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‘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 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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‘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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