At one point I was seriously considering reading Witiko, Stifter’s six hundred page book set in medieval Bohemia, for this year’s German Literature Month but in the end I plumped for this shorter book, a collection of stories and prose which was published in 2016 by Ariadne Press in California. The contents of Tales of Old Vienna and Other Prose were translated by Alexander Stillmark who also provides an introduction. This collection contains five short stories and four short prose works including a personal account of an eclipse of the sun in 1842. The first story in the collection is The Condor (1839), Stifter’s first published story, which is quite interesting initially but one which soon becomes a pretty standard nineteenth century story of doomed love. The shortest story, at only five pages, is Confidence an entertaining tale of unwitting parricide followed by suicide. But the bulk of the book consists of the three stories: The Ancient Seal (Das alte Siegel, 1844), Tourmaline (Turmalin, 1851) and Granite (Granit, 1848). Tourmaline and Granite were also published in the Coloured Stones (Bunte Steine, 1853) two-volume collection which also includes the sublime Rock Crystal (Bergkristall, 1845). These two stories are easily on a par with Rock Crystal as they share the same calm, natural, modern tone that Stifter used in that work.
The Ancient Seal is an interesting tale in which a boy, Hugo, is raised by his father to value self-reliance and honour above everything else. At the age of twenty-one his father urges his son to leave him and make his way in the world. This is during the period when the German states were occupied by Napoleon’s forces; Hugo, under the influence of his father, is determined to join the army so that he will be prepared when Germany is ready to rid itself of its occupiers. On his father’s death Hugo inherits an ancient seal which bears the words: servandum tantummodo honos, or, maintaining only honour. One day Hugo gets a mysterious letter from someone requesting a meeting at a church the following day. He meets an old man who doesn’t explain why he’s requested the meeting but asks Hugo to meet him regularly at the same place and time—only Hugo doesn’t see the man again. Instead he becomes intrigued by a woman who visits the church at the same time as he and who, although dressed as an old woman, appears to Hugo to be much younger. Over a period of time Hugo ends up making her acquaintance; he can visit her but only at certain times of the day and he must not enquire about her life, past or present. They begin to meet more regularly and both are obviously in love with each other. And then one day Celeste, the mysterious woman, is gone. He makes enquiries with the owner of the house, returns to the church each day but as he knows nothing about her—he is even unsure if the name she gave him is her real name—he gives up hope.
Hugo thought that it simply could not be otherwise; he would surely somewhere see that beautiful, beloved face that he had daily seen for so long!
But he did not see it.
After his search had gone on for some months, after winter had already cast its snowflakes and its blanket of ice over the city, he gave up his efforts. He sat in his room and held his lovely, weary head in both his hands.
Well, does he find her again? I thought I knew how this story was going to end but I was quite mistaken as Stifter provides us with just about the most anti-Romantic ending possible as Hugo is more concerned with ‘maintaining honour’ than love. Hugo is a damn fool but I’m unclear if that is what Stifter wants us to believe.
Tourmaline is set in Vienna and begins by describing ‘a fellow who was something of an oddity’; he was about forty years old, lived in an apartment with his young attractive wife and their baby daughter and had acquired the nickname of ‘the pensioner’. The walls of the main room were covered in pictures of great men. In order to view these pictures he had had chairs fitted with castors and ladders, also on castors, to see those pictures higher up. The pensioner becomes friends with an actor called Dall who visits regularly. Dall ends up having an affair with the pensioner’s wife and when the pensioner finds out he flies into a rage and intends to confront Dall, but Dall has made himself scarce. Then one day the pensioner’s wife disappears—she just walks out and doesn’t return. Then not long after his wife’s disappearance the pensioner also disappers with his daughter leaving all of his possessions, except for a flute and money, in the flat. All sorts of stories are spread around about the fate of the family but eventually the contents of the apartment are sold at auction and the apartment is let out to a new tenant. The story continues a few years later with the narrator retelling the story of a female friend. One day this woman spots an odd couple in the street outside her house.
For as I looked down to see what sort of people were about, I caught sight of a strange couple. A man of rather advanced years, judging by his back which was turned towards me, dressed in a thin, yellow swanskin jacket, pale blue trousers, heavy shoes and a little round hat, as he walked down the street. He was leading a girl, dressed no less oddly than himself in a brown cope which was draped about her shoulders almost like a toga. But the girl had so large a head, enough to startle anyone, that it kept causing people to stare at it. Both of them went their way at a moderate pace; but both were so clumsy and awkward that it was immediately evident they were not used to Vienna and that they were incapable of behaving like other folk.
Well you can no doubt guess who these odd characters are. The narrator tries to follow them but loses them. In the rest of this wonderful story the narrator eventually meets up with this couple and gets to find out about their past though intriguingly much is left unexplained.
The events of the story Granite take place in Oberplan, Bohemia, which is Stifter’s birthplace. The story begins with a boy sitting on large stone outside his house where he can observe everything that’s going on. This stone has been there for many years and no-one can remember a time when it wasn’t there. One day a ‘man of strange appearance’ turns up wheeling a barrow with a barrel of cart-grease which he would sell to the villagers. Watching this man going about his business is fascinating for the boy.
It so happened I was barefoot, as was often the case, and had pants on which had grown too short over time. Suddenly he looked up at me from his work and said: “Would you like to have your feet greased?” I had always held the man to be a great marvel and felt honoured by his familiarity and so stretched both my feet out to him. He dipped his spoon into the bung-hole, brought it over and drew a long streak down each of my feet. The liquid spread out nicely over the skin, had an exceptionally clear, golden brown colour and wafted its pleasent resinous odour up to me. It gradually spread across and down the curves of my feet.
The boy then proceeds to walk indoors across the newly washed parlour floor much to the horror of his mother who gives him a thrashing and returns indoors to clean up the mess. The boy’s kindly grandfather then slowly and methodically cleans up the boy’s feet, gets him some clean clothes and shoes and takes him out for a walk, probably to get him away from the mother’s wrath. The rest of this calm, beautiful story consists of the boy and the grandfather taking a walk and the grandfather telling the boy a story—a story similar to Rock Crystal. The story goes back to a time when the plague was spreading throughout the country and a family tried to escape it by going higher into the mountains; the only one to survive the plague is a boy who discovers a sickly girl in the briar whom he nurses back to health. It turns out that the grandfather’s story is about the grease-seller’s ancestors and by the time he has finished his story they have returned home where all is now calm and the boy’s mother forgives her son.