Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer has very little story but a great deal of carefully described incident. The novel is a Bildungsroman, so the story is the development and education, ethically and aesthetically, of a young man. That is plenty vague. So here is more of the story.
Heinrich, the young man and narrator, finished with his tutors, embarks on a scientific career, with an emphasis on geology and botany. He takes trips to the Alps to further his education, collect specimens, and draw.
I realize now that I have no idea when or where I learned the narrator’s name. It is almost never used, a recurring theme in a novel where the Danube and the Alps are frequently named; Vienna (always “the city”) and Austria, never.
One summer he comes across the Rose House and the story really begins:
The first floor was covered with roses reaching up to the windows of the second… The plants were so well arranged and cared for that there were no blank spaces any where to be seen; the wall of the house was completely covered as far as the roses extended. (31)
A thunderstorm is approaching. Heinrich asks for shelter from a bareheaded, white-haired, oddly dressed man, the owner of the house, “my host” as he will be known for most of the novel. The host insists that the storm will not break, but that Heinrich is welcome. They tour the grounds, and later the house. The house tour is room by room. Everything on the estate is perfectly arranged, the crops, the flowers, the birds (attracted by bird seed and artificial habitats), and also the paintings, furniture, marble floors (requiring felt slippers), the household schedules, habits, everything.
This first visit lasts three days and occupies 16% of the book. It is thorough. A storm that does not break is a perfect symbol for Adalbert Stifter. The perfection, the lack of drama, is itself a source of tension. What is the cost of perfection?
A seasonal pattern is established for Heinrich: winter with his family, spring and summer in the mountains, autumn at the Rose House. The pattern is subtly varied – Heinrich sees the roses bloom, or misses them entirely. Heinrich’s scientific and artistic knowledge expand. He moves from drawing to painting. He studies architecture, and glaciers.
The centerpiece of the novel is an encounter with an ancient Greek sculpture (first glimpsed back on page 50) during a thunderstorm (now the storm comes, just when Heinrich needs it):
“Why didn’t you tell me before,” I continued, “that the statue on your marble stairway is so beautiful?”
“Who told you that now?” he asked.
“I could see it myself,” I replied.
“Then you will know it all the more certainly and believe it all the more firmly,” he answered, “than if someone else had said something about it.” (216)
Hints of two more novelistic stories have appeared by now. At some point a woman Heinrich’s age is introduced, perhaps a relation or friend of the host. A romantic story, perhaps? Yes. And then there is the mystery of the host’s identity, seemingly defused early, but the culmination of the romance subplot leads the host to tell his own story in detail, filling another 10% of the book.
A quick recap: Introduction 6%; Host’s Estate Tour 16%; Develop Develop Develop (Love!) 62%; Host’s Story 10%; Conclusion 6%. I detect symmetry.
The big climax, the secret of the host, is that the perfection of his estate and life are the consequence of a failed love affair of his youth, the one eruption of passion and anguish in the novel. He is somehow attempting to make restitution for his lost happiness, and the narrator and his bride become the embodiment of the host’s efforts. The breach is healed, order is restored.
Is this a good story? I do not know. But Stifter packs it with meaning, and also with zithers, mountains, engravings, nests, cacti, furniture, and flowers. So much furniture, so many flowers.