Additional Book Information
Series: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: May 4, 2021
by Adalbert Stifter, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
An NYRB Classics Original
For Kafka he was “my fat brother”; Thomas Mann called him “one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, secretly audacious and strangely gripping storytellers in world literature.” Often misunderstood as an idyllic poet of “beetles and buttercups,” the nineteenth-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter can now be seen as a radical experimenter with narrative and a forerunner of nature writing’s darker currents. One of his best-known works, the novella cycle Motley Stones now appears in its first complete English translation, a rendition that respects the bracing strangeness of the original. In six thematically linked novellas, including the beloved classic “Rock Crystal,” human dramas play out amid the natural cycles of the Alps or the urban rhythms of Vienna—environments so keenly observed that they emerge as the tales’ most indomitable protagonists. Stifter’s human characters are equally haunting—children braving perils, eccentrics and loners harboring enigmatic torments. “We seek to glimpse the gentle law that guides the human race,” Stifter famously wrote. What he glimpsed, more often than not, was the abyss that lies behind the idyll. The tension between his humane sensitivity and his dark visions is what lends his writing its heartbreaking power.
The work of Adalbert Stifter, who was one of the very few great novelists in German literature, can be compared to no other writer of the nineteenth century in pure happiness, wisdom, and beauty. . . . Stifter became 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.
More and more I admired this simple spirit that gazes out so purely at the world’s phenomena. Things, often very strange things, often very perilous, enter [Stifter’s] awareness as though it were the light of a lamp and are calmed for a while, as though hearing music.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
[Stifter’s] vision of the world is largely the result of a disregard for literary convention that places human experience at the center of everything, anticipating contemporary calls for an ecological literature that recognizes Nature—what critic Amitav Ghosh calls 'nonhuman presences'—as an equal part of the Reality that novelists seek to represent. . . . The collective result is like a map to a particular literary sensibility, a worldview in which storytelling is at the center of humanity, but humanity is not the center of the world.
—Martin Riker, The Wall Street Journal