Stifter, Adalbert (2005), Der Nachsommer, insel
[Originally published in 1857, translated by Wendell Frye as Indian Summer]
Adalbert Stifter is the towering giant of Austrian literature, who helped shape the modern literature of his country. He has written both in the long and the short form, producing very long novels, shorter novellas and short stories alike. In 1857 he published Der Nachsommer, translated by Wendell Frye as Indian Summer, which is his best known and most celebrated work. It is an exemplar Bildungsroman (some even claim, the only perfect Bildungsroman), a meditation upon art, life and love. However, In German-language literary criticism this book as been an object of hot debate. Famous writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Arno Schmidt, Friedrich Hebbel, Ludwig Harig have raised their voices in praise or derision ever since the book’s publication. Today it’s generally regarded as one of the most important (if not the most important) novels in Austrian literature, it’s taught in schools, at university; a monument of German-language literature. There is no sex, nor violence in this book, it’s not written in a difficult or abrasive style. So how has this book become so contested? What is it that provokes people to passionately comment upon it?
Many people, especially Arno Schmidt, who, in two of his entertaining and brilliant radio essays, completely destroyed Stifter’s two major novels, Der Nachsommer and the historical novel Witiko, criticize Stifter as being complacent and earth-shatteringly boring. Its fans, like Harig, point out how warm and immersible the book is. I daresay, if you share the novels complacent attitude towards the world and connect to its young, questing protagonist Heinrich, you may enjoy it. Personally, I found the book extraordinarily boring, easily one of the most boring “good” books I’ve ever read. This does not mean, however, that I do not recommend the Nachsommer. Without a doubt, this is a very rich book, dense with detail, thought and reference; I even maintain that much that is boring in the novel is actually intentional or at least functional. With less boredom the book would certainly be more fun to read but would it be as good a book? I would not vouch for this. The boredom is derived both from the overflowing wealth of described objects as well as from the deliberate writing that processes any information in careful order, piece by piece.
The fact that this huge (in my edition 791 pp) book contains only a thin plot and spends the rest of its time rambling, doesn’t help either. The protagonist, Heinrich, son of a merchant, has educated himself for the better part of his adolescence (one thinks of Faust’s lament “Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, / Juristerei und Medizin, / Und leider auch Theologie! / Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn. / Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor! / Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.“) and decides, at the onset of the book, to delve into geology, for which endeavor he takes it upon himself to wander around his country, looking at nature and observing it until he comes to a house that belongs to a well-off noble called Freiherr von Risach. All this is stretched over a good many pages; in contrast to some boring books which start to sag after a few dozen interesting pages, Stifter elevates boredom to an art form. There is nothing interesting to turn boring, the very second page had me yawning. It’s because Stifter develops everything carefully, and if an action contains seven steps you can be sure he’ll show us each one of them. Of course, he jumps ahead and sums things up now and then, but when he slows down and lets us take a look, he pulls no punches, boredom-wise.
Here’s an example: when he comes to von Risach’s house, he knocks and asks to be let in because he thinks it will rain soon. Von Risach disagrees. The following discussion extends over several pages, incredibly redundant, and frighteningly dull. At times they appear to discuss the reasoning for their different estimation of the probability of rain, at other times they talk about the area, telling each other what wood is near what river. There is no disagreement there, they are basically finishing each others’ sentences, but it drags on and on and on, so when they decide to step inside to let the weather decide the winner of the rain debate, the reader breathes a sigh of relief. This kind of discussion comes up all the time and I was exasperated. At first I found all this very artificial, very tiresome, but actually, it’s a dull kind of realism. Reading this dialogue aloud, one finds that, minus the elevated language, everyday discussions, small talk, especially, really are this repetitive, this dull and irritating. People do tell each other things that they both know and they do discuss completely useless facts in minute detail, just to be the one who’s right.
At the same time, all this ‘unfiltered realism’ really is artificial: it’s utterly constructed, arranged to form a larger pattern. The sequence of events and the details are all significant, as when Stifter, on the second page, describes bookshelves in his home, and how his father sometimes opens them and how he sometimes takes out a book and puts it in again. The how of this description is far more important that what it describes. The slowness of his father’s actions, the care with which he looks at a book and with which he returns it to is rightful place on the shelf is what’s important, and Stifter needs every word he uses to impress these things on the reader. Stifter knows what he wants, in the same chapter he describes it as “stern exactitude” (“strenge Genauigkeit”). Order. It’s about order, about the system of things. Not in an abstract way, though. It’s the small details of life, the interactions of the individual elements where we see order, or where Stifter shows us its existence; not only that, he also shows us how it should be. “Every thing and every human being, [Heinrich's father] used to say, can be only one thing, that one thing, however, it needs to be completely.” (“Jedes Ding und jeder Mensch, pflegte er zu sagen, könne nur eins sein, dieses aber muß er ganz sein.” (crappy translations are my own)). And how is it determined what that one thing is? By function. Your identity is that one which best fits the order.
This point is elaborated upon as Heinrich steps into von Risach’s house and strikes up a friendship with him. He doesn’t ask for his host’s name and von Risach does not volunteer to tell him. So he refers to his house as the rose house, because on the walls of the house, roses grow plentiful. They indicate an important fact: Von Risach has a ‘green thumb’. As we are about to find out, in excruciating detail, he has a large garden, which is rich and full of healthy, beautiful plants and trees. There are various pests about in the country, birds, vermin and others, which are harmful to gardens and crops everywhere, as Heinrich witnessed on his peregrinations. Astonished, he inquires about the secret of the garden and von Risach explains to him (in far too many pages) that the garden is constructed in a way that restores perfect balance. He grew plants that would attract birds that specialize in eating the vermin that is so common and harmful; he attracts bees to crowd out other insects and so on. There is another long and dire conversation that reveals this order that von Risach created in his back yard. He explains that he utilizes each plant and animal in the best possible way, the only way that would create this completely functional balance in the garden. Everything needs to be used in the best way possible, which, as Heinrich’s father’s sentence and other passages in the book suggest, applies to human beings as well. This is what some would call complacent. Stifter has no interest in stirring the pot, in allowing his realism to depict social unrest or anything that could incite it. No, Der Nachsommer tells us that things are fine as they are, or they would be if people would behave as they should.
So, yes, the book is very dull and very complacent, but it’s also really well constructed. Actually, it provides a complete image of the ideology its pushing and all its pictures and analogies are so apt, so like examples for a philophical thesis, rigorously arranged, that, at times, I wondered whether somewhere in his work a counterpart novel, an antithesis, existed. All the details fit. The garden, for instance, and the application of its model structure to the human sphere. Von Risach didn’t impose a natural order, the garden functions perfectly for humans. Had he left the garden alone for a year and it would likely be balanced all on its own, but it would look disorderly. See, when Stifter talks about an order, he doesn’t necessarily mean biological order. It’s a cultural order, an aesthetic order (this is one of many echoes of Stifter that resonate through Bernhard’s work, in this case Frost) The plants do not profit from looking pretty and growing in rows, it’s the human eye that finds this pleasing. In the analogy, it’s both God’s order that we should not disturb and a more abstract human order, relevant and applicable to the real world. Women, for example. As Stifter tells us in a throwaway phrase,women can be educated, but only if it does not come at the expense of the only education that matters to them: how to be a wife. The book does not contain any poor people but their place, it’s implied several times, is to be poor; that’s just how things work. The proper order of things is Nachsommer‘s major concern.
Reading Der Nachsommer, one slowly grows accustomed to its rhythms, one starts following the unspectacular winding paths of its narrative with a certain kind of joy. Also, there’s a love story in the book, which becomes more prominent as the book progresses. As a true Bildungsroman, the novel charters Heinrich’s entering society as a full, mature member; ideally, this also means he should be married, or at least have love affairs. As the love affair picks up speed and von Risach steps up his lessons to Heinrich, we witness a man being shoehorned into society, learning his trade, picking up a wife, growing up (there’s a whole Bildungsroman discussion, about the Turmgesellschaft in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and similar things, attached here). Stifter is an extraordinary writer, his writing is always elegant, as I said, always controlled, and it creates a feeling of intense warmth, if you lean back and let the book string you along. But you, or I, anyway, never stop being vaguely bored; additionally, you can’t help but notice how cold, au fond, this book really is. There are several degrees of power, nature (and women) very low on the ladder, human beings, especially men, somewhat higher, art and craft (there’s a huge section dealing with these two terms and their differences alone) somewhere in between. But at the top, there’s no-one.
Stifter asks us to abdicate responsibility, compassion and commitment to a structure, or possibly to God, because the structure has the last word. If everything works as it should, everything is fine. It’s this book’s mantra and it’s repeated time and again. This is annoying, and, ultimately, deeply unsettling and unpleasant. I’ve said it before and repeat it: Der Nachsommer is both a very good and a very bad book. On account of the intense boredom I suffered, I cannot possibly recommend it, despite the excellency of the writing, thinking and composition involved. If you are interested in modern Austrian literature at all, moreover, you cannot pass this book by. It’s importance and stature is enough to warrant reading it, if one has the time. It is a rich book, frequently beautiful and meditative, written by an aesthete and a master of his craft. And it’s boring, annoying and complacent. It’s your choice. Hey, I’ve read it. Would I read it again? Not sure. And Stifter’s writing is instrumental here. I have not seen Frye’s translation, I have no idea if it delivers as it should.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)