Seemingly the simplest of stories—a passing anecdote of village life— Rock Crystal opens up into a tale of almost unendurable suspense. This jewel-like novella by the writer that Thomas Mann praised as "one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature" is among the most unusual, moving, and memorable of Christmas stories. Two children—Conrad and his little sister, Sanna—set out from their village high up in the Alps to visit their grandparents in the neighboring valley. It is the day before Christmas but the weather is mild, though of course night falls early in December and the children are warned not to linger. The grandparents welcome the children with presents and pack them off with kisses. Then snow begins to fall, ever more thickly and steadily. Undaunted, the children press on, only to take a wrong turn. The snow rises higher and higher, time passes: it is deep night when the sky clears and Conrad and Sanna discover themselves out on a glacier, terrifying and beautiful, the heart of the void. Adalbert Stifter's rapt and enigmatic tale, beautifully translated by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore, explores what can be found between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—or on any night of the year.
About the Author
Adalbert Stifter (1805–1868), the Austrian writer, poet, and painter, grew up in Bohemia and was educated at the University of Vienna. Among his most famous works are the novel Indian Summer and a collection of stories, Colored Stones.
Fanny Howe, the author of more than twenty books of poetry and prose, was the recipient of the 2001 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for her Selected Poems. She was short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001 and 2005.
Marianne Moore (1887–1972) is universally recognized as one of America’s finest poets.
Elizabeth Mayer (1884–1970) was a German-born American translator and editor.
Read an Excerpt
A Christmas Tale
By Adalbert Stifter, Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2012 Adalbert Stifter
All rights reserved.
The church observes various festivals that are ever dear to the heart. What more gracious than Whitsuntide: more sacred or of deeper significance than Easter. The portentous sadness of Holy Week and exaltation of the Sunday following accompany us throughout life. 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 Christ's birth is solemnized by ritual of great splendour, 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 frost, 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.
Associated with the religious festival is a domestic one. In Christian lands far and wide it is the custom to portray for children the advent of the Christ-child — a child himself, most wondrous that ever dwelt on earth — as something joyous, resplendent, exalted, an ever-present influence throughout life that sometimes in old age, for one lost in sad or tender memories, revives bygone days as it passes on wings of fair colours, through the cheerless expanse of desolate night.
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 waxlights on the fresh green branches of a small fir or spruce tree that has been set in the middle of the room.
The children must wait till the sign is given that the Blessed Christ-child has come and left his gifts. Only then is the door thrown wide for them to enter, and the sparkling radiance of the candles reveals objects hanging from the tree or spread out on the table, things beyond anything the children have imagined, things they dare not touch but which, after they have received them as gifts, they will carry about in their little arms and afterwards take with them to bed. If later in their dreams they hear the midnight bells calling the grown-ups to church, it will perhaps seem to them that the angelic host is winging its way across high heaven, or that the Christ-child is returning home after visiting children everywhere and bringing to each a wondrous gift.
Next day, when Christmas comes, how festive it is early in the morning to be there in the warm room dressed in their prettiest clothes, and later when Father and Mother put on their Sunday best to go to church; or when at noon comes Christmas dinner — finer than any other in the whole year; and in the afternoon or toward evening, when friends call and, sitting about on chairs or benches, gather together as they look out at the wintry scene of falling snow or at the grey mist wreathing the mountains, or at the blood-red sun going down. Here and there about the room on stool or bench or windowsill, lie the magical gifts of the evening before — now familiar and all their own.
After this, the long winter departs; spring comes, then lingering summer — and when the mother again tells the story of the Christ-child, saying that his birthday is now to be celebrated and that he will visit the earth again, it seems to the children that his last coming has been inconceivably long ago, and as though the joys of that distant time lie veiled in remoteness.
Because this festival has such enduring power over us, with an afterglow reaching even into old age, we love to be with children when they joyously celebrate Christmas.
Among the high mountains of our country there is a little village with a small but needle-fine church-spire. Conspicuous above the green of abundant fruit-trees, this spire — because the slates are painted vermilion — can be seen far and wide against the faint blue of the mountains. The hamlet nestles in the very centre of a fairly wide valley that is an almost perfect ellipse. Besides the church, a school-house, and a parish-house, there are a few stately homes around a square with four lime trees and a stone cross in the centre. These are not simple farmhouses, but a haven of handicrafts indispensable to humanity, providing the mountain people with essential commodities. In the valley and scattered along the mountainsides are many little huts of a sort common to such regions — whose inhabitants belong to the village, use its church and school, and support its craftsmen by buying their wares. Even more distant huts are also part of the village, but, hidden away in the mountains, they cannot be seen from the valley; these people rarely come down among their fellow-parishioners. Often, indeed, they are obliged to keep their dead with them over the winter till they can bring them to the valley for burial after the snow has melted. The great man of the village is the priest. The villagers regard him with veneration and he, after a protracted stay in the valley, usually becomes used to isolation, stays on not unwillingly, and then just goes on living there. At least since time immemorial no priest in the village has ever craved a change; none has been unworthy of his calling.
There are no roads in the valley, merely cartways with double wheel-tracks, along which the crops are brought home on one-horse carts. Accordingly, few strangers come to the valley; among these an occasional wanderer, a nature-lover who lives for a time in the prettily-painted upper room of the inn, enjoying the mountain-view; or possibly an artist who sketches in his portfolio the delicate church-spire and beautiful rocky peaks.
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.
They are steadfast, ever adhering to the ancient ways. If a stone is dislodged from a wall, that very stone is put back; the new houses are built like the old ones; damaged roofs are mended with shingles just like those they replace. If the cows on a farm are brindled, the calves on that farm must always be brindled; the colour never changes.
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. There is not a man, young or old, in the village who has not something to tell about its peaks and crags, its caves and crevasses, its streams and torrents — either something that has happened to himself or that he has heard about from others. This mountain is the pride of the village, as though the people had made it themselves, and with due respect to their honesty we can't swear to it that once in a while they would not lie for the honour and glory of their mountain. Besides being notable in itself, the mountain is actually profitable, since on the arrival of a party of mountain-climbers to make the ascent from the valley, the villagers serve as guides; and to have been a guide — had this or that experience, known this or that spot — is a distinction which affords anyone great satisfaction. When they sit together in the common room at the inn, they are always talking about their feats and strange adventures, never failing to mention what this or that traveller said and how much he had given them for their labours. The mountain also sends down from its snowy flanks streams that feed a lake in the forest, from which a brook emerges and flows merrily through the valley, driving the saw-mill, the grist-mill, and small machinery of various kinds, providing cleanliness for the village and watering the cattle. The forest tracts afford timber and also break the force of the avalanches. Through subterranean channels and loose soil at these altitudes water filters and, coursing vein-like through the valley, comes to the surface in little fountains and springs from which the people drink. And as time and again they offer strangers this unrivalled, much extolled water, they never stop to think how useful it is, accepting it simply as something that has always been there.
With regard to the change of seasons on the mountain, in winter the two pinnacles called horns are snow-white and on clear days stand out in the dusky atmosphere with blinding brilliance; all the alpine meadows at the base of the summits are white then, as well as their sloping shoulders; even the precipitous rock-faces or walls as the people call them, are coated with a white velvet nap of hoar-frost and glazed with ice-tissue, so the entire mass towers like an enchanted castle above the darkish weight of grey forest mantling the base. In summer as the sun and temperate winds melt the snow on the steep gradients, the horns soar up, as the mountain people say, black into the sky, their surface marked only by exquisite little flecks and snow-veins. These veins, however, are not really white but the delicate milky blue of the distant snow on the darker blue rocks. At higher levels in hot weather, the alpine meadows about the horns never lose their blanket of eternal snow and it shines down on the verdure in the valley; but on the lower levels the recent winter snowfall — a mere down — melts away, and iridescent blue-green tints appear in the glacier that, now bared, greets the people in the valley. 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. One time a baker, carrying his basket over the col, was found dead at this spot. A picture of him and his basket with the pines about him, was painted on a tablet, fastened to a scarlet post, and erected to mark the scene of the tragedy. At this marker, one turns off the road and follows along the col instead of making one's way straight down into the valley beyond. There is here an opening in the pines as if a road led into them and indeed during part of the year there is a path leading to the rustic memorial, by which timber is brought down and which afterwards disappears, overgrown by grass. Proceeding along this path which climbs gently, one comes at length to a clearing quite bare of trees, a barren heath with not so much as a bush, only scant heather, drought-inured mosses and small hardy plant-life. The ground then rises sharply and the ascent is long; one climbs in a worn groove or trench, which has the advantage of preventing one from losing the way over the vast sameness of heath. After a time, rocky towers as of a church thrust upward from the grassy floor and between these walls one keeps on climbing. Then more bare ridges appear, with scant vegetation, and one is breathing the air of the higher altitudes that lead direct to the ice-cap. At either side of the path is a steep wall, and it is this defile which joins the snow-mountain with the col. To scale the ice one skirts the margin for some time above the rocks that surround it, until one comes to the packed snow bridging the crevasses, snow hard enough at most seasons to bear the traveller's weight.
At the highest point of the icefield, the two horns rise from the snow. These peaks are difficult to ascend, moated as they are by snow, now wide, now narrow, and the bergschrund or rim must be compassed by a leap. Since the sheer verticals offer only scant ledges for foothold, most climbers are satisfied with reaching the bergschrund and from there enjoy as much of the panorama as is not cut off by the horn. Those wishing to reach the summit can do so only with the aid of spiked shoes, ropes, and cleats.
There are other mountains besides this one on the southern horizon, but none so high. In the early autumn they too are covered with snow, and on into late spring. Summer, however, eats the snow away and the rocks gleam in the sun with a gentle allure, and the rich green of the lower forest is intersected by broadlying violet shadows — a scene so lovely, one could look at it all one's life and never tire of it. Along the valley in other directions — to the north, the east and the west — the mountains stretch away into the distance, on and on, but lower, with occasional pastures and patches of tilled ground on the slopes and higher up forest clearings and alpine huts, the skyline marked by a delicate saw-tooth edge that is an indication of the moderate height of the range; whereas on the southern horizon the mountains, although clothed with magnificent forest, sweep along with smooth outline against the luminous sky.
Standing in about the middle of the valley, one has the impression that not a single road leads either into or out of the basin — an illusion familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the mountains — while in reality there are several roads leading not only into the northern plains, but also toward the south, where the valley appears to be closed in by walls of perpendicular rock, there is the col path.
The little village is called Gschaid; and the snow-mountain that looks down upon its houses is called Gars.
On the other side of the col, with the beaten path from the wayside shrine leading down to it, is a much more beautiful and fertile valley than that of Gschaid. As one comes into it, one encounters the stately market-town of Millsdorf. It is a sizeable town with several kinds of mills and a number of buildings in which trades and crafts are housed. The inhabitants are more prosperous than those of Gschaid, and although the valleys are only three hours' distance apart — a trifling matter to mountain people, used as they are to great distances and inured to hardship — manners and customs in the two valleys are so different and they are so unlike in appearance, one would think that untold miles separated them. This is often the case in mountainous regions not only because of their varying positions — more or less propitious — with relation to the sun, but also as a result of character, which has led the inhabitants to choose differing occupations. But in one respect they are all alike: they cling to what is traditional and to the ancient ways of their forefathers, never seem to miss the bustle of traffic, love their own valley ardently, and could scarcely exist away from it.
Excerpted from Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore. Copyright © 2012 Adalbert Stifter. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rock Crystal tells a simple story: two children, crossing a mountain range, become lost in the snow and are forced to spend a harrowing evening stranded on a glacier. The prose, beautifully translated by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore, is a marvel of compression and economy. Not a single word seems either out of place or extraneous. The structure of the story--best described, perhaps, as a novella--is as precise as a geometric pattern.As for deeper meaning, it is difficult to fully assess the totality of the work without giving away the ending (a sin blithely committed by W.H. Auden in his thoroughly mediocre introduction--DO NOT READ IT UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK!). Suffice it to say, it is a Christmas story as well as a fable. And, it is a story about the nature of community--the process by which outsiders become part of the whole. As is quickly evident from the many literati who have lavishly praised this book, there is a great deal moving under the surface of this relatively linear narrative.Above all, this is a remarkably written book that has the power to move you. A wonderful Christmas read.
Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal is a simple story almost a parable or a fairytale except that he spends so much time detailing the life and culture of the mountains. Stifter saves the story through is appreciation of the combined beauty and danger of nature (as expressed in the snow storm and the mountain pass). The moutain and the storm almost become characters in the story.I was also intrigued by the tension between the Catholicism of the villagers and a sense of the divine being dwarfed by nature and nature itself as the threat against human existence which seems more akin to the sense of nature in early Nordic sagas.I don't want to read too much into it since is is essentially a simple tale, but I liked it more than I anticipated. My only complaint is that one should wait to read the introduction by Auden until after reading the story since he gives the plot of the story almost immediately and it ruined the sense of discovery I might have otherwise felt about the story.
Beautifully translated, perfectly formed novella. Stifter is the "landscape painter" of German realist novelists, and this little novel begins with a liesurely tour of a mountain range, so that as readers we know our way around. Then two little children get lost in the mountains. It's not meant to be melodramatic: it's the opposite: a potentially maudlin story told with absolute calm and with fastidious and accurate attention to the Alpine landscape. Beautiful and serene.W.H. Auden makes all these points in his intentionally simple introduction. Stifter means to make a Christian parable, but it is not a parable of redemption. It is about harmony: harmony of people with themselves, with eachother, with the landscape. People and mountains are largely silent. A person's regard of another shows how much they understand of that other: the boy of his devoted sister, both the boy and the girl of the mountain.The pace and the purpose of the story couldn't be farther from the frenetic & hysterical inventions of our current novelists (thinking of McCarthy, Galchen, Baker, et al.).it is a wonderful tonic. I would read it as a tonic, a reminder of the fact that the frantic need to invent clevernesses in every line, which has come to seem like nothing other than good writing, is a form of obliviousness to other meanings.
Rock Crystal is a simple story, short and perfectly written, about children lost in a snow storm.
This unassuming novella strikes a deep chord. One never does know precisely what two children lost in an alpine snowstorm encounter, but the beauty of the telling of their tale is striking; the vision lingers.The unreckonable mountain is as much a focus of the story as are the characters--it is actually by far the most delineated, the most detailed sketch. The power of this simple story lies perhaps in its lingering descent from the mountain peaks into two small towns in neighboring valleys, and only then into the lives of some of their inhabitants--a godlike view, if you will, that serves to hold the fate of two small and unformed beings against the weight and longevity of a glacial age, somehow for a moment balancing the two.I'll echo others in this: you'll be glad if you skip Auden's rather perfunctory introduction, or go back to it only after you've read the story.