Friday, November 26, 2010


Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal, which I described in an earlier post, was originally part of a collection called Bunte Steine (Coloured Stones) (1853).  The other stories were Granite, Limestone, Tourmaline, Muscovite and Moonmilk - how great would it be to have an English translation of the full collection?  I'd imagine the theme of coloured stones would be as likely to draw readers in now as it did a hundred and fifty years ago.  You can at least find some of the individual stories translated elsewhere - Limestone, for example, is available in Penguin's much-less enticingly titled Brigitta and other Tales, translated by Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly.

Limestone is no more about limestone than Rock Crystal is about rock crystal - the story was originally titled 'The Poor Benefactor' - but of course being Stifter the rocky landscape in the story is a constant presence.  Watanabe-O'Kelly writes that landscape in Stifter functions 'variously as man's best teacher, as his moral amphitheatre but also as a symbol of his most insoluble problems and as an inimical and destructive force ...  The priest in Limestone learns to see and love the unpropitious karst which most people find hideous.  Here he finds his moral purpose, yet the karst, like himself, is hiding something, for all its flora and fauna are to be found only by attentive searching in little cracks in the stones.  At the same time this very landscape can erupt in a thunderstorm which both at the time and in its after-effects can bring death.'

Adalbert Stifter's stories seem to offer a gentle, enjoyable form of escapism and Watanabe-O'Kelly notes that 'the fatal combination of pine-trees and apple-cheeked country children ... convinced generations of readers that Stifter was a charming chronicler of the countryside and nothing more.'  But, as Thomas Mann wrote, 'it has only rarely been noticed that behind the quiet, inward exactitude of his descriptions of nature in particular there is a predilection for the excessive, the elemental and the catastrophic, the pathological.'  His stories have that combination of gentleness and oddness that I appreciate in later writers like Robert Walser.  The priest in Limestone, along with other Stifter characters like the rich eccentric who finds love in The Forest Path (1845), are descendants of Peter Schlemihl and similar figures in earlier Romantic Novellen: misfits who 'see better than those that fit in.'

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