Thursday, November 15, 2018

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter

The quietest of thrillers
Rock Crystal, a novella by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, was originally published in 1845 under the German title Bergkristall. The story takes place amid the mountains of Stifter’s homeland. He begins by describing a rural village nestled high in an alpine valley, where the inhabitants lead rather simple, insular lives amid a setting of great natural beauty. In this village, named Gschaid, lives a shoemaker and his family. As was often the case in rural communities of centuries past, the shoemaker’s two children, Conrad and Sanna, enjoy a great deal of independence. They are allowed to journey unaccompanied to a neighboring village to visit their grandparents, a trip of at least a few miles that includes traveling through a mountain pass. After one such visit to the town of Millsdorf on a winter’s morn, the kids set out in the afternoon to return to Gschaid. On their way home, they are hit by heavy snowfall, which hinders their visibility and obscures their path home. Disoriented, the children become lost in the mountains.

The best thing about Rock Crystal is the way Stifter gradually progresses the story towards this predicament. The narrative follows the children, who learn the danger of their situation long after the reader and still approach their journey with gaiety until well after the point of losing their way. Though this would be a parents’ nightmare, the reader doesn’t experience what the parents are going through. The children never seem to realize the danger they’re in, and unfortunately that ambivalence rubs off on the reader. The narrative is told in a very straightforward, deadpan style that nullifies any suspense, if Stifter in fact intended any suspense in the first place. The plot of the novella seems only to serve as a showpiece for the stage setting, as Stifter lovingly describes the mountains and glaciers of the Austrian wild. Stifter was often praised for his depictions of nature, but I didn’t find anything particularly remarkable about his natural description, at least in the hands of English translator Lee M. Hollander, when compared with other writers of winter landscapes such as Jack London, Knut Hamsun, or any number of naturalist novelists.

The story of Rock Crystal takes place on Christmas Eve. Though not specifically a Christmas story in the traditional sense of the phrase, it does have some Christmas spirit to impart in its appreciation of the winter landscape and its picturesque depiction of rural village life. Any story of children separated from their parents also can’t help but convey a reinforcing of the importance of family and the comfort of being with loved ones. I don’t think Stifter intended Rock Crystal to be children’s literature, but since the protagonists are children there is an unavoidable feeling of kid lit about it. One can see how young readers might enjoy the story of these independent children and their thrilling adventure, while adult readers will be more drawn to Stifter’s depiction of nature through poetic realism.

Stifter is highly regarded in the German-language literary world, hailed by fans such as Thomas Mann and Hannah Arendt, and the New York Review of Books thought enough of Rock Crystal to pluck it from the public domain and rerelease it as a paperback. After reading the book, however, it is not easy to discern why this unassuming work has received such acclaim. The free public domain version of the 1914 English translation by Hollander can be found in the book The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Vol. VIII. For those who are attracted to the setting of an Austrian mountain village, it is worth a free download and a couple hours of your time.

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