Thursday, February 21, 2013

Then I thought of my marble – how remarkable marble is! - the marble theme in Stifter's Indian Summer

After all of my (accurate) complaints about the limits of the art of Indian Summer, I want to enjoy a couple of examples of Stifter at his best.  I mean his best just as a prose writer, a novelist, not where he fits in a strange tradition or what larger ideas he is trying to convey.  I will get to all of that later.  Don’t try to stop me.

I’m going to return to the Greek statue I mentioned yesterday.  Here is the narrator, Heinrich’s, first glimpse of it, by candlelight; remember that he is visiting the ideal Rose House for the first time.

We were in the beautiful marble corridor; a staircase of the same marble led up from it…  In the middle of the stairway where there was a landing like an enlarged area or stairwell, I could see a figure made of white marble standing on a pedestal.  By a few lightning flashes that just then illuminated the room the head and shoulders of the figure glowed ruddier than it would have with just our candles…  (50)

Heinrich sees the sculpture again the next day as while on his tour of the house.

He led me to the stairway where the white statue was…  serene white daylight shone down upon it, illuminating the head and shoulders in a gentle splendor.  Not only the steps but also the side walls of the stairwell were made of marble.  (53)

A powerful distraction is through the next door, a room made entirely of marble, “a veritable collection of marble, ”with no furnishings but just doors and windows, open so that “the hall was also filled with the fragrance of roses” (54).

At this point in his Bildung, he is incapable of seeing the statue well.  Notice that he does not identify the subject of the sculpture, even though even by the faintest light he instantly identifies its material.  The scientific sensibility of the young geologist is well developed, but not his aesthetic sense.  When he returns home, Heinrich tells his family about the wonders of the Rose House:

I was able to describe the marble exactly and the antique furniture almost…  I was able to say less about the carvings, not much about the books either, least of all, actually practically nothing, about the statues and paintings. (108)

I mentioned yesterday that Heinrich’s mid-novel encounter with the statue during yet another lightning storm is used as a sort of test of his artistic education.  After 160 pages of Bildung, he finally truly sees the sculpture (“it seemed quite different to me,” 214).  He finally describes it in detail, its subject (a young woman), form, and effect on him (“I gazed enraptured at the figure, watching the reddish flashes and the grayish white color alternating several times,” 215).

The sexual overtones of Heinrich suddenly noticing a beautiful woman are reinforced by an earlier scene featuring a different marble statue of a woman, this one at the mansion of the young woman with whom he will later fall in love and marry.  That other, lesser, sculpture somehow prepares his understanding of the better one.

I wonder how many other carefully placed incidental mentions of the statue I missed because I, like Heinrich, did not realize until the middle of the book that it was meaningful.  In fact, an entire marble theme runs through the novel.  “Then I thought of my marble – how remarkable marble is!” Heinrich says as he surveys his geological specimen collection (191).  The love affair is conducted in the shadow of one of the statues, the wedding dinner takes place in that amazing marble room, etc., etc.  I am not going to trace it all out, not this time.  It is Advanced Novel Writing, and a sight to behold.


  1. Whoops!

    "I was able to say less about the carvings, not much about the books either, least of all, actually practically nothing, about the statues and paintings." could he not know more about the books if he hadn't opened and read them? Does this man judge a book by its cover? Not something Stifter would approve of, I'd have thought.

  2. Do you mind if I delete the first comment? I suppose not. Thus the "Whoops."

    It is possible to describe the contents of a book collection without having read the books in the collection.

    "A catalogue of the collection was in its drawer. We did not discuss the subject range of these books during this rather general tour of the house." (57)

    I want to encourage responses, even if anonymous, but the spammers have gotten good enough that I cannot shake my fear that I am replying to a robot. Surely not.

    The room with the paintings follows the library on the tour - "they were hung so closely together that you couldn't see any part of the wall between them" (like the roses outside the house). So the interesting thing here, actually, is that Heinrich's artistic education is at a point where even seeing the paintings is no help. He can say more about the books he has not read - he can judge their covers! - than the paintings he has not really seen.