Natural History: Adalbert Stifter
May 20, 2013 | by Michael Lipkin
My literary hero, Adalbert Stifter, was introduced to me by a professor of German studies during my sophomore year at Binghamton University. At the time, I lived alone in a studio apartment on the west side of Binghamton, a small city in upstate New York crippled by its loss of the computer and defense industries. The low standard of living and high crime rate, palpable even in the city’s nicer parts, are all the more jarring for the beautiful view of the Catskill Mountains that graces the area. At the end of the school year, the cold lifts, the rains stop, and the weather turns mild. The air, normally raw and wet, is balmy, and thick with the smell of pine.
In an e-mail, I expressed particular curiosity about the desiccated natural landscapes in Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and my professor suggested that I read Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian author who, despite the endorsements of Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald, is remembered as a hokey sentimentalist, interested mostly in mountains and flowers.. The stories, novellas, and novels for which Stifter is known were written at the height of the Biedermeier period, a time of bourgeois reaction after the catastrophic, continent-wide destruction unleashed by the Napoleonic Wars. Beidermeier culture was fond of middle-class comfort, of painted plates, copper prints, simple furniture, and little knickknacks. Rather than challenge the political repression of post-Metternich Europe and take stock of the hopes for equality and immediacy in human relations shattered by the failed revolutions of 1848–49, the German-speaking world of Stifter’s time withdrew into the home, the family, and from there, into a world of fantasy.
Desperate for my professor’s guidance and approval, I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Over the course of several taciturn afternoons, I waded through the idyllic landscapes and kitschy interiors that make up the bulk of the book. Typical of the book’s style, the third story, “Tourmaline,” opens in a Viennese townhouse belonging to an idle man of culture. Taking unhurried note of the paintings on the wall, the grand piano, the writing desk, the porcelain figurines, Stifter leads the reader through the house until he reaches the bedroom of the man’s wife, where a gilded angel wafts a white curtain over their baby, sleeping in her crib. The terrors of the outer world have been shut out; the pendulum of history has stopped midswing. The clock in this room, writes Stifter, never strikes the hour. Its ticking is so faint as to be scarcely heard.
The rest of the story, however, complicated my perception of Stifter as a stuffy Blümchendichter, or flower-poet. The domestic tranquility of the first few pages is rudely broken when, after carrying on an affair with an actor, the man’s wife inexplicably disappears. Maddened by grief, the man takes his infant daughter and retreats into a cellar for twenty years, where, as a result of her confinement, the daughter’s head swells to grotesque proportions. To pass the time, the man makes her describe his suicide, how his corpse will be laid out on a bier, how her mother, wandering through the world in despair, will take her own life as well. By chance, he tumbles off a ladder to his death, and his daughter, now a young adult who speaks in gibberish, is returned to society. Told in Stifter’s unassuming, fairy-tale voice, this story would have been disturbing enough, had not the details of the Josef Fritzl case emerged two years later, just as I was graduating. Fritzl, you will recall, was the Austrian man charged with luring his daughter into the basement of their home and imprisoning her there for twenty-four years. Over that time, he fathered seven children with her. To maintain her sanity, she would turn off the lights in her cell and pretend that she was hiking through the mountains. The incomprehensibility of reality, which breaks violently and suddenly through the bulwarks we erect against it, runs through all of the stories in Bunte Steine.
Youth and childhood are the focus of much of Stifter's work, whose naïve style runs sharply counter to the blasé worldliness of European realism. Unlike Dickens or Flaubert, Stifter describes the world as though he is speaking to a child, not yet ensnared in the web of assumed half-truths and skewed generalizations that constitute adult common sense. By seeing things as though for the first time, Stifter hoped—in vain—to save them from the forces of industrialization and speculative capitalism, forces that liquidate the world’s very materiality. And, to be sure, there is a distinctly pedophilic dimension to Stifter’s obsession with the crystalline purity of childhood and the holy terror with which he avoids any mention of sex. Stifter’s own history with children was a tragic one. He and his wife, Amalia Mohaupt, could not conceive. Their first adopted daughter died young; the second, Amalia’s niece Juliana, ran away from home and threw herself into the Danube.
What Stifter’s naïveté offered me, at the age of nineteen or twenty, was a respite from my increasingly suffocating desires. Living in Binghamton made me vertiginously aware of my own desire to live “well”—which is to say, in New York City, at an extremely high level of material comfort. I found it particularly difficult that spring to read, among other things, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which depicts artistic aspiration and idealism as either the resentment of the lower middle-class or, alternatively, the idle narcissism of the rich. In Stifter’s work, by contrast, money is present only in its total absence. From my own incompetence managing even very small amounts of money, I had a strong suspicion that this elision stemmed from deep personal shame. Reduced to poverty by the sudden death of his wealthy father, Stifter was never at ease in the salons of Vienna. It wasn’t until the decade before his suicide that, as a reward for a series of newspaper articles denouncing the Vienna uprisings in 1848, Stifter was appointed superintendent of schools in Upper Austria, allowing him to pay back the substantial debts he owed to various creditors and family members.
The great masterworks of European Realism—Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, The Red and The Black, Madame Bovary—hold that there is no escaping society. The individual, his perceptions, his hopes and his values are all illusions that, sooner or later, must founder on the shoals of reality. Stifter’s nostalgic evocations of village life have it the other way around. It is not social, but individual being that is hopelessly strictured, unfree. It is neither art nor religion that is man’s greatest spiritual achievement, but to be bound to others in a common way of life. Stifter knew, from bitter personal experience, that the worst thing is to be trapped inside oneself, alone, and it’s this, I think, that has kept him close to my heart. I wanted then, and want more than ever now, to belong, to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, to put down the burden of my personhood and disappear once and for all.
Michael Lipkin is a writer who lives in New York City.