Adalbert Stifter’s unusual Christmas story, Rock Crystal, comes freighted with expectation. Republished earlier this year in a beautiful new edition by NYRB Classics, it was named by Gabriel Josipovici as one of his top ten novellas, alongside pretty heady companions such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Bartleby the Scrivener, and Metamorphosis. It has been praised already by blogs as diverse as Booklit and Vertigo, and Stifter influenced writers as renowned as Kafka and Sebald. So what is there for me to add?
Rock Crystal was published in German as Bergkristall – an altogether crunchier, wintrier title – in 1845, and translated into English a century later by Elizabeth Mayer and the poet Marianne Moore.
Stifter begins the story as a meditation on and celebration of the Christian myth and the Christmas festival, with “the church rising from the heart of the village” and on Christmas morning “the Christ-child … returning home after visiting children everywhere and bringing to each, a wondrous gift,” bringing too an end to “the cheerless expanse of desolate night.” And “after this, the long winter departs; spring comes, then lingering summer.”
The parallels this has for the rest of the book will become clear, but the way Stifter brings us there is ingenious and delightful. The narrative begins in widescreen, with a cultural tradition, then selects a mountainous landscape, draws down to a pair of neighbouring villages, and finally closes in on its handful of characters. The villages are Millsdorf and Gschaid, and the shoemaker of Gschaid wins the heart of the daughter of the dyer from Millsdorf. But the villages, though indistinguishable, maintain a certain rivalry:
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.
“That’s the way it was,” Stifter tells us, “and no use talking about it.” Similarly, when the couple have children, “like their mother who had always been treated as a stranger in Gschaid, the children became strangers too; and were hardly Gschaid children, but belonged half to Millsdorf.”
The children is what it comes down to, Conrad and Sanna, and their journey from their grandmother’s home in Millsdorf back home to Gschaid; but it is winter, Christmas Eve, and the sun is just a “dull reddish ball” low in the sky. What comes next is not entirely surprising, and eventually
on every side was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that nonetheless drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.
W.H. Auden in the introduction (actually his 1945 review of the book from the New York Time Book Review) speaks of the story’s “breathtaking risks of appalling banalities”, and it’s easy to see what he means. On one reading, this is a charming but straightforward folk tale; but nonetheless it seems more wide-ranging and stranger than that, in its structure, cultural grounding, and the scene when the children find themselves in a magical, sinister cavern of ice, “bluer than anything on earth, a blue deeper and finer than the vault of heaven itself.” It has warmth in the midst of the coldest setting, like a glowing fire on a frosty Christmas morning.