Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The most boring and mendacious author in the whole of German literature - beginning Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer

For very long stretches of his prose Stifter is an unbearable chatterbox, he has an incompetent and, which is most despicable, a slovenly style and he is moreover, in actual fact, the most boring and mendacious author in the whole of German literature.  (Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters, 1985, tr. Ewald Osers, p. 35)

So there is one view, admittedly that of a fictional character, of Adalbert Stifter.  It contains some truth. His first novel, Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer, 1857), is dull, mannered, distant, completely devoid of humor, virtually devoid of story, and free of characters who might be described as naturalistic.

For example, dull:

“Once I took the trouble of measuring the area of this hill as far as it is planted in grain so I could make a prediction about the average amount that would be harvested in one year.  I based my calculations on our previous harvests as well as those of our neighbors.  I couldn’t believe the figures; I wouldn’t have even dreamed that they were so large.  If you are interested, I’ll show you this study which is kept in our house.” (45)

The novel could be even more dull, I suppose – Stifter could spend several pages describing that study of grain yield; thankfully, it is never mentioned again, although the characters do spend a great deal of time looking at drawings of buildings and furniture.


We finally learned from each other, spending many joyous and loving hours with the zither.  (208)

Sorry, that is actually an example of humor, assuming you find the word “zither” as inherently humorous as I do.  The narrator spends a fair amount of time playing the zither and commissioning beautiful hand-crafted zithers.  This is the voice, by the way, of the main character and narrator of the novel.  Hundreds of pages, much like that.


“Thank you, Mother,” her son replied, “you are so kind, Mother dear; I already know what it is and shall do exactly as Foster Father decides.”

“That will be good,” she answered.  (142)

Everyone talks in this way.  They have to, because a defining feature of the novel is that there is no drama or even conflict of any sort.  Everyone says the words they ought to say and takes the actions they ought to take.  In a pattern typical with Stifter, for example in his novellas Limestone (1848) and Brigitta (1844), the events in the present of the story are a sort of ideal resolution of a conflict from the past, a conflict the existence of which is only revealed at the end of the story.

Imagine how this works when the text of the novel is eight times longer than the novellas.  The tension is almost unbearable.  When will something happen?  Something has to happen, doesn’t it?  Or was Stifter writing some kind of expectation-crushing 19th century avant garde anti-novel?

He was not, but it took me a long time to understand what he was doing.  As my understanding grew, so did my enthusiasm for this quiet, odd novel.  Indian Summer turns out to be a – what is a good metaphor – a foundation stone of Austrian literature.  Austrian culture, perhaps.  That grump in the Bernhard novel also calls Stifter “an author I myself had always so enormously revered that it became more like artistic addiction,” at least before he finally read him “accurately and radically.” (34)

That sets a good example for me.  I am going to write about Stifter and Indian Summer until I run out of things to say.

All quotations are from the 1985 Wendell Frye translation, which I still, after 470 dense pages, can hardly believe exists.


  1. 470 dense pages of Stifter? So that's about two hours of real-time action I take it...

  2. I read this in university and was completely won over by it. I felt it was a novel of unbearably restrained passion (though I know the quotes don't show that at all!). The most memorable bit of the reading experience was that I began it on the first day of the Gulf War, and what with it being part of my university course and 600 pages of dense German and I was kind of busy, I finished it the evening before the ceasefire was called. When I told my supervisor this he said, 'How can you live with yourself?' Yup, me and Stifter summoned the Gulf War into being. Reading can be a very dangerous occupation.

  3. That passage about grain actually endears me to the novel.

  4. Heh heh heh. You said "zither". Zither zither zither. Heh heh.

  5. Years of action, actually, Tony. A thorough plot summary would go on for pages. Come to think of it, some of the novel is written like a thorough plot summary. The narrator packs his crates, hires a wagon, sends his baggage ahead to the next town, where he arranges for a room at an inn, etc. etc. Yet this kind of obsessive chronicling actually turns out to be meaningful!

    There is a single fascinating paragraph that demonstrates this principle perfectly. Two years crammed into in one paragraph, two years that should be eventful, but with the events omitted as unimportant. I will come back to this paragraph - it is genuinely anti-novelistic.

    Miguel, if you liked that, there is more, boy is there ever more. litlove's 600 pages must be closer to a standard notion of the novel's length. The English edition has oddly large pages.

    litlove, I remember you mentioning that you had read this novel. Good, I thought, at least one person will know what I am talking about! "Unbearably restrained passion" is accurate - it is a paradoxical side effect of Stifter's insistence on calm perfection. What are these perfect people trying to conceal or repress?

    "zither" is funny, right? And then I read that sentence and picture the earnest young zitherests zithering away on their zithers - that's even funnier. The zither theme turns out to have a meaningful payoff, too.

    1. This is what I first think of when I read zither:


    2. Ah ha, yes, the Austrians and their zithers. That (the Third Man theme) is likely the best-known piece of zither music in the U.S., at least.

      I have a hard time matching it up with the music described in the novel.

  6. I love the condemnation combination of "boring and mendacious," Tom. Does Stifter lie to become even more boring or does the mendaciousness operate independently of its putative entertainment value? Or is the Bernhard character on to something else that he only hints at? Hmm...

  7. I would not want to say that I really follow the Bernhard character's argument, such as it is. Part - maybe most -of the condemnation of Stifter is not really about Stifter, I am sure of that, at least.

  8. This has been on my "should I bother" list for years. It is best example of the worst genre of German prose. I have always had a morbid curiosity about it, but not so morbid as to venture it's length. However your description of it as "dull, mannered, distant, completely devoid of humor, virtually devoid of story, and free of characters who might be described as naturalistic" seems to rouse my interest again.

  9. Perhaps as I shift to praise of Stifter - or at least less trivial criticism - I will suppress your interest again.

    By the end - maybe the middle - I was sure the novel was worth the time. But I also sympathize with your phrase "worst genre of German prose." Wilhelm Meister, Green Henry - boy, could these books use a dose of Dickens sometimes, a relaxation of the Ideal.

  10. 'dull, mannered, distant, completely devoid of humor, virtually devoid of story, and free of characters who might be described as naturalistic...
    ...As my understanding grew, so did my enthusiasm for this quiet, odd novel.'

    There's damning with faint praise and praising with faint damns, but this is the first instance I've ever seen of praising with extreme damns.

  11. It is a perverse thing, I admit, but while I can recommend the sloppy, shoddy, shallow Lady Audley's Secret to lots of people, I would recommend Indian Summer, a masterpiece, to almost no one - and many of those to whom I would recommend it have left comments right here!

    Stifter operates in a different aesthetic world than most novelists, now or then (although not so different than many other great German-language writers). Most people would get nowhere with Indian Summer.

  12. Challenge accepted - I'll have to get to this at some point soon ;)

  13. You have read Wilhelm Meister, so you know what you are getting into. And you have sampled Stifter's novellas. You are ready for the challenge!