Reading Adalbert Stifter is as if being confronted by a mountain range but asked instead to appreciate the sadness of a small, lone walker on one of its winding paths. Known equally as an accomplished wanderer, painter and writer, the Austrian managed a rare feat in joining the worlds of inner emotion with daunting outer landscapes. The terror, elation or grief felt by his characters connected to the mountains, lakes and forests around them, which he sketched out with the fluency of a skilled draughtsman. Nor is this the landscape of a simple picture postcard, but more like an inner vision speaking to the outer world; to be sought in the quiet shimmering of light and colour rather than in solid matter.
Suffused through this uplifting surface quality there’s a silent stream of melancholy. Characters will be solitary or face trials and dangers alone, society often seeming like a haven away from the ambivalent but gorgeous world of the encroaching mountains. Optimism and moroseness lie in a precarious stand-off.
Although Stifter battled with depression, his prose and painting were feats in optimism, as if through them he was searching for the things that mattered and made life fizz. Yet within this pleasure, there is sadness still; a loneliness of ice and snow through which he glimpsed a world just out of reach with stinging clarity. No matter how picturesque, his work is glacial; it knows that there are better things behind the ice –a simple meal, an Alpine horizon, a loved one’s longing– but also that he lacks the means to make his way to them.
Like depression, ice travels slowly but cumulatively, in a slow, constant grind that cuts valleys into mountains. So slow is this process that its movement is invisible —or it would be, if not for the gorges it leaves in its wake. Glacial ice marks out the route by which we see it, but it also sets us apart from the ground. While it does not quite dislodge the wanderer, it puts a barrier between him and the earth that renders it perceptible, but also leaves it out of grasp. Stifter’s writing shares these ice-like qualities, but not because it’s cold or lacking in human warmth. His prose is littered with the poignant and affecting, but in front of all his words there is a sheath of ice that digs into the grounding of his characters, preventing the reader’s closer inspection.
Perhaps it is in Stifter’s reduction of prose where this trait first appears. Especially in Rock Crystal (Bergkrystall, 1845), but also elsewhere, his writing is exacting in its composition. The human lies below this ice cover (sometimes literally) and the reader is not with it but, as it were, above; looking down onto the characters through frozen water as the turmoil of human emotion presses heatedly against the stone and land. As Stifter writes in the novella: “[i]ce – nothing but ice.” He is, at this point, setting the scene as his two young protagonists begin to lose themselves in the mountains. In the next paragraph, he draws up the general landscape with a keen eye for geography and place. He does, however —and this is true throughout his work— make it so that the opening frames the description. Even as he recounts “the great slabs lying covered [in] snow” with their edges of “glassy green ice,” the overture presumes the ultimate establishment of distance.
Though in Rock Crystal Stifter nearly entombs the children, the process takes place in the prose before it catches up with them in the actual narrative. Stifter’s language often emulates the landscapes he is describing, partly by shifting descriptions of human activity into more inhuman realms, or by at least investing both with equal gravity. As Thomas Mann once wrote, “behind the quiet, inward exactitude of [Stifter’s] descriptions of Nature in particular there is at work a predilection for the excessive, the elemental and the catastrophic, the pathological.” Rock Crystal opens in this way with pages detailing the land —with its rocky outcrops and shadowy forests— as much as its inhabitants. The Bachelors (Der Hagetolz, 1850) is similar in that all of the protagonist’s activities are relayed with relation to his physical surroundings (again, a mountainous region of Austria). Though less imbued with literal allusions to ice due quite simply to the weather being generally warmer, an element of distance remains from the reader’s perspective. Perhaps it’s more like glass than ice in this case, but the effect is the same. Detached but aware, the reader bears witness to a pure emotion; but while he can read the faces and drama below, the inner tumult of the teller is kept locked inside the deep freeze.
The sense of reduction in Stifter’s writing comes from knowing what key notes are required to create a place. A mountain will be quickly sketched through colour, light and —maybe— the occasional feature, but it will rarely be described by its typical traits. In The Bachelors, a perfect Bildungsroman, the mountains “also took on a more beautiful blue, the brighter and more shimmering the evening light painted the greenery of the trees onto their sides.” It’s an impressionistic sketch but rendered with an almost freakish eye for detail. The expected features of the mountains are assumed by the reader, leaving Stifter to focus on what makes them enigmatic or, more accurately, on what he can use to lure himself away from melancholy. Though he varies in detail from book to book, and even from chapter to chapter, the feeling that this hierarchy of detail over outline carries over from his practice as an artist lingers. To use Hannah Arendt’s words, “Stifter became the greatest landscape painter of literature…” —a reference to his writing that endorses his general interest in the landscape.
Stifter’s paintings coexist with his prose. The cover of the Pushkin Press edition of The Bachelors uses a canvas, The King Lake with the Waltzman (1837), painted by him a decade or so before the book was published. Though much can be said on the relationship of writing, painting and visual conveyance in Stifter by looking at the overlaps between them, one of the reasons why this particular painting serves this particular novel is because of the explicit narrative connection that they share. Just as with the painting, the story concerns a boat trip across a vast lake to the house of an obtuse, eccentric relative. The protagonist will be trapped there for a while, and the painting fleetingly captures and reflects that narrative moment even if it’s born of something else entirely. There is, however, a greater linkage than the intersecting story-lines.
Stifter’s prose and paintings showcase the relationship between landscapes and their passengers; mere dots in the vast belts of mountains, lakes and forests who are almost threatened with subsumption when contrasted with the magnitude of their environs. If his characters weren’t already openhearted and retiring, it would be easy to interpret that their modesty was a reaction just to being in their midst. The towering prospect around them is such that, even with the naivety and arrogance that some of his creatures possess, modesty is all they’re left with as an outcome. This often dilates into theology, showing the inconsequential part they play in a God-given Grand Scheme of Things. But the theology itself is only slightly consequential in itself since, either way, the landscape commands respect, if only to traverse it safely. It also plays a psychological part in the purification of the characters who, for all their burning passions, are kept well in check by the iridescent sketching of the light that glides upon the mountain faces.
If visuality has a role in Stifter’s work, with worlds quietly abristle between glacial walls; it must be said how sometimes it also falls short of doing it justice. In the early 1900s, Ernst Kutzer, the Czech writer and artist, realised a number of Stifter’s stories in paintings designed for postcards. Though their folkloric character accords them with their own endearing qualities, they show how, with a less chary eye, the transcendent can be taken out of Stifter’s stories.
These contain something beyond words, beyond expression, that is frequently established through the characters’ emotions and amplified through the sublimity of their surroundings. Kutzer’s drawings, on the other hand, are fireside tellings in the vein of fairytales. His postcard of Rock Crystal, for example, shows the two children lost among the ice and rock in a way reminiscent of early Disney animations. The tale is reduced to a mere, though pleasant, Christmas yarn.
In that same story, Stifter wrote:
“The cloudbanks had dropped behind the mountains on every side and bending low about the children, the arch of heaven was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array, and through their midst a broad luminous band was woven, pale as milk, which the children had indeed seen from the valley, but never before so distinctly.”
Though this is roughly at the same point in the narrative as in the drawing, the philosophies displayed are in dramatic contrast to each other. The heavenly and cosmic are the only comforts left to the children as they fear the worst. There are good reasons why Nietzsche described Stifter’s Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer, 1857) as being one of the few German novels to still contain “magic.” In Stifter’s work, the inner and the outer converge extraordinarily, providing physical or psychologic mooring to the lost.
It is only through reducing all that is overtly leading that this prowess would be possible in purely visual work. Stifter managed this in painting and in writing, as it was unique to his creative eye; whereas Kutzer was simply responding to the original call. It is however worth noting that Kutzer’s illustrations for the postcards representing Brigitta (1847), and his general portrait of Stifter, present an irresistible tension between the beckoning landscape and genteel fashion; adding the scratchy, humble detail absent from the more romantic infusions found in the likes of Caspar David Friedrich and others.
A similar problem is found in the various film adaptations of Rock Crystal. In Harald Reinl’s 1949 version, some effective black & white photography cannot save the movie from the burden of literal translation. Every aspect of traditional narrative film-making works against Stifter’s actual aims, belabouring it with grounded meaning and emotional guidance through performance and musical aids. It would take a film-making style more akin to Ozu’s Bresson’s to do justice to Stifter’s prose and the depression that etched it; a stripping of filmic grammar to the bareboned minimum until the viewer is all but compelled to insert himself into the experience. As W.H. Auden wrote of Rock Crystal, it was a near-miracle that Stifter avoided sentimentalising: “What might so easily have been a tear-jerking melodrama becomes in his hands a quiet and beautiful parable about the relation of people to places, of man to nature.” When filmed, what is ultimately still a tale of loss —the loss of innocence towards the dangers of the world— feels more like an adventure, showing sharp-jawed heroes saving the children from disaster.
This is as far from Stifter’s imprimatur as any take on his work ever strayed. Here was an artist weighed down by his inner darkness, like a cavern in a mountain through which rivers surge; an artist of precise melancholy who would inscribe small-scaled human moments within monumental landscapes. And between the two there is always some translucent layer that is thin enough to tease the world beneath.
In The Bachelors, he writes of a treacherous mountain lake and a previous attempt to traverse it when frozen. “Well over a hundred years have gone by since…,” his character says, “and it seldom happens that the lake is completely covered over with an ice sheet.” This is a prose of breathless wonder and amazement at the infinite detail that can be found in people and in places, if at an increasingly unsafe remove.
In 1868, Stifter lost his war in Linz, taking a razor to his throat and dying two days later from the wound.
Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker from Merseyside now based in London. He runs the website Celluloid Wicker Man and his film work has been screened at a variety of festivals and events. In 2015, he worked with Robert Macfarlane on an adaptation of his Sunday Times best-seller, Holloway. He has also worked on films alongside Stanley Donwood, Iain Sinclair and BAFTA-nominated director, Paul Wright. Scovell’s writing has been featured in Little White Lies, Sight & Sound, The Quietus and The Times.
His first book, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, was published by Auteur in 2017 and he has just completed his PhD at Goldsmiths University. His next book, Mothlight, will be published by Influx Press in February, 2019.