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Rock Crystal ()

Like any inveterate prowler of thrift stores and book sales, I'm used to the hit or miss nature of judging books by their covers (or, more accurately, cover blurbs). But one imprint I tend to trust is the New York Review of Books Classics line. It's not a matter of everuy text being good, but nearly all of them are interesting. Sufficiently so that I always at least check out the book when I see the "NYRB" logo on the binding. That's how I came to pick up this book, which, besides the cred of the publisher, is translated by Marianne Moore (?!) and has an introduction by W.H. Auden. Tough for any bibliophile to return a book to the stacks after reading that.

I'd recommend reading the novella itself before Auden's essay. Indeed, once you've read it the encomiums from the poet are no longer necessary. You'll be singing Stifter's praises yourself.

The seemingly simple story unfolds like a tale from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. Two children, Conrad and his sister, Susanna (Sanna), live in the isolated mountain village of Gschaid. It's so conservative and unchanging that if a stone falls out of a wall it is repaired with the same stone. The sense of community is so intense that while everyone knows what's happening in everyone else's life and rallies round in time of crisis, the town is so insular that the children's mother, though just from a neighboring village, is still viewed as an outsider years after marrying the local shoemaker. Likewise, the children are not quite part of Gschaid, no less because they like to walk the three hours along the mountain road to Millsdorf to visit their grandparents, especially the grandmother who spoils them.

One Christmas Eve morning, the two make the journey--up mountain, over a bridge, through woods and meadows, and past a monument to a traveler who died--to Millsdorf. Among the gifts the grandmother showers upon them is a coffee extract for their mother, which she assures them has marvelous restorative properties. The children are then rushed out of the house with their bundles to make sure they get home in time.

But, as they retrace their steps, snow begins to fall, first lightly and then so heavily that Conrad realizes they've left the path and that none of the familiar sites are visible. Onward they trudge, upwards no matter what they do, until it becomes obvious that they've wandered out onto the glacier and have no chance of making it home in the dark. Conrad repeatedly assures his little sister that they'll be alright, and her trust in him is unwavering. He drapes his own coat over her for protection from the snow and when the two find a natural shelter from the storm they dip into the rolls their grandmother had sent them off with and then the coffee extract, which helps them to stay awake--they're certain that sleep will be fatal. And, as the two struggle to ward off tiredness and sleep, lights appear in the sky, seeming to the children to form Christ's crown.

I'll leave the story there and encourage you to read it yourself, or at least listen to the Librivox reading of the Lee M. Hollander translation. As in a good fairy tale, Stifter sustains an atmosphere of dread, as we worry for the children. But his real artistry consists of the painterly way in which he portrays nature (he was in fact a painter as well as an author). It's an extraordinarily visual book, one where we can effortlessly picture the scenes the children are seeing, which only adds to our anxiety on that stormy night. And though he is a Catholic author, and the tale probably should be given a religious reading--having lost their way the children receive virtual sacraments before being reborn--the presence of the natural world is so vital and the nature of the lights so ambiguous that it can withstand a less comforting reading.

At any rate, it is a small crystalline masterpiece and one you'll want to return to again and again.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Adalbert Stifter Links:

    -AUDIO BOOK: LibriVox recording of Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter. Translated by Lee M. Hollander (Read by Greg W, LibriVox)
    -CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Adalbertt Stifter
    -WIKIPEDIA: Adalbert Stifter
    -BOOK SITE: Rock Crystal (NY Review of Books Classics)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Adalbert Stifter (IMDB)
    -ESSAY: Concerning the Village of Gschaid, and Its Mountain (W.H. AUDEN, November 18, 1945, The New York Times Book Review)
    -TRIBUTE: MY LITERARY HERO : Natural History: Adalbert Stifter (Michael Lipkin, 5/20/2013, Paris Review)
    -ESSAY: Adalbert Stifter and the “Biedermeier” Imagination A Debate on Localism & Cosmopolianism (F. Roger Devlin, First Principles)
-REVIEW: of Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (Adam Kirsch, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal (Orville Prescott, December 18, 1945, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Rock Crystal (Public Domain Review)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal (Susan Choi, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal (John Self, Asylum)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal (Terry, Vertigo)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal (Kassie Ritman,
    -REVIEW: of Tock Crystal (Tony Malone)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal ( Paul Rosenfeld, The Saturday Review)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Crystal (Wuthering Expectations)
    -REVIEW: of LIMESTONE. And Other Stories. By Adalbert Stiffer (J.P. Bauke, NY Times Book Review)

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