Michael Lipkin discovers Adalbert Stifter:
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....
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 ideal life, as Stifter saw it, is the one depicted in his novel, Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], which recounts the friendship between the young protagonist, Heinrich, and the Baron von Risach. Risach, an older man, has withdrawn into a secluded manor, where he has devoted himself to botany, restoring furniture, reading books, looking at paintings and, most importantly, eating (a recurring subject in the diaries of Stifter, who was morbidly obese). No mention of money is ever made. In this novel so boring that, even with the best will, I couldn’t kick myself past page sixty, Stifter shows us how the world might look if the intractable conflicts between human beings, society, and nature could somehow be resolved. In an age that accelerated every aspect of life to breakneck speed, Stifter believed that only literature—slow, deliberate, and loving—could broker the truce.