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Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868)

Ich war schon als Knabe ein großer Freund der Wirklichkeit der Dinge gewesen, wie sie sich so in der Schöpfung oder in dem geregelten Gange des menschlichen Lebens darstellte.

Even as a boy I have always been a great friend of the reality of things, such as they present themselves in God’s creation or in the orderly course of a human life.

Opinions on Stifter have always been divided. His contemporary Friedrich Hebbel despised him, as well as Arno Schmidt who scathingly criticised his works: ‘Eine noch eindringlichere Magna Charta des Eskapismus ist schwer vorstellbar.’ (‘It’s hard to imagine a more insistent Magna Carta of escapism.’) On the other hand, authors such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and W.G. Sebald cherished his works.

Stifter can sometimes be challenging to read. His language is impressive, beautiful and innovative, and many of his novellas, often with a kind of surrealist tinge, are well ahead of their time in terms of plot and style. Typical for his works are extensive, often painstakingly accurate descriptions of inanimate things (and indeed, his favourite word by far seems to be ‘Dinge’). He can go on about the minute details of a house’s interior for page after page before finally beginning to tell the actual story, most notoriously so in his novel Der Nachsommer; Indian Summer.

Stifter’s characters often are embedded in complicated self-imposed routines by means of which they try to gain a certain degree of control over the world they live in. Very often, these carefully devised routines focus on rather banal aspects of daily life, such as reading or preparing and eating food. Beneath the surface, however, intimations of mortality lurk. Especially in the earlier works hints can be found about something terrible and unimaginable that will come to pass should the enforced order fail. For instance, in the midst of an epic description of a seemingly idyllic landscape, time and again images of death and decay crop up. In Der Nachsommer; Indian Summer, the corpse of a magnificent stag killed by hunters lies rotting in a brook. In Die Narrenburg, a shepherd brings home a dead lamb in his arms. In Abdias, the beloved daughter of the main character dies a meaningless and futile death after having been hit by lighting. Not all of these examples play a significant role for the plot, but they add to the overall atmosphere of Stifter’s work, insinuating that not everything is quite as sterile and controlled as the characters yearn for things to be. Stifter’s narrative worlds are dominated by a vague and terrible awareness that everyone and everything dear to them is under constant threat of being lost or crushed under overwhelming forces well beyond the control of the individual.

Adalbert Stifter was born on 23 October 1805 in Oberplan, a village in Bohemia. His father died when Adalbert was still very young. Therefore, he had to work on his family’s farm as a child in order to help make ends meet. Financial means were scarce and it was only with difficulties that Stifter could be sent to a grammar school in the nearby town Kremsmünster run by the Benedictine order. There, Stifter was educated in philosophy, history and religion as well as the sciences. Later on, he described this period as the happiest days of his life. In 1826, Stifter began to study law in Vienna and at first was quite a successful student. His financial situation, however, remained precarious, and his unhappy love to Fanny Greipl, along with the growing habit of alcohol abuse, finally caused him to fail at university. In 1837, Stifter ended up marrying the hatmaker Amalia Mohaupt, declaring in a letter to Fanny that he didn’t really love his wife and only married her in order to get over his feelings for Fanny. The couple never had children. They adopted a niece of Amalia’s, Juliane, who eventually took her own life by drowning herself in the Danube in 1859. Maybe as a result of these experiences, the topics of children and childlessness recur throughout Stifter’s work. In 1842, the novella Abdias was Stifter’s first successful work, establishing his name as a writer. Since the end of the 1850s, his health steadily deteriorated due to excessive overeating and continuing alcohol problems. On 26 January 1868, bed-ridden with liver cirrhosis, Stifter used a razor to cut his own throat and died two days later.

Further Reading in English

Eric Blackall, Adalbert Stifter: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948)

Samuel Frederick, Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011)

Margaret Gump, Adalbert Stifter (New York: Twayne, 1974)

Brigid Haines, Dialogue and Narrative Design in the Works of Adalbert Stifter (Leeds: MHRA/IGS, 1991)

Michael Minden, Martin Swales and Godela Weiss-Sussex (eds.), History, Text, Value: Essays on Adalbert Stifter. Londoner Symposium 2003 (Linz: Adalbert Stifter Institut; London: IGRS, 2006)

Helena Ragg-Kirkby, ‘“Die Kinder liebten ihre Eltern nicht und die Eltern die Kinder nicht”: Adalbert Stifter and the Happy Family’, Oxford German Studies 27 (1998)

Helena Ragg-Kirkby, ‘“Eine immerwährende Umwandlung der Ansichten”: Narrators and their Perspectives in the Works of Adalbert Stifter’, Modern Language Review 95:1 (2000), 127-43

Helena Ragg-Kirkby, ‘“Warum nun Dieses?”: Verblendung and Verschulden in the Stories of Adalbert Stifter’, German Life and Letters 55:1 (2002), 24-40

Helena Ragg-Kirkby, Adalbert Stifter’s Late Prose: The Mania for Moderation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000)

T.J. Reed, ‘The Goethezeit and its Aftermath’, in Germany: A Companion to German Studies, ed. by Malcolm Pasley 2nd edn (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), pp. 493-553

Keith Spalding, ‘Adalbert Stifter’, in German Men of Letters, ed. by Alex Natan, vol. 5 (London: Wolff, 1969), pp. 183-206

Alexander Stillmark, ‘Stifter's Symbolism of Beauty: The Significance of the Flower in his Works’, Oxford German Studies 6 (1972), 74-92

Martin Swales and Erika Swales, Adalbert Stifter: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)

Erica Weitzman, ‘Despite Language: Adalbert Stifter’s Revenge Fantasies’, Monatshefte 111:3 (2019), 362-79

Further Reading in German

Christian Begemann, Die Welt der Zeichen. Stifter-Lektüren (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1995) 

Christian Begemann and Davide Giuriato (eds.), Stifter-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2017)

Katharina Grätz, Musealer Historismus: Die Gegenwart des Vergangenen bei Stifter, Keller und Raabe (Heidelberg: Winter, 2006)

Johann Lachinger, Alexander Stillmark and Martin Swales (eds.), Adalbert Stifter heute: Londoner Symposium 1983 (Linz: Adalbert Stifter Institut; London: IGS, 1985)

Wolfgang Matz, Adalbert Stifter oder Diese fürchterliche Wendung der Dinge (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2005) [Biography]

Arno Schmidt, Der sanfte Unmensch: Unverbindliche Betrachtungen eines Überflüssigen (Frankfurt/Main: Ullstein, 1963)

W. G. Sebald, Die Beschreibung des Unglücks. Zur österreichischen Literatur von Stifter zu Handke (Salzburg: Residenz, 1985)