This is not a well-known Christmas story in the United States, but Rock Crystal by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter is certainly better known in German speaking countries. It was selected as a short read at my Catholic Thought book club at Goodreads as lighter read for the Christmas holidays. My co-moderator at my Catholic Thought book club, who happens to be a German immigrant, told me about it. At seventy-something pages it is not a novel and not a short story. It falls into that middle ground called a novella. But this is such a good novella I want to somehow make it better known in the English reading world.
Stifter, who lived from 1805 to 1868, was born in Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic, was a noted writer of nature, a Roman Catholic, and highly regarded teacher who was hired to tutor children of aristocrats. From what I’ve read, Stifter’s work is imbued with faith and morality as well as beautiful descriptions and settings of nature. Rock Crystal, though not overtly theological, I would say has a Roman Catholic world view. More on that later.
Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize winning German writer from the 20th century was an admirer of Stifter and this particular work. W. H. Auden, who wrote the Introduction for the Mayer and Moore translation, praises Stifter’s skill as a writer where he points out “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.” As one reads the work, one does realize the incredible brevity of the work, and yet it feels that one has read a long novel. It feels epic in length but concise in delineation, a work of real artistry.
Rock Crystal is the simplest of stories, as Auden points out in my Introduction. Two siblings travel over a mountain ridge to their grandparent’s home on the morning of Christmas Eve, spend the day, and are sent off onto their journey home in time before dark set. On their journey back, an unexpected snow fall ensues and obscures their path, which causes the two children to get lost. They spend the night in the elements, survive, and continue to look for their way and are rescued by a search party Christmas Day. (Sorry if I ruined the suspense.) And while the story is simple, there are a number of things going on that add complexity. Without those complexities it wouldn’t be much of a story; it would be an anecdote. We can get into those complexities as we go along.
Though there are no fixed divisions within the story, there are some natural divisions. There is a lengthy expository section, part of which describes the Austrian locale, part of which describes the towns and townsfolk in the setting, and part of which describes the children’s parents and their maternal grandparents, and the relationships between them. That all adds into the complexity.
There are two translations available, one by Lee M. Hollander and one by the combined duo of Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore. I read the Mayer and Moore translation. Though the Hollander translation is in the public domain, and you can read it online at Gutenberg, here. The text on that link provides several German novellas, but if you scroll down you can find Stifter’s. Also Libravox has an audio version available free. I checked it out and it sounds pretty good. My edition has 76 pages with the introduction, but it reads faster than that. I read it in two or three sittings, which amounted to about three or four hours. I enjoyed, so much so I intend to read it again this week.
So let’s start with the beginning. I find Stifter’s expository introduction fascinating. He starts with town’s ceremonies for the Christmas holiday, then he describes the hamlet as situated in the mountains, then the village people in a general way, then he goes into a lengthy description of the mountains and landscape. That leads to a description of the neck or col that separates the mountains, which leads into a description of the two villages on separate sides of the col, Gschaid and Millsdorf. It’s not until 12 pages in of a 70 page story that specific inhabitants are mentioned. Obviously there is some sort of significance to all that.
From the opening chapter:
One of the most beautiful of Church festivals comes in midwinter when nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants toward earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields: Christmas. In many countries the evening that precedes our Lord’s nativity is known as Christmas Eve; in our region we call it Holy Eve, the day following Holy Day, and the night between, Holy Night. The Catholic Church observes Christmas, birthday of our Saviour, by magnificent and holiest ceremonial. In most places, midnight as the very hour of his birth is solemnized by ritual of great splendor, to which the bells ring out their heartsome invitation through the still darkness of the wintry air; then with their lanterns, along dim familiar paths, from snow-clad mountains, past forest-boughs encrusted with rime, through crackling orchards, folk flock to the church from which solemn strains are pouring,—the church rising from the heart of the village, enshrouded in ice-laden trees, its stately windows aglow.
Right there you have three of the most important motifs that will be of importance to the theme: the sacredness of the season, the integration of nature with the life of the town, and the ceremony which binds the season with the life. Ceremony is very important to story; shortly after Stifter goes on to describe a custom of giving gifts to the children:
It is the custom to present children with gifts the Blessed Christ-child has brought; given usually on Christmas Eve when dusk has deepened into night. Candles are lit, generally a great many, that flicker together with the little wax lights on the fresh green branches of a small fir or spruce tree that has been set in the middle of the room.
Again religion and nature with the tree branches are brought to the fore. Also significant is that the people are unidentified. Stifter could have started the story with Conrad and Sanna and their parents. That would have been the natural thing to do, but he speaks here in a generic mode. All the townspeople go through these rituals. What Stifter is emphasizing is the harmonious integration of the townsfolk, Christianity, and their environment. And you can see this as Stifter begins to focus on the hamlet, the church-spire being the prominent feature. The main person of the village is the priest, who the villagers “regard with veneration.” Stifter goes on to describe the village as “a separate world.”
The village people thus constitute a separate world, they know one another by name and are familiar with all the grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ tales. All mourn when anyone dies; all know the name of the new-born; they speak a language which is different from that used in the plain; they have their quarrels and settle them; they help one another, and if anything unusual happens, come flocking together.
The village people are said to adhere “to the ancient ways.” This is a village after my own heart.
What I’ve described so far is a sense of harmony. You can’t have a story with only harmony and without introducing a disruptive element that causes a disequilibrium, resulting in tension. The children losing their way through the mountains in a snow storm is the disruptive element, but there is a greater context which makes the story transcend the lost and found adventure. The second part of the exposition, describing the histories of the two children’s parents and grandparents, introduces the tension that will be resolved back to a harmonious state. Let me skip over the landscape description for now, but I’ll come back to show how it’s all symbolic.
Let’s start with the children’s father, as Stifter does. He is a shoemaker from Gschaid, but in his youth he was not the model citizen he grew to be, and in contrast to his own father.
The shoemaker on the square, before he inherited his house, had been a chamois-poacher and in general, so people said, not too model a youth. In school he had always been one of the best pupils. Later he had learned his father’s trade, and after working as a wandering journeyman, had finally come back to the village. But instead of wearing a black hat as becomes a tradesman—such as his father had worn all his life—he perched a green one on his head, stuck every available feather in it, and strutted about wearing the shortest frieze coat in the valley, whereas his father had always worn a dark coat, preferably black—since he was a man of trade—and invariably cut long. The young shoemaker was to be seen on every dance floor and at every bowling alley. If anyone tried to reason with him, he just whistled a tune. He and his marksman’s rifle were at every shooting match in the neighborhood and sometimes he carried home a prize—treasured by him as a great trophy. The prize was usually a set of coins artistically arranged. But the shoemaker, in order to win it, had to disburse many more similar coins, in his usual spendthrift fashion. He went to all the hunts in the neighborhood and had quite a reputation for being a good marksman. Sometimes, however, he fared forth alone with his blunderbuss and spiked shoes, and it was rumored that he had once received a serious wound on his head.
Poacher, spendthrift, wayward, even perhaps prodigal, the young shoemaker stands in contrast to the harmony inherent to the village. But he changes, and he changes to be able to marry the beautiful girl over the col in the town of Millsdorf, the daughter of the prosperous dyer.
Some time after the death of his parents when he had become proprietor of the house where he now lived all alone, the shoemaker changed into a wholly different person. Whereas till then he was always rollicking about, he now sat in his shop, hammering away on sole-leather, day and night. He boasted that no one could make better shoes and footgear, and engaged only the best workmen whom he nagged and pestered a good deal as they sat at their work, making them follow his instructions and do exactly as he told them.
The shoemaker’s youthful eccentricities had caused a discord in the town’s natural harmony, but the nature of the town’s life—and a desire for marriage, which by the way is a church sacrament—caused the discord to be resolved. Ultimately he wins over the dyer’s family and the daughter, marries her, and takes over to his town of Gschaid.
But now a new set of discords arise. Being new to Gschaid, which has very different customs from Millsdorf and being away from her family, she feels isolated, even alienated.
Since the people of Gschaid seldom leave their valley and almost never go to Millsdorf, from which they are separated by mountain and by customs—and since, furthermore, no one ever leaves his valley to settle in a neighboring one—although removals to great distances occur—and lastly since no girl ever leaves her valley except on the rare occasion when, obeying the dictates of love, as a bride, she follows her husband into another valley—so it came about that after the beautiful daughter of the dyer of Millsdorf married the shoemaker of Gschaid she was still regarded by the people of Gschaid as a stranger; and although they were not unkind to her, and even loved her for her charm and virtue, there was always something, reserve or a sort of shy respect, that kept her from enjoying the same familiarity and warm intimacy that existed between the people that belonged to the valley.
And that’s not the only discord. After bearing two children, the wife “felt, however, that he did not love the children as much as she thought he ought to, and as she herself loved them; for he looked so serious most of the time and was always preoccupied with his work. He rarely petted or played with them, and always addressed them quietly as one speaks to grown persons.”
And that completes the exposition of the circumstances leading up to that Christmas Eve where the children venture out to their grandparents in Millsdorf.
But let’s now look at the description of the mountains, and what it means to the themes in the story. We are told that the dominating mountain is in the shape of two “horns.”
South of the village you see a snowy mountain with dazzling horn-shaped peaks, rising, as it seems, from the house-tops themselves, but actually quite far away. All year round, summer and winter, there it is with its jutting crags and white expanses, looking down upon the valley. As the most prominent feature of the landscape and ever before the eyes of the villagers, the mountain has been the inspiration of many a tale.
We are told of the rocks and snow, brooks and meadows, and the steep inclines and sharp descents, all of which pose a danger to the traveler, and we are told of an actual death, a baker, carrying his basket. But the most prominent feature of the landscape is the col.
Ascent of the mountain is made from the valley. One follows in the southerly direction a smooth, well-made road that leads by a neck or “col” into another valley. A col is a mountain-range of moderate height, connecting two larger, more considerable, ranges; and following it, one passes between the ranges from one valley into another. The col which links the snow-mountain with the corresponding range opposite, is thickly studded with pines. At about the highest point of the road before it descends into the further valley, stands a little rustic memorial.
That memorial is a marker of where the baker died, right on the col. So picture this: you have two peaks, the “horns” and in between is a neck or col of some elevation too, though not as high as the horns. On one side of the col is the valley that leads to Millsdorf, and the other is the valley that leads to Gschaid. Two horns, two valleys, two towns, two cultures, two families. Some writers like to work in an aesthetic of twos and some of threes. Stifter is clearly working with twos, and the aesthetic of twos is one of a dialectic, and a dialectic resolves into a synthesis. The young shoemaker had a division with him of a person born to a tradition but felt the longing of self-realization. But the desire for marriage and the act of marriage synthesized him to the standout craftsman of his trade. The story can now take place to synthesize the new divisions.