Monday, August 30, 2010

The King Lake and the Watzmann

A couple of years ago the Pushkin Press published a new translation of Der Hagestolz (1850) by Adalbert Stifter (1805-68).  Their edition comes with a beautiful cover, The King Lake and the Watzmann (1837), painted by Stifter himself when his main energies were focused on landscape painting, prior to the publication of his first story Der Condor in 1840.  The image is perfect because the story's hero Viktor is forced to stay on an island in a lake surrounded by mountains.  There his youthful energy and generous spirit convince the miserly uncle who has summoned him there to provide for Viktor and save him from the dull and restricting administrative career he was intending to pursue.

The book has many vivid passages of landscape description, like the moment Viktor wakes and looks out from the island, seeing the distant mountains shining in the sun: 'everywhere broad shadows were cast; and the whole spectacle appeared again in the lake, which, swept clean of every wisp of mist, lay there like the most delicate of mirrors.'  Viktor at the window (that archetypal Romantic moment) is 'awestruck.  The sharpest of contrasts was created by all this encircling profusion of light and colours alongside the surrounding deathlike silence in which theses gigantic mountains stood' (trans. David Bryer). Like other artist writers (Mervyn Peake for example), Stifter's descriptions are always sensitive to the distribution and intensity of light.

Pushkin also publish Stifter's Bergkristall (Rock Crystal) in a 1945 translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore, a writer one can well imagine being sympathetic to Stifter's gentle, poetic stories.  This is another story that takes place in the shifting light of the mountains, where darkness falls on a winter journey and two children are lost in the snow.  As I have promised to read this story to Mrs Plinius one Christmas Eve I shall say no more about it here, but if you're interested I can recommend a good article about Rock Crystal by Adam Kirsch.  He quotes Hannah Arendt's review of the 1945 edition, where she described Stifter as "the greatest landscape painter in literature ... someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words."


Petra Voegtle said...

Just a little correction - it is not Waltzmann but Watzmann, one of the famous mountains of the Berchtesgarden Alps.

Plinius said...

Oops - thanks - now corrected.