Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stifter's landscapes - a look at Limestone - there was nothing there but lots of small hills

Limestone, or the Poor Benefactor ( 1848/1853) is something close to typical Stifter. It's narrated by a surveyor, assigned to map an isolated region (of Austria, I guess), known for its strange landscape:

"there was nothing there but lots of small hills, every hill consisting of bare grey limestone, not broken up into jagged pieces as is often the case with this sort of stone, but divided up into wide round shapes, with a long extended sand-bank all around them." (Penguin, p. 200)

The description of the geography is developed in detail throughout the novella's fifty pages, to the extent that I was surprised to learn that this distinctive place is an invention of Stifter's. The semi-scientific descriptions of nature remind one of Goethe in The Italian Journey or Poetry and Truth, of his digressions on geology and drainage basins, of his insistence that he is not digressing at all, that understanding the geography of a place is the foundation of all true knowledge. Stifter agreed, even when the place is made up. He does this in every story.

This would be a good place to insert Stifter's long passage about how thunderstorms form, but it's too boring. "[T]he air at ground level becomes so heated and so rarefied that the heavier air higher up subsides," etc., etc. If interested, see p. 213. There's a price to be paid for putting too much science in your fiction.

The surveyor meets a self-denying, mysterious priest. His self-denial is mystery number one - he sleeps on a bench, with his Bible for a pillow, for example. Yet he owns, and wears, linens of the finest quality. Despite his obvious poverty, he has been robbed three times. Who lives on the second floor of the priest's house? Why does the priest entrust the surveyor with a copy of his will?

Limestone is really the story of this priest, who is bascially a saint, a strange man, but a saint. He tells the surveyor about his childhood, the ruin of the family business, an early love affair, his life as a priest in a poor place. The novella ends after the priest's death, so there are no loose ends.

Most of the mysteries turn out to be no such thing. This is a common Stifterian device - he gives equal emphasis to a large number of specific details, some important to the plot, some with symbolic value, and some nearly irrelevant. Another, ineffable mystery is revealed - how does this combination of the past, and the landscape, and the priest's own odd ideas, create the saint? That's the story, really.

One image from this story really stuck with me since I read it ten or so years ago. A group of schoolchildren is fording a flooded river. The surveyor is watching them:

"When they were ready, one boy went down off the bridge and carefully entered the water. He was followed by the others. They paid no heed to their trousers but went deep into the water in them, and the little skirts of the girls floated around their legs. To my astonishment I now also saw out in the middle of the water a larger, black-clad figure, which was none other than the poor priest from Kar. He was standing almost up to his hips in the water. I had not seen him before nor been aware of him entering the water, because I had kept my eyes turned towards the bridge, only looking straight ahead when the children were walking towards where I was standing. All the children went towards the priest and after they had spent a while speaking to him, they turned towards the bank on which I was standing. Since they walked with different degrees of care, they spread out on their way through the water, appearing like black dots on the shining surface and arriving individually at the spot where I stood." (p. 216)

This is hardly a magical piece of prose writing. There's no metaphorical language until the very end. It's sincere, and undramatic. It's also quietly strange. That strangeness is the heart of Stifter.

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