It was with high anticipation that I opened this book expecting the action to transport me to my favourite place in Germany . Well, it doesn’t and that may be the reason why Pushkin Press has changed the book cover from that on the left to this on the right. The new cover more apt as the place is unidentifiable, a generic setting in the Austrian alpine landscape as per Stifter’s novella. He may use place names but they are entirely fictional.
Not that it detracts one jot from the vivid landscape word portraits. I am a mountain person (as opposed to a beach person) and so, it would seem, is Stifter. Here just one description of the frequently described “beautiful” mountains.
The woods had opened out, the lake lay at the young man’s feet and all the mountains he had seen from the plain and Attmaning were now ranged so peacefully, clearly and closely around the water that he imagined he could reach out and touch them – their rock faces, though, their ravines and crevices, were not grey but wreathed in a delightful blue, and the trees on them were like little sticks, or not to be seen at all on others, these latter ones stretching up heavenwards with perfectly smooth sides.
Contrasted against the majesty and permanence of the mountains is the the paltriness and impermanence of man. The Bachelors of the title, an adolescent on the cusp of life and his uncle, an old man, embittered and withdrawn. It is a novella about time, how it separates the generations, how they struggle to communicate, to appreciate each other and how easy it is to waste the few opportunities that come our way.
Life is immeasurably long while you are still young. You always think there is so much ahead of you and that you’ve only gone a short way. And so you postpone things, put this and that to one side to be taken up later. But when you do want to take it up it’s too late and you realise you’re old. That’s why life seems a vast expanse when viewed from the beginning but scarcely a stone’s throw when at the end you look over your shoulder.
The story can be summarised as a coming-of-age. I’m not going to detail plot elements because the main threads are detailed here within an illuminating article about Stifter in the framework of German literature as a whole. An article which became a bit of a lecture for this reader, if truth be told.
Stifter may be a curriculum read in Germany but this was my first tasting. While I enjoyed the landscape and the themes, I did not enjoy the pace of the action. The central section in which the young man and his uncle learn to tolerate each other seemed interminable, particularly as one of the two protagonists refuses to speak to the other. That section sandwiched between beginning and end sections that seemed so twee, verging almost on the sentimental.
Having read Roger Devlin’s article in full, that last paragraph possibly says more about me as a reader than it does of Stifter the writer. I obviously don’t get him because
a) I have poor 21st century reading habits. I do need the page turning element and to quote Devlin “To many readers today, the very definition of a good story is a “page turner,” a book that one “can’t put down.” To appreciate Stifter, on the other hand, one must above all learn to slow down. The reader who becomes impatient for him to get to the point is probably missing his point.”
b) I need to learn to reread. To quote Devlin again “Many of Stifter’s stories improve on rereading, because the significance that is gradually revealed casts back light on earlier episodes, and especially on those which the impatient modern reader will be most likely to dismiss as “boring.”
That’s me told then. I’ll accept the criticism but the idea of re-reading The Bachelors isn’t my next move. I’ll probably visit Brigitta – I’ve seen good reviews on other blogs. And now I know what to expect, I may appreciate my second outing with Stifter a little more.