Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stifter, landscape, and The Forest Path - the only sorrow, the only trouble, the only sadness

The Hungarian steppes of Brigitta. The island on the mountain lake in The Recluse. The limestone hills of Limestone. The Saharan ruin followed by the charming Austrian valley (I didn't see that coming) of Abdias. Stifter's stories are all tied directly to a specific landscape. Even Tourmaline, set in a Viennese suburb, includes a lot of specific information about streets and buildings. Stifter treats apartments and houses with similar care - how are the rooms arranged, what is the furniture like?

"A wide white stone lay along the ground and different plants grew along its length. On the left at the rock-face were various stones that had broken off from it, white, yellow, brown, and all sorts of others. Among them stood rust-coloured brambles, single saplings and various other things. Sometimes a butterfly sat on a stoone, to open and sun shimmering wings such as Mr Tiburius had never seen where he came from." (The Forest Path, p. 164, Penguin)

I don't want to claim that Stifter is an especially gifted nature writer. This passage is functional, and little more. There's a lot more where that came from.

What goes on in these landscapes? Very little. I suggested last week that George Eliot risked tedium in spending so much of time establishing her setting, telling us about churning butter and carpentry. Stifter does not risk tedium - he seeks it out; he embraces it. The surveyor in Limestone relates to the priest (and to us), in the most persnickety detail, how he prepares his lunch and drink for his day's surveying. Here is the little bottle of ether which he adds to his thermos to keep his wine cold. The landowner in Brigitta takes his guest on a tour of his estate, showing him all of his important agricultural improvements. The lucky reader also get to take the tour. Abdias, come to think of it, also devotes a little more space than seems necessary to the topic of agricultural improvements.

I don't think I'm exaggerating, but I should also emphasize the stories that are there. Abdias, which I wrote about here, has the forward momentum of a good folk tale. Brigitta has an attack by wolves, which is reasonably exciting.

But here's The Forest Path: A young man, recently orphaned, now wealthy, becomes a neurotic and a hypochondriac. At a spa, he begins walking for his health. For ten pages of a fifty page story, our hero Tiburius is lost in the woods - see above. He falls in love with the forest, and is cured by exercise. Oh, and he meets a girl. They go strawberry picking. Events take their natural course. Eventually. The last sentence: "As I write this, news reaches me that the only sorrow, the only trouble, the only sadness that had clouded the marriage of Maria and Tiburius has been removed - his first child, a lusty crying boy, has been born."

Tiburius's love affair with the forest is palpable, completely convincing. Henry David Thoreau might have written The Forest Path, if he wrote moralistic fiction, and were less original, and more of a sap. The marvels and delights of The Forest Path are small ones.

I said on Monday that Stifter was humorless, which I think is very close to true. The Forest Path, though, is almost funny in places, and good-humored everywhere. After his parents' deaths, Tiburius begins collecting things: pipes and horses and "a collection of famous men whose heads, all in uniform black frames, he intended to decorate the whole building," and something I covet, "his reading desk, which could be screwed up and down so that when he had stood for long enough he could sit down," but he buys things so quickly that his house is mostly full of packing crates (p. 150) This gentle mockery is, as far as I can tell, a rare thing in Stifter.

Those pictures of famous men show up again in Tourmaline. The Limestone priest's fine linens also appear in The Recluse. Odd, odd, odd.


  1. While I've been enjoying the look at an author new to me, I'll admit that this week's posts have not exactly prompted me to go jump on that Stiftermaniabandwagon (all one word in honor of the great German language tradition).

  2. Meine Frau calls Thomas Bernhard "the anchovy of German literature." It follows that Adalbert Stifter is the herring of German literature.