Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Airplane reading 2 - Stifter's Abdias

Abdias (1843) by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter:

A clan of Jewish traders live hidden away in a Roman ruin in the Sahara desert. Abdias is the son of one of these traders. He is sent into the world to make his fortune, only welcome back if he is successful. He is, beyond anyone's expectation.

His wealth attracts the attention of the Algerian Bey, who loots his house and confiscates his wealth. In the process, the wife of Abdias dies in premature childbirth. Abdias takes his newborn daughter to Europe, to Austria, presumably.

This covers 40 pages of a 75 page story. There are some hints that the rest of the story will lead to revenge on the Bey. Those hints are a trick. Up to this point, Abdias seems like a sort of moral tale, perhaps a relative of the Arabian Nights, and the events, if not the details, are predictable. In Europe, though, the story of Abdias and his daughter becomes something else entirely, and I would like to meet the perceptive reader who sees it coming.

Stifter is searching after The Sublime in small things. The same force that causes a volcano to erupt causes a pan of milk to boil over, Stifter wrote, and who is to say that the boiling milk is less important. Stifter wants the reader to be astonished and amazed by that pot of milk, by the extraordinary forces underlying ordinary life.

Stifter is a strange writer, in the line of Jean Paul and E. T. A. Hoffmann, but unique, weird. I was led to him, as I suspect many readers are now, by W. G. Sebald. Stifter has this in common with Sebald - I finish a book by either and think "Wait, what is this?" They defy categories.

I'll keep rereading Stifter and see if I can pin him down a little.


  1. I added Stifter to my TBR list when some reviewers (Sontag?) likened Sebald to him, but I haven't got to him yet. Do you know if Sebald writes anywhere about Stifter? BTW, NYRB Classics is re-issuing the Moore-Mayer translation of Stifter's Rock Crystal with an Introduction by Auden. On the publicity website they quote Thomas Mann calling Stifter "one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature." That site address is http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?usca_p=t&product_id=8331

  2. Sebald did write about Stifter. I will direct you to the expert at Vertigo: http://tinyurl.com/5kwvao.

    It's a book of essays on Austrian writers - you know Hebel, Hebbel, and so on. All the favorites. I haven't read it, 'cause it's in German. When meine Frau read it years ago, she said something like "Here's a book that will never be translated."

    I'm mildly excited about the NYRB "Rock Crystal". Not too excited, though - that would be un-Stifterian.

  3. A 23-year-old Austrian, Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker, has just written a book which reviewers are comparing to Stifter. It's about a farmer in the 1950s who marries a city girl and the sad results. The author hadn't actually read Stifter before writing (if he had, he'd have been much older when he started). But his response was: "„Das hat mich dann sehr gewundert, gefreut – und auch irgendwie zerkracht. Ich hab' mir gedacht, wenn du das schon vorher gelesen hättest, da hättest du dir Arbeit gespart. Was willst du denn jetzt noch – Stifter hat ja alles längst gesagt!“
    "It [Stifter's work] really astonished me and I enjoyed it. I though, if you'd read that beforehand, you'd have saved yourself some work. But what do you want -- Stifter's already said everything long ago!"

    I'll translate the Stifter-like novel in a later post. Kidding.

  4. My translation omitted a phrase I had trouble with -- a classic translator's ploy! The sentence should read: ""It [Stifter's work] really astonished me, I enjoyed it and it also kind of knocked me flat." It makes me think of Stifter as a sort of teetering boulder perched on an Austrian Alp. Writers tiptoe around him in fear of being crushed.