Der Nachsommer; Indian Summer

[This page by Dagmar Paulus]

Der Nachsommer; Indian Summer (1857)

Der Mensch [ist] nicht zuerst der menschlichen Gesellschaft wegen da, sondern seiner selbst willen. Und wenn jeder seiner selbst willen auf die beste Art da sei, so [ist] er es auch für die menschliche Gesellschaft.

Humans do not exist primarily for human society but rather for their own sake. And if everyone exists for themselves in the best manner possible, they also exist for human society.

Der Nachsommer, Stifter’s only novel apart from the late – and much less known – work Witiko, remains one of the more contested examples of German literature. It has been torn to pieces by critics such as Arno Schmidt (Der sanfte Unmensch; The tender brute) but has also received ardent praise and much scholarly attention. Wolfgang Matz ranks this novel as an inaugural work of literary modernism alongside Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, both of which appeared in the same year (1857); see reading list below (Matz: 2007).

The novel describes the development and education of the young Austrian Heinrich Drendorf (whose name is only given towards the end of the novel), the son of a well-to-do Viennese tradesman. On one of his geological excursions, he encounters the Baron (Freiherr) von Risach, a wealthy retired gentleman living in a stately home called Asperhof in the countryside. Heinrich, initially merely seeking shelter from a thunderstorm, is shown around the house and admires the meticulously kept rooms and workshops as well as the owner’s vast collections of precious stones, paintings, and art works. The two men form a relationship based on personal development, with the baron helping Heinrich both to conduct his scientific studies and to find his path in life more generally. Later, Heinrich encounters the Baron’s neighbour, the widow Mathilde Tarona and her daughter Natalie and falls in love with the latter. Before their marriage, the baron tells Heinrich about his relationship to Mathilde: when he was young, he was a tutor in Mathilde’s home. They fell in love with each other but because of Mathilde’s youth and Risach’s modest means, a marriage was impossible at the time. Mathilde did not see Risach again until the death of her husband, many years later. They now live in close friendship as neighbours, consciously abstaining from a late marriage and enjoying now a form of ‘nachsommerliche Liebe’ – ‘belated love; a love after the summer of one’s life’.

Alongside the plot, the novel is woven through with lengthy descriptions of landscapes, furniture, works of art etc., which can sometimes make it a bit of a daunting read. Arno Schmidt angrily criticised this typical feat of Stifter’s prose as follows:

‘Er beschreibt ein Haus vom Keller bis zum Dach, als müsse er einen Auktionskatalog liefern, oder einen Steckbrief fürs Fundbüro.’ – ‘He describes a house from the basement to the attic as if writing the catalogue of an auction, or a description for a lost property office.’

But at the same time, Stifter’s style has all the hallmarks of a great writer who anticipates literary modernity. Der Nachsommer in particular is revolutionary in terms of aesthetics as it goes beyond the boundaries of the prose of the time and also widens the notion of the Bildungsroman. Stifter’s meticulous descriptions can be read as the attempt to escape from an antagonistic, chaotic world that threatens the very existence of the individual. Der Nachsommer describes such a way of escape by desperately trying to create a sense of meaning in the everyday surroundings of the individual.

In his earlier works, Stifter’s characters often see themselves powerless in the face of nature and/or history. In Der Nachsommer, however, both Heinrich and Risach have found a way to successfully avoid the destructive forces of the world by means of a complete withdrawal into a miniature self-contained cosmos. The highly unrealistic character of this seemingly perfect idyll, however, becomes tangible in Stifter’s intricate and beautiful prose.

Further Reading in English

W. H. Bruford, The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: ‘Bildung’ from Humboldt to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), Chapter 6 on Der Nachsommer

Brigid Haines, Dialogue and Narrative Design in the Works of Adalbert Stifter (Leeds: MHRA/IGS, 1991), Chapter 4 on Der Nachsommer

Helena Ragg-Kirkby, ‘“Äußeres, Inneres, das ist alles eins:” Stifter’s Der Nachsommer and the Problem of Perspectives’, German Life and Letters 50 (1997), 323-38

Alexander Stillmark, ‘Per aspera ad astra: The Secret Insignia of Stifter’s Nachsommer’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 59 (1990), 79-98

Martin Swales, The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), Chapter 4 on Indian Summer

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

Further Reading in German

Saskia Haag, Auf wandelbarem Grund. Haus und Literatur im 19. Jahrhundert (Freiburg, Berlin, Wien: Rombach, 2012)

Wolfgang Matz, Gewalt des Gewordenen. Zu Adalbert Stifter (Graz, Wien: Droschl, 2005)

Wolfgang Matz, 1857 - Flaubert, Baudelaire, Stifter (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2007)