Category Archives: Stifter, Adalbert

‘Witiko’ (Book Three) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

And so, on we go with Book Three of Stifter’s Witiko. Book Two ended with Witiko preparing, over the winter months, for the coming war in the spring. Book Three begins after the recent battle at Mt. Branis in which Prince Wratislaw’s troops have been repelled by Witiko’s forces. Over the next few days Witiko’s forces meet up with Wladislaw(W)’s forces, as well as receiving reinforcements from elsewhere. Witiko renews his oath to Wladislaw(W)’s cause.

   “Witiko,” the duke said, “give me your hand.”
   Witiko extended his hand to the duke; the latter took it and said, “As I press your hand, I am and hope to remain always your friend. Be devoted to me throughout the coming years, if I deserve it.”
   “Your Grace,” Witiko replied, “I came to you because I considered you the rightful duke; I gladly served you because you are are a good duke, and I have grown to love you because you are a just man.”

It is not long before both sides are ready to go to battle again.

Desolation, destruction, annihilation was the order of the day between two peoples who should have been living in harmony under the same ruler.

Wladislaw(W) is, once again, triumphant as the city of Znaim surrenders. They bury the dead and tend to the wounded of both sides. Wladislaw(W) tries to avoid committing any atrocities against the enemy, especially as this is a civil war and he sees both sides as his people. Within a few months all of Moravia is back under Wladislaw(W)’s control.

So, job done! Witiko returns home and visits the construction site of Heinrich’s castle (Heinrich is Witiko’s father-in-law-to-be). Witiko goes aroaming again and brings his mother and family to his home in Pric. Once he has confirmation that he has been enfeoffed with the regions promised to him he begins to construct his own castle, starting with the well. Now he is a lord and will soon own a castle he feels he can formally ask for Bertha’s hand in marriage; so off he goes to see Heinrich. This all takes quite a while, of course, as there are a lot of formal procedures to get through. Bertha, unsurprisingly, agrees to the marriage and they go off for a walk to the stone seats in the meadow where they first met.

   “Here is the spot,” Bertha said.
   “You stood here with the roses,” Witiko said.
   “And you stood over there with the sun shining on the rocks, and then you walked toward me,” Bertha said.
   “I was startled when I saw you wearing the forest roses,” Witiko said, “because in my country they are often revered.”
   “It was fate to take the roses on that day, and we must honor them,” Bertha said.
   “We must honor them,” Witiko replied, “and they will always be a symbol for me.”

But the warring is not quite over. Wladislaw(S) and his supporters make an appeal to Duke Wladislaw(W) that he, Wladislaw(S), should rightfully be the Duke of Bohemia and Moravia, thereby re-hashing the initial succession debate that was voted on and then fought over. After listening to the appeals Wladislaw(W) unsurprisingly rejects them. However, he does not punish them but allows them to retain their lands. There is peace for a while but more trouble is brewing.

Before the leaves of the birches turned yellow and the beeches’ leaves red, the building with its scaffolding rose like a tremendous four cornered tower above the forest visible from far away.

Meanwhile, Witiko’s castle is completed and his marriage to Bertha can proceed. There is a lavish celebration beginning with a ‘courting procession’. There is much feasting and many gifts are exchanged.

   After twelve days of festivities, Witiko’s friends and other guests departed with wishes for his happiness and praises of Bertha and the forest.
   When all were gone, Witiko stood with Bertha on the southern balcony pointing out the meadows and mountains he had told her of on the stones of the lonely meadow near her father’s forest home.

In the new year there is an uprising of princes in Moravia including Konrad von Znaim, Wratislaw and also Wladislaw(W)’s own brother Diepold, who had helped with Wladislaw(W)’s defence of Prague. Events begin to be a bit rushed now in Stifter’s narrative. Konrad von Znaim and Wratislaw are excommunicated, Diepold repents. Wladislaw(W) goes on a crusade (Second Crusade of 1146) but Witiko doesn’t. The narrative turns to Friedrich, Holy Roman Emperor, who is about to embark on an Italian campaign against Milan, which has revolted against his rule. In order to enlist Wladislaw(W)’s help he crowns him as King of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many that object to this but Wladislaw(W) gets his way; I guess it solves the succession problem. They go off to lay siege on Milan and eventually succeed and return triumphant.

So, after nearly 600 pages, or 300,000 words, of Stifter’s Witiko was it really worth reading? The short answer is ‘no’. Its style is so stilted and stylised that it is quite boring to read. Stifter’s other novel, Indian Summer, is similar, but there was a pay off, I felt, as in that novel the descriptions of the houses and landscape were often beautiful, the conversations about art and science were at least interesting and there were different characters, even if they were all of the same type. But in Witiko the prose is flat, almost dead, there are no discernible characters as everyone is the same and all conversations are formal and stiff. The conversation between Witiko and Bertha quote above is about as free as it gets. There are no thoughts, banter, sex, ribaldry, passion, personal opinions or humour…definitely no humour. Presumably the topic itself would be a bit of a problem for many historical novelists but most would, I believe, try to inject some humanity and passion into the narrative; Stifter tries, and succeeds, in sucking out anything of the like so that we are just left with this dried-up husk of a novel—an anti-Romantic historical novel.

I am intrigued enough, though, to wonder what Stifter’s motives were for writing this book, especially as it seems so different from his other novellas, most of which are set in contemporary Germany/Austria. Witiko was originally published as three separate books between 1865 and 1867. As the Prussian-dominated unification of Germany happened in 1871 maybe Stifter was concerned that Bohemia would be incorporated into this united Germany, even though it was still part of the Austrian Empire. Or maybe Stifter was anticipating the break-up of the Austrian Empire and the possibility of an independent state for Bohemia and Moravia—maybe he was trying to supply it with some historical gravitas: See how we ruled by ourselves in the past. My knowledge of this period is too patchy to make any further comments but it would be interesting to read more. Unfortunately I know of no biographies of Stifter available in English and although there are some critical studies of his work available in English they are all pretty expensive. One that I would like to read is Adalbert Stifter And The Idyll: A Study Of Witiko by Barbara S. Grossmann Stone and published by Peter Lang.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book Two) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

The first book of Witiko ended with Wladislaw(W), together with Witiko, retreating to Prague after the inconclusive battle at Mt. Wysoka. Wladislaw(W) allows free passage to those that do not want to fight alongside him, but those that stay must prepare for a siege and a battle. Wladislaw(W) holds counsel with those that decide to stay. Stifter seems to enjoy writing these formal meetings where important decisions are made as several have appeared in the book so far; he loves the formal structure of them, I feel, and he portrays them being held in a controlled manner—I’m convinced they would be more raucous than he portrays. After giving a summary of his leadership and his aims for the battle, Wladislaw(W) decides to visit King Konrad in Germany to ask for assistance in the coming siege. He is reluctant to call on outside help but feels it is necessary. Witiko is to accompany him on this misssion, whilst the defence of Prague is passed to Wladislaw(W)’s brother, Diepold.

It is not long after Wladislaw(W)’s departure before the enemy troops arrive headed by Konrad von Znaim. The siege begins but Diepold organises some attacks on enemy troops beyond the city. They know the local terrain better than the enemy and in one midnight attack they hope to draw the enemy into some marshland.

After some time they found three men standing in the grass. The men were surprised and taken along as prisoners. Soon they reached some campfires and the challenge came: “Konrad!”
They charged the enemy shouting “Wladislaw!”
The guards posted there were slain as were others nearby. They advanced to some tents, slaying or dispersing all who emerged or leaped up from the ground. Screams spread through the camp. Diepold forbade his men to set anything ablaze so they wouldn’t be illuminated by the glare. The numbers fleeing increased; whenever a group resisted, many were slain, others pushed back. Diepold was always hot on their heels, slashing with his sword. No space was permitted to arise between the pursued and the pursuers. Diepold charged into the enemy’s confusion like an ocean wave raging against the sandy shore, sweeping everything before it.

Diepold and his men manage to return to the city. The enemy soon start to attack the city with catapults, burning arrows, and other flammable materials whilst Diepold attempts more nightime attacks on the enemy. Here is another quote of the fighting during a raid.

They fought man to man with their swords, even their sword grips; they thrust, stabbed, hacked, striking at limbs and bodies with axes, clubs, spears, and poles. The shadow of death descended on many eyes; its darkness overtook many who would never again see father, mother, sisters and neighbours, while others sank down in the hurly-burly with shattered limbs or other severe wounds.

Meanwhile Wladislaw(W) entreats Konrad of Germany for help. Stifter gets another chance to describe all the formal conversations that this involves, the arguments and counter-arguments, but in the end Konrad agrees to help. Diepold manages to withstand the siege and on the arrival of Wladisalw(W) and Konrad of Germany the enemy armies disperse so that no further fighting is required…for now.

Before he can return home there is a small matter of a trial for Witiko; earlier on he had let some enemy troops escape when out scouting; he is not found guilty of treason but he did transgress military law. He gets a small fine and a slap on the wrist. Witiko then returns to Plan. At home he embarks on loads of visits to all the people we met in Book One. There is also a romantic interlude where he proposes to Bertha, whom he also first met in Book One, and they kiss. But Witiko has to prove himself as a worthy man first, by fighting in the battle expected the following year. Much of the rest of Book Two is taken up with Witiko’s wanderings; he leaves Heinrich’s house, he is ambushed, he accompanies Bishop Zdik to the city of Passau, he travels down the Danube to Vienna where he meets his mother, who is a guest of the Margrave of Austria. Witiko returns to Plan and through the winter months he prepares an army in order to be ready for battle in the spring.

Stifter’s style can sometimes be maddening; we get no psychological insight to any of the characters, not even Witiko, but we also have no idea, when he goes wandering, where he is heading to, or why. Sometimes an explanation, of sorts, comes after the events. Also, the conversations are all so stilted, or if we wish to be kinder we may say they’re stylised. In the formal assemblies and counsels this may be understandable but all of the characters speak like it all of the time. What follows is an example of his prose and dialogue. Stifter certainly captures the pedantic, boring language that was, most probably, used in a medieval courtroom. Many such sections of text are contained in Witiko, so if you’re tempted to read the book it would be useful to see if you can cope with this without falling asleep. I must admit I found it quite amusing.

Gervasius rose from his seat, and the duke resumed his.
From his chair he said, “Say the words I gave you to tell Konrad, Duke of Znaim and of the Premysl Line.”
Gervasius spoke, “You said: Konrad, lay down your weapons, submit to Duke Wladislaw, son of Wladislaw, ask for pardon for your guilt and you shall continue unmolested as a legitimate branch of the sacred Premysl Line.”
“Who heard those words you have spoken?” Wladislaw asked.
“The men you gave me as an escort, Zwest, Wecel, Zdelaw, Bohuslaw, and Casta heard the words I have spoken,” Gervasius said.
“Those men should speak,” Wladislaw commanded.
“I heard his words,” Zwest attested.
“I heard his words,” Wecel added.
“I heard his words,” Zdeslaw said.
“I heard his words,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“I heard his words,” Casta spoke.
“What words did Konrad, Duke of Znaim reply?” Wladislaw asked.
“Konrad, Duke of Znaim, replied,” Gervasius said, “I have been elected as the legitimate Duke of Bohemia and Moravia by the high nobles of these lands and must carry out my office. I shan’t submit to being slain, blinded or imprisoned in some castle by Wladislaw.”
“Do the other men also attest that Konrad, Duke of Znaim, said these words?” Duke Wladislaw asked.
“He said them,” Zwest attested.
“He said them,” Wecel added.
“He said them,” Zdeslaw said.
“He said them,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“He said them,” Casta spoke.
“Chancellor Bartholomaeus, write these words on the parchment,” Wladislaw ordered.
There was silence for a while.
“Have you written these words?” Wladislaw asked
“I have written them,” Bartholomeaus replied.

So, Book Three to go. I’m expecting more fighting, more wandering, more scintillating dialogue and maybe a wedding.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book One) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

Witiko was originally published in three volumes between 1865 and 1867. The three-volume edition I am reading was translated by Wendell Frye in 2006 and was published by Peter Lang. Each book is about two hundred pages long; but it’s a large format book so it’s probably more like three hundred pages of a normal-sized book. It’s so big that I decided just to read it at the weekends so I don’t have to carry it to and from work on my daily commute. I’m hoping to get all three books read during this month, which is of course, German Literature Month.

Witiko is an historical novel that takes place in 12th century Bohemia and concerns a succession struggle that took place involving Witiko of Prčice. Although Stifter studied and lived in Austria for much of his life he was born in Oberplan (now Horní Planá), Bohemia which is in present day Czech Republic but was, in Stifter’s time, part of the Austrian Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having read several of Stifter’s books I was attracted to this massive novel but I had reservations, after all, I know next to nothing about the history of Bohemia in the middle ages. But, so far, this has not caused any major issues as the story seems pretty much self-contained. The occasional reference to an historical atlas or Wikipedia is all that is required as extra reading.

The story begins with a description of the landscape around the city of Passau and then we are introduced to a lone traveller who is making his way in this landscape. The year is 1138, Sobeslaw I is the duke of Bohemia and the traveller turns out to be Witiko.

The man was actually still a youth. He had a light mustache and beard encircling his chin, more yellow than brown. His cheeks were rosy, his eyes blue. You couldn’t tell the color of his hair since it was completely covered by a bowl shaped leather helmet made of such a firm solid material that even a rather strong sword’s blow couldn’t penetrate it. It rested on his head gathering all his hair inside; over his ears and toward the back was an extension to ward off a blow to the neck.

Stifter starts slowly; we are introduced to this young traveller who appears to others to be a knight though he says that he isn’t. He cares for his horse himself when staying at inns rather than have some stranger do so. On his travels he comes across a group of young men on horseback headed by a man dressed in scarlet. They mock and tease Witiko but eventually they talk. The ‘scarlet knight’ gives a long, confusing, account of all the past Polish and Bohemian kings and dukes and the wars they fought, leading up to the current duke Sobeslaw. The ‘scarlet knight’ reveals that he is Wladislaw, the nephew of the Duke Sobeslaw.

The story skips on a couple of years; it is now 1140 and Sobeslaw is gravely ill. Witiko, who is now employed by Sobeslaw, is summoned by him and given the task of finding out who the barons are intending to support as successor to Sobeslaw; there are two contenders, Wladislaw or Wladislaw. Yes, it gets tricky with the names here—there is Sobeslaw’s son Wladislaw, who I will write as Wladislaw(S), and Sobeslaw’s nephew, Wladislaw, the scarlet knight from earlier, who is the son of the Old Duke, called….you guessed it, Wladislaw. I will write the Old Duke as Wladislaw(D) and his son, Sobeslaw’s nephew, as Wladislaw(W). So Witiko travels to Prague and manages to sit in on the discussions in the Wysehrad over the succession of Sobeslaw. Stifter covers this in his slow, pedantic style, which could be quite dull, but I found it quite interesting to see how this early form of parliament dealt with such an important issue as the succession of a duke—how much of it is historically accurate is another question though. In the end Wladislaw(W) is elected to succeed Sobeslaw. On his deathbed Sobeslaw accepts the decision and asks his son, Wladislaw(S), to submit to Wladislaw(W) as he wishes to avoid a future civil war over the issue. However, after Sobeslaw’s death and the succession of Wladislaw(W), Wladislaw(S) flees Bohemia. Wladislaw(W) invites Wladislaw(S) to return, promising that no harm will be done to him or his family and that he will be ‘richly equipped and enfeoffed’.

After the death of Sobeslaw, Witiko returns to one of his mother’s farms in Plan. He helps out and then goes wandering about meeting local landowners.

He watched the villagers at their work and tried to get to know their ways: how they made their stores and divided them for consumption, how they bred their animals and made tools for the field, plows, harrows, rakes, shovels, as well as weapons, tubs, baskets and the like. He watched them making repairs and improving their houses with saws, hammers, and axes, or bringing wood to their homes by the easier method of using sleighs, or satisfying the other necessities of life in their few trades.

Because we never know what the characters are thinking we very often have to take everything at face value. These visits of Witiko’s are not random, they are planned; he is forming friendships and alliances that will be useful later on; he is networking. When a message arrives that Adelheid, Sobeslaw’s widow, has died we are unsure what to make of it; has she been murdered by Wladislaw(W)? Witiko attends a meeting of barons and is invited to further ones which he doesn’t attend. The barons are plotting against Wladislaw(W) and aim to support Wladislaw(S)’s claim to the throne.

It is now 1142 and war seems very likely. We are unsure who Witiko will support, probably because Witiko is also undecided. In the end he reasons thus: Wladislaw(W) was elected at the Wysehrad, Sobeslaw gave his approval of the decision and Witiko feels that the barons were opposed to Wladislaw(W) because of self-interest as Wladislaw(W) was helping protect the common folk against the oppression of the barons. Book One ends with a bloody battle in which Witiko and his men excel; but neither side wins, and so Wladislaw(W) decides to retreat to Prague to regroup and plan for an offensive.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Tales of Old Vienna and Other Prose’ by Adalbert Stifter (GLM VIII)

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.

This book was read as part of German Literature Month VIII.

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‘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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