Monday, February 22, 2010

This tongue tells us almost with intelligible words how good and how happy and how peaceful everything is - I found another Adalbert Stifter story

How exciting.  I came across an Adalbert Stifter story that I had not known was available in English.  It's "Granite" also known as "The Pitch-Burner" (1849/ 1852).  A translation by Jeffrey L. Sammons can be found in The German Library, Volume 37, German Novellas of Realism I (1989).

I can hear your clucks of dismay.  "You had not read German Novellas of Realism I?  Were you born in a hayloft?  Just look at that title - German Novellas of Realism I!"  I know, I know.

The story itself is perfectly typical Stifter, perhaps ur-Stifter.  A Stifter-like boy tells us about the day he got in trouble for smearing pitch all over the house, and how his kindly grandfather helped him out.  Sweet, sentimental Stifter.  One way the grandfather helps tiny Adelbert is by telling him an old story about their region, a story about the plague, and children who lose their parents and wander through the woods, eating nuts and committing saintly acts.  Weird, weird Stifter.

The grandfather links the old story, horrific as it is, to specific features in the landscape.  He in fact begins by having the grandson name each feature:

"That is the lake forest, where there are dark and deep lake waters."

And still to the right of the Lake Forest?"

"That is the Boulder Stone and the Chair Forest."

"And farther right?"

"That is Tusset Forest."  (p. 15)

I don't mean to suggest this is any special prose - a lot of Stifter's writing is pretty ordinary - but to highlight a Stifterian method, here performed more systematically than I have ever seen.  The exact details of the landscape, real or imagined, must be precisely identified.  Then humans are set within the landscape.  The grandfather tells his grandson about the hay-gleaners in the forest meadows, and the fungi collectors, and the pitch-burners:  "You see, these columns of smoke all come from men who do their jobs in the forest" (15).  If Stifter is a nature writer, he's an odd one.  It's the connections between people and nature that he writes about again and again.

I don't expect to make any converts to Stifter, so I will leave "Granite" behind here.  I was converted to him by W. G. Sebald, who really taught me to read Stifter.  Sebald directed me to Stifter's landscapes, and his quiet uncanniness.  Stifter's sweetness and placidity then seem less like flaws or outdated modes than veils of his real aesthetic purpose.

I wish someone would translate some more Adalbert Stifter stories for me.  "Granite" was as good, or at least as Stifterian, as any I have found.

The title quotation (p. 18) is torn from its context, a bit.  That tongue is of a bell, not a storyteller.


  1. Ooh! Ooh! I read this years ago - gosh how I wish I could remember anything about it. But I do want to put my hand up as a steadfast member of the 'I Heart Adalbert' fan club. Thank you for bringing a little Stifter into my very cold, snowy life.

  2. I admit that I haven't read any Stifter, even with my 100% Bavarian genes. But Austerlitz is on my TBR shelf, so maybe Sebald will inspire me to delve deeper into German lit.

  3. litlove, have you read Der Nachsommer / Indian Summer by any chance? I'm thinking about it but am afraid that effects that work in fifty page doses might be too much of a good thing at five hundred pages.

    Anyway, it's good to hear from another Stifter fan. He's not quite like anyone else.

    Rose - one common side effect of reading Sebald - it happened to me - is a search for precursors, for answers. Sebald is also not quite like anyone else, so I was almost desperate to try to figure out who he was like. Fotrunately, he provided clues. He led me to Stifter.

    I was thinking of warning against Austerlitz as a first Sebald, but I just opened it to the second page and was confronted with the eyes of an owl and a lemur. Yeah, Austerlitz, go for it!

    Meine Frau told me that Sebald had an extremely strong Bavarian accent, so he's perfect for you.

  4. I love Sebald, well at least Rings of Saturn which is the only Sebald I've read so far but will soon be untertaking Vertigo. If Stifter is Sebald-ish then I will definitely have to give him a go.

  5. The strange thing is that Sebald makes Stifter seem Sebaldian, rather than vice versa. The stronger organism envelops the weaker.

  6. I have indeed read Der Nachsommer. It was one of the greatest books on my university course, although I can't recall it in any detail now. I'd read it again, but I'd need a translation these days, and I'm not sure one exists. But I remember I loved it.

    One story about it, though, I began reading it on the day the first Gulf War was declared, and what with its 600 dense pages and other commitments, it took me a couple of months to get through. I finished it, and the ceasefire was called on the war at 6 am the following morning. I told my supervisor about this and he said to me: 'how can you live with yourself?' But I hasten to add that he was teasing.

  7. litlove - what an odd reading story, that timing!

    There is an English translation - I am sure I will get to it soon, now, after reading your response.

  8. Hi Amateur Reader, interested un the Sebald-Stifter connection - have you read his essays on Stifter or how did he "teach" you about it? Or did you study at UEA?! I'd also like to track down English translations of Stifter for a project - any hints welcone!

  9. Sebald taught me to read Stifter in the usual, old-fashioned way. I read Sebald's books, and they helped me understand Stifter's books (and vice versa). Books are always teaching me to read other books. That is a good part of the pleasure of literature.

    I did meet Sebald once, but that had nothing to do with Stifter.

    I hope I will be able to read Sebald's essays on Stifter someday. There were rumors that they were being translated, but the book has never appeared.

    When I am looking to see what translations exist, I usually check the online catalog of a big research library, like the University of Chicago or Harvard. They do not have everything, but they get pretty close. Still, I somehow missed German Novellas of Realism I, at least until I found it.

    Stifter is a bit of a pain to search for because all of the Colored Stone stories have at least two names.

    Good luck with the project.