A surprising bard of environmental disaster

Motley stones. By Adalbert Stifter. Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. New York Review Books; 288 pages; $ 17.95 and £ 14.99

TTHE AUTHOR of these stories was an Austrian bureaucrat, known locally as a humble chronicler of bucolic idylls. Yet his characters include children who see Christ in a snowstorm; a macrocephalic girl hiding underground with a pet jackdaw; a pair of young people who survive a plague that kills everyone around them; and a sexually repressed priest who, by an act of self-sacrifice, saves his blithely incomprehensible parishioners. Misunderstood during his lifetime, largely forgotten since, this enigmatic writer also anticipated the modern concern of environmental disaster. His name is Adalbert Stifter.

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Stifter – we can forgive never having heard of him – was the son of a linen weaver from a remote corner of what is now the Czech Republic. A contemporary of Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert and Nikolai Gogol, he spent most of his life as an academy inspector, cut off from the larger streams of European literature. His first published story, which brought him local fame, appeared in 1840, the last in 1869, a year after his suicide. Its production includes two enormous novels and 30 “novels” (short novels or long short stories). It is still read in Austria and Germany but is almost unknown in the English-speaking world. Half of his stories have not been translated. “Motley Stones”, one of his best collections, is only published in English.

Many of his tales take place in the forests of Bohemia and focus on children. In a preface to “Motley Stones”, Stifter described the book as “an assortment of fantasies for young hearts” and himself as an imaginary of “only little things”. During his lifetime he was considered a narrator of domestic harmony, family life and landscapes (which he also painted, as in the photo): “The sound of music” minus the Nazis. A contemporary rejected him as a writer of “scarabs and buttercups”. Politics influenced this view. Austria had one of the most conservative and repressive regimes in Europe and Stifter, who was the guardian of the chancellor’s son Prince von Metternich, was associated with the state. Order, tolerance and self-sacrifice are key ideas in his work.

The me of the storm

Yet this perception of his stories is totally at odds with what they actually contain. Stifter has claimed he teaches readers to value family ties, but in “Motley Stones” and elsewhere, his families primarily produce misery and grief. A child lacks affection so much that he dresses a teddy bear jack and cuddles it. A mother finds her little daughter repulsive: “When she cried, no one took care of her needs. If she wasn’t crying, she would just lay there. A son is pampered and petted for years until he is abruptly led into the wilderness and invited to earn a living. Stifter may have wanted to preach domestic piety, but hardship, loneliness, and horror kept creeping through.

His death was more in keeping with his job than his life had been. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Stifter lay down, slit his throat with a razor and died three days later. As Isabel Fargo Cole, translator of “Motley Stones” remarks in her introduction, he is less of a writer of romance than of “the abyss in romance”. The tension between what he claims to write and what he actually writes generates a singular and disturbing suspense.

Over time, German-speaking readers and writers reassessed Stifter’s work. Franz Kafka, this master of strangeness, identified him as an artist brother. Thomas Mann called him “one of the most extraordinary, enigmatic, secretly daring and strangely captivating narrators in world literature.” Today, Stifter can be considered one of the first authors to seriously engage with the topic of environmental disaster.

Characteristically, he disavowed such intent, stating in the preface to “Motley Stones” that he was less interested in “the surging sea” or “the fire-spitting mountain” than in “the force that makes the milk in the poor “. the woman’s pot swells and overflows ”. Yet of the six stories, four deal with hailstorms, blizzards, plagues and floods. Storms are common in literature, often as projections of a hero’s inner turmoil. But in Stifter’s tales, storms don’t represent anyone’s inner drama. They are the drama. He avoids the type of hero who clashes with others and changes the world; in the tale “Tourmaline”, where a character’s apartment is decorated with paintings of the Viennese aristocracy, the great men of history are literally reduced to wallpaper. On the contrary, the protagonists of Stifter are trapped by the forces of nature or the details of social life.

In his world, the normal balance between the backdrop and the foreground drama is upset. Among German readers he was celebrated for his long lyrical descriptions of nature, with every path, tree or rock depicted in almost obsessive detail. Hannah Arendt called him the greatest landscape painter in literature. His characters, however, seem eclipsed and overwhelmed by their surroundings. WG Sebald, another admirer of Stifter, believed he had taken the evocation of romantic era nature as an indifferent and destructive force as far as it could go. In “Rock Crystal,” for example, the story in which the siblings see Christ, an icy blizzard dominates the narrative, and the miracle happens almost in passing.

According to Amitav Ghosh, an Indian novelist, one of the reasons climate change rarely appears in Western literature is that it poses too fundamental a challenge to Western belief in a rational and predictable world. In Stifter’s case, at least, that’s not true. As Ms. Cole points out, even in her human aspects, her world is neither predictable nor rational. Confused and overwhelmed, his characters struggle to cope with environmental disasters they don’t understand, in stories written before global warming even begins. â– 

This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “L’idylle et abîme”

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