For very long stretches of his prose Stifter is an unbearable chatterbox, he has an incompetent and, which is most despicable, a slovenly style and he is moreover, in actual fact, the most boring and mendacious author in the whole of German literature. (Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters, 1985, tr. Ewald Osers, p. 35)
So there is one view, admittedly that of a fictional character, of Adalbert Stifter. It contains some truth. His first novel, Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer, 1857), is dull, mannered, distant, completely devoid of humor, virtually devoid of story, and free of characters who might be described as naturalistic.
For example, dull:
“Once I took the trouble of measuring the area of this hill as far as it is planted in grain so I could make a prediction about the average amount that would be harvested in one year. I based my calculations on our previous harvests as well as those of our neighbors. I couldn’t believe the figures; I wouldn’t have even dreamed that they were so large. If you are interested, I’ll show you this study which is kept in our house.” (45)
The novel could be even more dull, I suppose – Stifter could spend several pages describing that study of grain yield; thankfully, it is never mentioned again, although the characters do spend a great deal of time looking at drawings of buildings and furniture.
We finally learned from each other, spending many joyous and loving hours with the zither. (208)
Sorry, that is actually an example of humor, assuming you find the word “zither” as inherently humorous as I do. The narrator spends a fair amount of time playing the zither and commissioning beautiful hand-crafted zithers. This is the voice, by the way, of the main character and narrator of the novel. Hundreds of pages, much like that.
“Thank you, Mother,” her son replied, “you are so kind, Mother dear; I already know what it is and shall do exactly as Foster Father decides.”
“That will be good,” she answered. (142)
Everyone talks in this way. They have to, because a defining feature of the novel is that there is no drama or even conflict of any sort. Everyone says the words they ought to say and takes the actions they ought to take. In a pattern typical with Stifter, for example in his novellas Limestone (1848) and Brigitta (1844), the events in the present of the story are a sort of ideal resolution of a conflict from the past, a conflict the existence of which is only revealed at the end of the story.
Imagine how this works when the text of the novel is eight times longer than the novellas. The tension is almost unbearable. When will something happen? Something has to happen, doesn’t it? Or was Stifter writing some kind of expectation-crushing 19th century avant garde anti-novel?
He was not, but it took me a long time to understand what he was doing. As my understanding grew, so did my enthusiasm for this quiet, odd novel. Indian Summer turns out to be a – what is a good metaphor – a foundation stone of Austrian literature. Austrian culture, perhaps. That grump in the Bernhard novel also calls Stifter “an author I myself had always so enormously revered that it became more like artistic addiction,” at least before he finally read him “accurately and radically.” (34)
That sets a good example for me. I am going to write about Stifter and Indian Summer until I run out of things to say.
All quotations are from the 1985 Wendell Frye translation, which I still, after 470 dense pages, can hardly believe exists.