Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stifter's weirdos - The Recluse - an uncanny thing flitting around our ears

Adalbert Stifter's stories - all six that I've read, at least - feature eccentric bachelors and semi-bachelors. The priest in Limestone, the hypochondriac in The Forest Path, the gentleman farmer in Brigitta. In Tourmaline and Abdias, the recluses live with their daughters, but the wife is long gone. And The Recluse - there he is in the title*.

Young Victor is leaving his foster mother to go to his first job in another city. First, though, he must visit his uncle, who lives in an abandoned monastery, on an island, in a lake, in the mountains. He requires that Victor walk than take a coach. He's an odd bird:

"Today Victor's uncle was wearing the loose-fitting gray coat in which he had appeared yesterday at the iron grille in the garden. He was now standing on a stool with a stuffed bird in his hand, removing the dust from it with a paintbrush." (p. 221, tr. David Luke)

Victor spends most of his time, and most of the story, exploring, with his dog, the house and monastery and island, and swimming in the lake. The uncle and nephew get along poorly at first, then worse, and finally better.

Near the end, the uncle finally tells Victor why he wanted to see him, in a long scene that mostly consists of the uncle's speech. It's set during a thunderstorm (a little pathetic fallacy to set the mood). Some samples of the uncle:

"[N]o one can give real help, profound help, unless from time to time he can do a deed of force, like hurling a boulder.

So if you started work now, the kind of work you could do would at best be work of no use to anyone, and yet it would slowly eat the life out of you.

[O]ld age is a moth in the dusk, an uncanny thing flitting around our ears."

There are several pages of this, some of which is more directly related to the story than this bit. This specific scene is one of the roots of Thomas Bernhard's novels. See his Gargoyles for an extremely close resemblance, if I'm remembering it correctly. It's sounds a bit like Nietzsche, too, doesn't it?

The Recluse is my favorite of these Stifter stories, although I'm not entirely sure why. The blend, seems right, I guess. The mountain landscape is a continual presence in the story, and the descriptions of the mountains or atmospheric effects are generally quite good. The sweetness of the story is smartly balanced over a sort of unsettling sadness.

Here's the last sentence, which strongly reminds me of W. G. Sebald - remember that the story has what most people would call a genuinely happy ending:

"And yet even if he has left other traces of his existence, they too will be obliterated, as all earthly things are obliterated - and when at last everything, even all that is greatest and most joyful, perishes utterly in the ocean of passing days, he will perish the sooner, because everything in him is already declining while he still has breath and while he still has life." (p. 276)

* Pushkin Press will soon issue a new translation, titled The Bachelors. I read the David Luke translation, Limestone and Other Stories.


  1. Thanks for these posts on Stifter, I suppose at this time of year perhaps I should be reading Rock Crystal or Jewel, but am waiting for a copy of The Recluse from my local library and am really looking forward to reading my first Stifter.

  2. My pleasure! I am now reading a Stifter novel that is sort of The Recluse expanded to preposterous length.