‘Indian Summer’ by Adalbert Stifter

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Have you ever wondered what a novel would be like devoid of strife, war, tension, sex, violence, unreliable narrators, internal turmoil, wickedness, redemption, car-chases, gun-fights, zombies etc. Well, Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer is such a novel. ‘So what on Earth can it be about then?’ I hear you ask. The short reply is that it is a idyllic, nineteenth-century, middle-class bildungsroman. In fact, it is so idyllic that I don’t believe at any point in the novel do any of the characters say, or think, badly of any other character and I can only recall one point near the end of the novel, where one elderly character is recounting the story of a love affair from his past, when there was a degree of tension between characters. For those of us who have grown up with Dickens or Dostoyevsky this type of novel can be a bit of a surprise and even though I was familiar with a few of Stifter’s other works I wasn’t really prepared for this work.

Stifter_Indian-Summer-fcXC-700pxThe book was originally published in 1857 as Der Nachsommer. The English translation was by Wendell Frye and was published in 1999 by ‘Peter Lang Publishers’. It is quite a long book at 478 pages, especially as the book is larger than the usual novel size; it is more like a 700-800 page novel – so be warned! I’m not trying to put anyone off reading this book, because I really enjoyed reading it, but I think that a large portion of people will really dislike it. Indeed, in his introduction, Wendell Frye says that ‘Der Nachsommer had a mixed reception from the beginning; Hebbel offered the crown of Poland to whomever could read it through while Nietzsche pronounced it and Keller’s Der Grüne Heinrich the two greatest novels of the Nineteenth Century.’ And I believe that the gap between those that will like it and those that won’t will have increased enormously since then.

So the story largely concerns Heinrich and his intellectual development as he becomes a man. Although the blurb on the back of the book named the narrator he’s not actually given a name until the end of the book. The narrator is also vague about the name of another main character, Baron von Risach, throughout most of the book. It’s as if the narrator, and therefore the author also, would like to do away with such egotistical and individualistic things such as names. The novel starts by describing the ordered family life of Heinrich; his father works long hours but spends his spare time collecting and admiring art, furniture, coins etc., whilst his mother is enthusiastic about housekeeping. He also has a younger sister, Klotilde. When Heinrich turns eighteen he is allowed to draw money from his inheritance from a deceased uncle. Heinrich decides to pursue his interests in science and mathematics and soon settles on geology as his main interest especially as he likes to go hiking in the mountains. To give you a taste of the narrative style, here is a quote from the early part of the novel.

Even as a boy I had had a great liking for the reality of things as they actually exist in all Creation and in the orderly course of human life. This was often a source of bother for the people around me. I was constantly asking the names of things, where they came from, what they were used for, and couldn’t be content with an answer that just put me off. I couldn’t stand it either if someone made an object into something other than what it really was. This was particularly true when I felt that the object had become worse for the change. I was sad when they chopped down an old tree in the yard and cut it into firewood. The pieces were no longer a tree and since they were rotten couldn’t be made into a chair or a table or a cross-bar or a saw horse.

One day whilst hiking in the Alps Heinrich notices an approaching thunderstorm and seeks shelter in a nearby house on a hill. Heinrich notices, and describes in great detail, that one side of the house is covered in roses of all types and colours. He rings the bell on the gate and an old white-haired man comes out to see him. I’ll quote the encounter and their initial conversation as it is, I feel, a good taste of what will appear to the modern reader as quite a stilted conversational style.

At the sound of the bell a man came out from behind the bushes in the yard and walked toward me. When he was standing in front of me on the inside of the grill fence, I saw that he was bareheaded and had snow white hair. Otherwise, there was nothing remarkable about him, and he had a type of house jacket on, or whatever you might call it, which fitted snugly and extended down almost to his knees. After he had come up, he gazed at me for a moment and then asked, “What would you like, my dear young man?”
  “There’s a thunderstorm coming up”, I answered, “and it will start shortly. As you can see by my knapsack, I am a hiker and am asking that you give me shelter in this house until the rain, or at least the worst part of it is over.”
  “The thunderstorm won’t come”, said the man.
  “It won’t be an hour before it starts”, I replied, “I am very familiar with these hills and also know something about clouds and thunderstorms.”
  “However, in all probability I have been acquainted much longer with the place where we are now standing than you have with any hills since I am much older than you”, he answered, “I too am familiar with its clouds and thunderstorms and know that today no rain will fall on this house, this yard, or this whole area.”
  “Let’s not argue any longer about whether or not a thunderstorm is going to soak this house today”, I said, “if you refuse to open this gate, at least be so kind as to call the master of the house.”
  “I am the master of the house.”

Heinrich is invited in and they further discuss whether there will be a thunderstorm or not. It turns out that the house on the hill does escape the storm even though it rages in the surrounding area. The white-haired man turns out to be the Baron von Risach and the house is called the ‘Asperhof’. Risach shows Heinrich around his house and, as the novel develops, becomes a mentor to Heinrich. For the rest of the novel Heinrich shuttles between his parents’ home, the Asperhof and the house of some friends of Risach, the ‘Sternenhof’; he has many discussions with Risach on geology, art, illustrating, furniture restoring, statues, marble-flooring, roses, church restorations, nature and many other material things; I believe only once does the conversation turn to more spiritual matters. There is also quite a lot of zither-playing!

By the end of Part Two (of Three) Heinrich has become romantically involved with Natalie, the daughter of the owner of the Sternenhof and the novel concentrates on their future life together. Near the beginning of Part Three, not long after Heinrich and Natalie have declared their love for each other, there is a beautiful description of the wonder of the night sky:

How strange it was, I thought, that when the tiny though thousandfold beauties of the Earth disappeared and the immeasurable beauty of outer space rose in the distant quiet splendor of light, man and the greatest number of other creatures were supposed to be asleep! Was it because we were only permitted to catch a fleeting glimpse of those great bodies and then only in the mysterious time of a dream world, those great bodies about which man had only the slightest knowledge but perhaps one day would be permitted to examine more closely? Or was it permitted for the great majority of people to gaze at the starry firmament only in brief, sleepless moments so that the splendor wouldn’t become mundane, so that the greatness wouldn’t be diminished?

The novel ends with further revelations, especially from Risach, who reveals much about his early life, which helps us understand the title of the novel.

The book is in three parts and I ended up reading each part with a significant break inbetween. Although I really enjoyed the book I think I would find it difficult reading it in one go as it can get a bit suffocating. I must admit when I reached the end I couldn’t help cynically saying to myself ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ I think this says much about myself and the cynical age we live in. I believe that to enjoy the book one needs to suspend as much of this cynicism as is possible – which I managed to do for most of the book. If you’re unsure about reading this and have not encountered any of Stifter’s work then I would thoroughly recommend Rock Crystal, which has to be one of my favourite books.

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Stifter, Adalbert

19 responses to “‘Indian Summer’ by Adalbert Stifter

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review! I think you would definitely have to be in the right mood to read this, and also splitting it up is probably sensible. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t suspend our modern, cynical outlook and just enjoy beautiful descriptive writing for itself!

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    • Jonathan

      Thanks Kaggsy. At its best it’s brilliant. I’ve grown to love good descriptive writing over the years and this has it in spades. It may sound dull, but the bits where the narrator is discussing furniture restoration with the Baron was very interesting – it was a bit like an Antiques Roadshow episode. 🙂

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  2. yodcha

    Excellent post. This is a new to me writer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

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    • Jonathan

      Thanks yodcha. Certainly try Rock Crystal – it’s readily available and it’s a quick read. You might be able to squeeze a review in to GLM4 🙂 I’d be interested to know what you think of it.

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  3. I believe I also saw a film adaptation of this at some point… A bit too ornate, too detailed for me, but I enjoyed him in small portions.

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    • Jonathan

      A film! Really? That would be ‘interesting’.

      Personally I think the book is too long and could have done with some severe editing as the character just travels between his parents’ house and the Asperhof again and again for much of the middle of the book…but then it’s supposed to be a ‘slow’ read.

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  4. Great review. This author is new to me, so I might take a look at Rock Crystal (which sounds as if it would be a good intro to his work).

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  5. Wonderful review, Jonathan! I think I will like this book. It does sound a bit unrealistic though, as you have said, a bit un-German, if you ask me 🙂 But I love books which have long conversations and which talk about nice things like science and art. I will add it to my ‘to be read’ list. I will also look for ‘Rock Crystal’ as it is one of your favourite books. Thanks for introducing me to a wonderful new writer.

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    • Jonathan

      I only discovered Adalbert Stifter a year or so ago as well Vishy. He is a wonderful writer but I can certainly understand that he wouldn’t be for everyone. Indian Summer takes place within a very idealist setting. I needed to have a break between the three parts though.

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  6. How wonderful to see another reader of this book (Vishy pointed me here)! I read it a couple of years ago and constructed a 3 week series of posts around it. So you can see I thought it a hugely useful book,

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    • Jonathan

      Thanks Tom. When I finished Indian Summer I wanted to read more about it, others’ views, biographical info etc. So I’ll check out your posts at some point. I noticed a couple of books as well that may be interesting reading – books by Martin Swales and Eric A Blackall. Have you read either?
      I don’t often like reading critical work of books that I’ve enjoyed as I usually find it sullies my enjoyment of the work itself, but I may take the risk in this case.

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    • I did not look at either of those studies. They both look good. If I ever dare to read Witiko, I should have one of those books at my side. I am sure I will need assistance. The fact is that some of what Stifter is doing, and some of the culture he assumes, has become a bit alien. Not as distant as The Tale of Genji, but moving that direction.

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      • Jonathan

        Yes, Witiko may be a bit too demanding.

        I found that what might alienate people about ‘Indian Summer’ is that Heinrich and Risach are scientists, or at least have scientific interests. In today’s world science and art are often quite separate and I view the scientific outlook as still quite positive, at least in comparison to much of art.

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  7. Pingback: Falling | Views from the Edge

  8. shai

    does anyone have a digital copy of this book? i would like to read it

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I haven’t seen a digital copy in English, only the expensive paperback copies. I managed to get it from my library before they decided to get rid of it.

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  9. Dear Jonathan – I spent a year with breaks reading Indian Summer and found each of your insights and responses to other readers to match my own. It has been both a difficult read and most satisfying one, helped by finishing it in the High Sierras in a beautiful forest that so closely resembles those that Stifter often traversed. I immediately wanted to read others insights, and yet they are hard to find in translation. I had first read Rock Crystal many years ago and I re-read it every year—few books have such vivid or beautiful descriptions of nature, or the ability to tell a story in which dramatic things nearly happen but never do and instead the beauty of nature carries one along and moments of genuine happiness occur. I have read so much German literature, especially during the holocaust years, and realized how hard it is to write about gentleness and kindness without contrasting it to horrors and infamy.. And yet Stifter is able to and in Indian Summer shows how a young man who one might think of as a bourgeois entitled son of a rich merchant undertakes a life of study and attempting to better himself with thoughtful interaction with others along the way. I had felt so vindicated when discovering that W. G. Sebald also loved Stifter and that another favorite commentator on German Literature, Claudio Magris, had written of Stifter: “In the woodlands life comes into being and is transformed, but with to slow a rhythm as to seem immobile to the single individual, and to give one a sense of the eternal. The gentle law continues through the centuries, seeing to the organization of life according to a wholesome rule, and transferring it slowly to the depths of time.” To me, this is what reading Indian Summer leaves in its wake, and I feel so fortunate to have read it and found others on whom it has had the same effect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Rock Crystal is one of my favourite books as well. I’ve tried to read as much as I can that’s available in English so far. I hadn’t read anything like Indian Summer before and I haven’t since. I enjoyed reading it in sections as it would have been a bit too much reading it in one go.

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