There’s no dearth of extraordinary literary Christmas stories, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. One of the lesser-known Yuletide masterpieces, at least in the English-speaking world, is Rock Crystal — a novella by the Austrian author Adalbert Stifter (1805–1868) beloved by Thomas Mann, W. H. Auden, and W. G. Sebald.
Stifter, born in the Bohemian village of Oberplan, was the son of a linen weaver. Educated in a Benedictine monastery and at the University of Vienna, he became an inspector of schools. His life was not a happy one. A compulsive overeater, subject to depression and anxiety, he was not respected as a novelist in his lifetime. One of his adopted daughters died of typhus, and another ran away from home and drowned herself. At the age of sixty-two, suffering from cirrhosis and extreme depression, Stifter cut his own throat.
All is not darkness and gloom, however, in Stifter’s prose. He was, to quote Hannah Arendt, “the greatest landscape painter in literature…someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words and all visible movements—into sentences”. (Indeed Stifter’s calmness — his willingness to write about anything and everything — served as an inspiration for Sebald in books such as The Rings of Saturn.)
The story of Rock Crystal is quite sweet, simple, and altogether transfixing. A shoemaker from a small Alpine village called Gschaid marries a dyer’s daughter from Millsdorf, which lies on the far side of a mountain pass. This transmountain marriage displeases many in Gschaid and Millsdorf, including the bride’s father, who withholds most of his daughter’s dowry and refuses to visit her in Gschaid. The bride’s mother, however, is not so hard-hearted, especially after the children, Conrad and Susanna, are born:
If mothers love their children and long for them, this is frequently, and to a much higher degree, the case with grandmothers; they occasionally long for their grandchildren with an intensity that borders on morbidness. The dyer’s wife very frequently came over to Gschaid now, in order to see the children and to bring them presents. Then she would depart again after giving them kindly advice. But when her age and health did not any longer permit of these frequent journeys and the dyer for this reason objected to them, they bethought themselves of another plan; they changed about, and now the children visited their grandmother.
On the day before Christmas one year, Conrad and Susanna go to have a holiday meal with their grandparents in Millsdorf. They are warned by both their parents and grandparents to “take good care” not to get chilled or overheated, and above all not to go to sleep outdoors. Sure enough, halfway home between Millsdorf and Gschaid, they are surrounded by blinding snow.
Stifter’s descriptions of the children’s brave journey through the snowstorm are unforgettable:
The footprints they left behind them did not remain visible long, for the extraordinary volume of the descending snow soon covered them up. The snow no longer rustled, in falling upon the needles, but hurriedly and peacefully added itself to the snow already there. The children gathered their garments still more tightly about them, in order to keep the steadily falling snow from coming in on all sides.
Taking shelter beneath rocks “as large as churches”, they wait out the storm, which after several bone-chilling hours gives way to an “enormous stillness…in which no snow-crystal seemed to move” and the now-cloudless sky is lit up by “thousands and thousands of simple stars”.
Rock Crystal has a happy ending, appropriate to a Christmas tale, but the story in the end is less about the children’s adventure than it is about their realization of nature’s power, embodied in the mountain, which from now on they will look up to
more attentively, when they are in the garden; when, as in the past, the sun is shining beautifully and the linden-tree is sending forth its fragrance, when the bees are humming and the mountain looks down upon them beautifully blue, like the soft sky.
Reading the book, one can see why Thomas Mann called Stifter “one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature” and why Auden was so impressed by his handling of the almost fairytale-like subject matter:
To bring off, as Stifter does, a story of this kind, with its breathtaking risks of appalling banalities, is a great feat. 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.
You can read the slightly abridged Lee M. Hollander translation above (and in plain text and eBook formats here) or, if you’re looking for a print version, check out the version translated by Elizabeth Mayer and the poet Marianne Moore published by Pushkin Press in the UK and NYRB Classics in the US.
Dec 22, 2019