The Magic Mountain: Adalbert Stifter’s ‘Rock Crystal’

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The New York Sun

Last year, Stanford University Press published a selection of Hannah Arendt’s essays on the arts under the title “Reflections on Literature and Culture.” One of the pieces in the volume was Arendt’s review of a 1945 translation of the novella “Rock Crystal,” by the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter. To Arendt, Stifter (1805-68) was “one of the very few great novelists in German literature,” whose work stood out for its “pure happiness, wisdom, and beauty.” Above all, Arendt stressed the power of Stifter’s natural descriptions: He was “the greatest landscape painter in literature … someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words.”

In casting Stifter as a writer of lucid serenity, a maker of natural idylls, Arendt was following a long critical tradition. One standard history of German literature describes him as “a poetic soul” with “a serious, sane view of life,” who remained “untouched by the political currents of his age.” It all sounds a bit dull and worthy, and perhaps helps to explain why Stifter remains almost unknown to English readers, despite his high rank in German literature. As even Arendt acknowledged, “nothing in our time or in the non-German literary tradition … meets this work half-way. Our sense of homelessness in society and of alienation in nature … are constantly contradicted by Stifter.”

But now “Rock Crystal” (NYRB Classics, 76 pages, $12.95) has been reissued, in the very translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore that Arendt was writing about; and, surprisingly, it is not at all the kind of “innocent” work she leads us to expect. Nor did W.H. Auden really capture the moving strangeness of the tale in his introduction, reprinted in this new edition, where he, too, writes of Stifter’s love for “order, childhood, and the limpid serenity of the classical style.”

All of these elements are present in “Rock Crystal,” it is true, and on one level it can appear as timeless and simple as a folktale. Yet Thomas Mann came closer to the true experience of reading “Rock Crystal” when he praised Stifter as “one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature.” In “Rock Crystal,” as in a Mann story, plot and description are never “innocent,” no matter how lovingly they are elaborated. Rather, as the novella unfolds, succinctly but without hurry, it evolves into a parable of frightening depth. It is no more than 25,000 words, if that, but in this short space Stifter transports the reader to the heart of the world’s mystery, before returning him to a comfortable dailiness that henceforth cannot help but feel haunted.

This arc of the reader’s journey, ascent followed by descent, follows that of the young children whose adventure Stifter narrates in “Rock Crystal.” (The novella was published in 1853 as part of a collection called “Colored Stones,” along with companion pieces titled “Granite,” “Tourmaline,” etc.) Conrad and his sister Susanna live in the small Alpine village of Gschaid, which is so isolated as to “constitute a separate world.” Stifter conjures the villagers’ lives in a few sure strokes. On the one hand, Gschaid is a place of safety and mutual support, where “All mourn when anyone dies; all know the name of the new-born … they help one another, and if anything unusual happens, come flocking together.” Yet if the hamlet is sustained by its traditions, it is also frozen by them: “If a stone is dislodged from a wall, that very stone is put back; the new houses are built like the old ones.”

Hand in hand with this conservatism goes a strong mistrust of outsiders, whose effects can be seen in Conrad and Susanna’s own family. Their father is a native of Gschaid, but their mother comes from Millsdorf, a bigger and richer town one valley over; and while Millsdorf is just a few hours’ walk away, the people of Gschaid regard it as absolutely foreign. “Months, sometimes a year, may pass before anyone from Gschaid crosses into the valley beyond to visit the great market-town, Millsdorf.” As a result, the children’s mother is still regarded as a kind of alien in Gschaid, and Conrad and Susanna themselves are not fully accepted by the villagers.

It is this divided heritage that leads to the disaster at the heart of the tale. The children are in the habit of crossing the mountain pass to visit their mother’s parents in the next valley; they have been doing it for so long that they are allowed to make the journey alone. As the story opens, it is the day before Christmas, and Conrad and Susanna are paying a holiday visit to Millsdorf. Stifter describes their route so clearly, thanks to the verbal “magic wand” Arendt wrote about, that the reader could practically draw a map of it: the footbridge, the meadows, the forest, the red post marking the spot where a local man once died.

When they start back home that afternoon, however, these landmarks are soon obliterated by a steady snowfall. Because he has painted the scene so clearly, Stifter allows the reader to share the children’s anxiety as they lose their bearings. No matter which way they turn, they seem to keep going upward, away from the valley and toward the glacier peak that soars above it. Conrad keeps reassuring his young sister, in a way that grows almost unbearably poignant as the reader realizes how lost the children really are. Finally they emerge, on Christmas Eve, in an altogether unearthly landscape, which Stifter evokes with eerie vividness:Ice — nothing but ice. There were great slabs lying, covered with snow but on the edges glassy green ice showed; there were mounds of what looked like pushed-up foam, the sides dull but with inward glimmers as if crystals and splinters of precious stones had been jumbled together; there were, besides, great rounded bosses engulfed in snow … Some were eroded into cavities through which an arm, a head, a body, or a great cartload of hay could pass.That “cartload of hay” is a perfect example of Stifter’s free indirect narration — it is just the image that the children themselves, steeped in country things, would use. So, too, when the children are forced to spend the night on the mountaintop, little Susanna imagines that the lights that appear in the sky are heralds of the Christ child, as expected on Christmas Eve. Yet Stifter allows the reader to see the gulf between her trustingly pious metaphor and the uncanny cosmic reality:Something now began to happen, as they watched. While they sat thus, a faint light bloomed amid the stars, describing upon the heavens a delicate arc. The faint green luminescence traveled slowly downward. But the arc grew brighter and brighter until the stars paled away a shudder of light, invading other parts of the firmament — taking on an emerald tinge — vibrated and flooded the stellar spaces. Then from the highest point of the arc sheaves radiated like points of a crown, all aglow.These are the “stellar spaces” that terrified Pascal, with their intimation of eternal emptiness. What, then, is the meaning of this “crown”? Is it in fact a signal from the King of Heaven, sent down to keep the children from falling asleep — which would, as they themselves know, mean their deaths? Or is it a purely natural phenomenon, as Stifter also suggests — perhaps “the electricity in the atmosphere had become so charged by the tremendous snowfall that it flashed forth”?

This celestial apparition, in its teasing doubleness, holds the key to “Rock Crystal.” In its light, the simple story takes on the dimensions of a parable. The children who do not quite belong in the valley they were born to; their accidental journey from the ordinary to the infinite; the danger and beauty of such an ascent; the vast difference between what they find on the mountaintop and the cosy rituals of Christmas going on down below — all these elements take their places in Stifter’s design. What starts out as a folktale turns into a religious and existential riddle. No wonder Mann paid homage to “Rock Crystal” in a pivotal scene in “The Magic Mountain,” in which Hans Castorp gets lost in a blizzard and experiences a fleeting understanding of man’s destiny.

What happens to Conrad and Susanna, whether they come back alive from the crystal world, forms the only narrative suspense in the tale, and while that suspense is not essential to Stifter’s effect, the reader may want to skip Auden’s introduction, which gives the ending away, until the second reading. For “Rock Crystal” is one of those still but deep books that deserves to be read again, and again.

The New York Sun

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