Adalbert Stifter: Rock Crystal
With Christmas in mind I fancied reading something festive to try and get me out of the humbug spirit and, while the obvious choice would have been Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I thought it more interesting to try Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal (1845). It’s a novella, with the subtitle A Christmas Tale and, given how blank and frosty the cover is, I went in with little idea as to how the story would go, knowing only that it concerned village life and two children lost in an icy landscape. And, having read Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace earlier this year, the prospect of lost children and icy landscapes is always a welcome one.
Rock Crystal takes some time before its main narrative gains control to look at the tradition of Christmas (“…when nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants toward earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields…”) in rural Bohemia which Stifter presents with warmth, bringing the touch of a fairy tale to the snowy mountains and valleys:
In most places, midnight as the very hour of Christ’s birth is solemnized by ritual of great splendour, to which bells wring out their heartsome invitation through the still darkness of the wintry air; then with their lanterns, along dim familiar paths, from snow-clad mountains, past forest-boughs encrusted with frost, through crackling orchards, folk flock to the church from which solemn strains are pouring – the church rising from the heart of the village, enshrouded in ice-laden trees, its stately windows aglow.
The story tightens its scope from exploring village life at this time of the year to the marriage of the beautiful daughter of the dyer of Millsdorf to the shoemaker of Gschaid (and she hasn’t done too bad for herself since shoemakers are “indispensible the world over where human beings are no longer in the primitive stage”) and this one just happens to be the only one in the whole valley. But despite their marriage, the dyer’s daughter is still considered a stranger to the people of Gschaid, where, like all villages, customs hold dear to a place. Even the children soon borne of the marriage are considered strangers.
It’s not long before the children are older and the eldest, Conrad, is allowed to escort his younger sister, Sanna, across the mountains to Millsdorf in order visit their grandmother. This Christmas, returning with presents and pockets stuffed with bread, they find themselves lost on the mountains when the weather takes a turn for the worse and they find the blizzard of snow is filling in their recent footprints so that they are “going on with the dogged endurance that children and animals have, not knowing what is ahead or when their reserves may give out”:
…on every side was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.
Stifter does well to present the icy landscape in Rock Crystal, dominated as it is by the snowy mountain with its “dazzling horn-shaped peaks” and rock-faces “coated with a white velvet map of hoar-froast and glaze with ice-tissue” making it “the inspiration of many a tale”. The alpine meadows sparkle white, too; and the trees that speckle the mountainside are “drooping with the weight of snow”. Reading around the novella, it seems that Stifter is renowned for his depictions of landscapes and the knack he obviously had for them is demonstrated here with depth, variety, and genuine appreciation.
While the children’s adventure in the story brings them close to death, their will to survive drives them on further into the night, into the ice. And meanwhile, the people of Gschaid come together to bring the children to safety, their selfless hunting a significant act that shows that these people considered strangers are not so after all and that the mother can enjoy “the same familiarity and warm intimacy that existed between the people that belonged to the valley.”
The finest moment of Rock Crystal is certainly the descriptive passages, especially over the typical 19th Century exposition where you get the whole family history before the story is allowed to happen, as they bring an immediacy to the prose, a sense of actually being present in the valley (and on the mountain) as snow falls. My inner sadist was hoping for a different conclusion, but the charm of Stifter’s novella is that it ties faith in with the spirit of Christmas. Not so much faith in the religious sense, but the unquestionable duty to other people for which we should hope to depend on when needs must. And for a Christmas tale, it was good to put my faith in Stifter.
December 26, 2007