Translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole
I read my first Stifter over a decade ago. I remember not liking it much, so I didn’t bother to read more. Then NYRB classics sent me a review copy of Motley Stones earlier this year, and I spotted, only three days before the discussion, that the online book club at the London Goethe Institute had chosen it for their September read. So I decided to dive in … just in case I had missed something critical all those years ago.
Well, I enjoyed these stories much more than expected, and it’s funny I hit the nail on the head in my earlier review, when I recognised that the key to enjoying Stifter is to dispense with the need for page-turning suspense, and to slow down. After the last 18 months, when the world slowed to a standstill, and me with it, it appears that I am now able to do just that. As one book group member said (Deborah I think), the point is to enjoy the journey, not necessarily the destination.
Why not the destination? Because the template in most of these tales is the same. Stifter’s fictional universe is a benign one, in which everything turns out all right in the end usually thanks to the kindness of strangers. This is the application of Stifter’s “gentle law that guides the human race” at work. The natural world, its wonders and beauty are observed and described beautifully by Stifter’s painterly eye. It is also a source of threat and danger, though anticipated disasters fail to materialise. A little twee, perhaps, but Stifter’s work is an example of Biedermeier (safe and conservative). More importantly, these stories were intended as a present for older children.
There are six stories in Motley Stones, all geologically named: Granite, Limestone, Tourmaline, Rock-Crystal, Cat-Silver, Rock Milk. All are enjoyable, but there are two stand-outs for me. Rock Crystal, one of his acknowledged masterpieces, in which two young children get lost in the mountains in a snow storm. The description of the storm, the level-headedness of the older brother, the stamina of both children (the only place I had to suspend my disbelief), and the relief of their parents when they are found safe, so visually told, that I was on that mountain – even as I wrapped myself up in a blanket to combat the effects of the fictional blizzard! Tourmaline breaks the mould of the other stories. Firstly it is set in Vienna, secondly it “is dark, and what is told here is very dark”. At its heart is a broken family, a man whose wife disappears following an affair. Then he and his daughter disappear, only to reappear some years later in very reduced circumstances. When he dies, Stifter’s “gentle law” kicks in to ensure that his daughter is cared for. What a damp squib summarised like that, but remember “the journey, not the destination”. The tone of the first section is very dark, and there are, admittedly, mysteries, which Stifter purposely fails to explain. This hints at the darkness in Stifter’s biography (which is detailed in full in the translator’s foreword) and a refusal to delve deeply into the undercurrents of his own narrative. Perhaps Stifter had a need to write Motley Stones not only to reassure older children of the “gentle law”, but also himself?