In “Motley Stones,” Adalbert Stifter Describes the Allure of Nature

Growing up in southern Bohemia in the early 19th century, Adalbert Stifter would collect twigs, plants and flowers playing in the fields and meadows, as well as “all kinds of stones and things of the earth.” Stifter loved to contemplate his stone collection – “there was no end of wonderment when a stone had so enigmatic a gleam and shine and twinkling gaze that it was impossible to fathom where it came from.” He never lost that spirit of collecting, he explained in the introduction to Motley Stones, enchanting short stories that demonstrate his fascination with nature and show off the simple, refined beauty of his prose.

Born in Oberplan (contemporary Horní Planá, Czechia), Stifter was a prominent writer during the Biedermeier period in the Austrian Empire. The stories collected in Motley Stones (here, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) are a reflection of the particularities and obsessions of that period: tradition, a certain sentimentality and piousness, feelings of Gemütlichkeit and an interest in nature. His work, sometimes derided as one-dimensional, would influence subsequent generations of German-language writers – Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka among them.

Once Upon a Time

In his preface to Motley Stones, Stifter explains that what grips him are things we often overlook. In nature, it was “the wafting of the air, the trickling of the water, the growing of the grain, the surging of the sea, the budding of the earth, the shining of the sky, the glimmering of the stars” he deemed great as opposed to acts of God, like storms and earthquakes. As for people, “a whole life filled with righteousness, simplicity, self-mastery, rationality, efficacy within one’s sphere, admiration of beauty joined with a cheerful serene death is what I deem great,” Stifter wrote.

Adalbert Stifter
Motley Stones
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole New York Review
Books Classics May 2021 pp 288 €15.87

His short stories thus combine rather vivid, matter-of-fact descriptions of nature with folkloric tales of rural life. The two give Stifter’s work a quality close to fairytale. Though his prose is crafted, his characters, like the humble pastor, mischievous wagon grease salesman and lost children imperiled by an unexpected snowstorm owe something to a particular oral storytelling tradition. His stories – a recounting of memories of an earlier, simpler time – are written in the style a parent might employ in spinning a yarn for a child before bedtime: “All these woods and all these villages were once the scene of a strange but true event, and a great misfortune descended upon them.”

Stifter claimed he did not intend his work to “preach virtue and morals,” yet like other folkloric forms, his stories are defined by a certain morality. Self-improvement and cultural cultivation come through reading and instructional walks in nature. Beauty is in the natural geography, the flora and fauna, and the sound of harmonizing church bells. There is comfort in order, stability and community, and virtue in the strictures of roles people play in village life. A grandfather instructs his grandson to listen to the evening church bells, for “that tongue is telling us, as though we could almost make out the words, how good and how happy and how peaceful everything is in this region.”

“It was once said against me that I fashion only small things, and that my people are always ordinary people,” Stifter wrote in the preface to Motley Stones. “If that is true, I am now in the position of offering readers something smaller and more insignificant still.” In his short stories, he strove to depict the “sublime and the beautiful.” His goal: “To give kindred spirits an hour of pleasure, to send forth greetings to all of them known or unknown, and add a grain of good to the edifice of the eternal,” Stifter concludes.

“That was my writings’ aim, and that it shall remain.”