompasses vastness and violence as well as extreme beauty. Maybe, these days, the question of humanity’s place in nature is one that distinguishes just who the adults in the room are. But I’d think there are children (Stifter’s designated audience) who would enjoy this collection tremendously, too, assuming that any children aren’t too depleted by their daily digital drubbing, because Motley Stones offers a rare kind of sensory and emotional richness that will be profoundly pleasurable to people of certain casts of mind and temperament, as opposed to people of certain ages, and those of us who fit the mold can all clamber around endlessly among its rich overtones.