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Rock Crystal (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – September 16, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Two children, Conrad and Sanna, walk from their village in the Alps to visit their grandparents the day before Christmas. On their journey home, they take a wrong turn and are feared lost in a snowstorm. Lyrical and descriptive, this brief tale by Austrian writer, poet, and painter Stifter (1805–68) will do well where literary fiction is appreciated." --Library Journal

"On one level it can appear as timeless and simple as a folktale. Yet Thomas Mann came closer to the true experience of reading Rock Crystal when he praised Stifter as 'one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature.' In Rock Crystal, as in a Mann story, plot and description are never 'innocent,' no matter how lovingly they are elaborated. Rather, as the novella unfolds, succinctly but without hurry, it evolves into a parable of frightening depth. It is no more than 25,000 words, if that, but in this short space Stifter transports the reader to the heart of the world's mystery, before returning him to a comfortable dailiness that henceforth cannot help but feel haunted." --The New York Sun

“A miracle of quiet beauty.” –The New Yorker

“W. H. Auden in The Times called this ingenuous, mystical tale ‘a quiet and beautiful parable about the relation of people to places, of man to nature.’ …Beyond its leisurely beginning lies a painstakingly polished and fashioned gem, an ageless, mystical folktale whose return deserves a 12 month celebration.” –The New York Times, 1965

“[Rock Crystal] has remained dear to the hearts of lovers of German literature. A beautiful new translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore…It’s account of the courage and faith of little children and its reverent feeling for the beauty of nature and for the sacred symbolism of Christmas have a value that has little to do with literature. It is one of pure feeling.” –The New York Times, 1945

“Adalbert Stifter is ranked by critics among the best prose writers of Austria. We do not think the praise is too high.” –The Christian Examiner

“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.” –Hannah Arendt

“Whereas romances are rarely fearsome, even when teeming with dragons, tales quite often are. The fear that must underlie even our most cordial relation with the elements has an established place in them. I think of Rock Crystal (Bergkristalle) in the wonderful collection Colored Stones (Bunte Steine, 1853) of the Austrian Adalbert Stifter; it tells of two children, brother and sister, lost in a mountain snowstorm at Christmas-time while returning from a custom-honored three-hour walk to their grandmother's house down the valley. The quite ordinary and familiar two-horned alp traversed by the shoemaker's children is a mountain more magic than any of Thomas Mann's imagining.” –Mary McCarthy, The New York Review of Books

About the Author

Adalbert Stifter (1805–1868), the Austrian writer, poet, and painter, grew up in Bohemia and was educated at the University of Vienna. Among his most famous works are the novel Indian Summer and a collection of stories, Colored Stones.

Fanny Howe, the author of more than twenty books of poetry and prose, was the recipient of the 2001 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for her Selected Poems. She was short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001 and 2005.

Marianne Moore (1887–1972) is universally recognized as one of America’s finest poets.

Elizabeth Mayer (1884–1970) was a German-born American translator and editor.

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 76 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159017285X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590172858
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #176,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By William Anderson on June 3, 2009
Format: Paperback
Stifter is my favorite writer, and to see two of his works in print, and available in the U.S., is, for me, a dream come true. I always check the "S" section in the bookstores to see if anything appears, and now, to my amazement there are two books in print. (This one, and *The Bachelors*, published by Pushkin Press). I like to think I have conjured Stifter.

I have, over the years, acquired about half of Stifter's works in out-of-print English translations. I want to direct people to these books. They can be found through Amazon and other online out-of-print book dealers.

First, some points about Rock Crystal. In the English speaking world, we get Goethean naturalism indirectly, through Wordsworth, then Ruskin. Stifter comes right on the heels of Goethe, and I see Stifter realizing some of Goethe's visions. Rock Crystal is very faithful to Goethe's naturalism. The children are nature-transformed on the glacier. I think of the falling star as an event that marks the conflation of the nature-transformation and the Christian transformation. Naturalized Christianity. The children's distance from the Christian festivities, far below them in the valleys, is a measure of the distance from Christianity that Goethean naturalism has taken us. Stifter is not quite post-Christian, as Goethe & Emerson were, but he is concerned with reconciling Christianity and Naturalism, as his conservative Biedermeier culture retrenched after Goethe's revolutionary forays into nature, which is beyond good & evil. This shadow side of nature leads to the dark side of Stifter's work, least of all in Rock Crystal, which maintains the tone of a simple children's tale. There is a new critical work on Stifter by Helena Ragg-Kirkby, who goes into this dark side of Stifter in great detail.
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Format: Paperback
The Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, translated from the German by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore, was first published by Pantheon Books, Inc., New York, in 1945, and now republished in 2008 by The New York Review of Books, New York. The book contains an introduction by W.H. Auden who described the book as "a quiet and beautiful parable about the relation of people to places, of man to nature." The New Yorker aptly described it as, "A miracle of quiet beauty."

That is what it is: an extraordinarily beautifully written ninety-nine page, 19th Century novella of two children who after visiting their Grandmother on Christmas eve, have to traverse through a high mountain pass in the Alps to return home. They get caught in a blinding, heavy snow storm, making their proceeding with ever increasing difficulty as the temperature falls to a bone chilling coldness. Not being able to see clearly, with tress and rocks indistinguishable in the snow and darkness, they make a wrong turn and get to a point from which they are only able to climb higher and higher. They finally realize that they are lost and in desperate need of finding shelter before they freeze to death as another traveler had some years earlier. The shelter that they eventually find is a combination of large boulders which nature caused to form into a hut, enclosed on all sides but one. There, huddled together, and drinking some very strong coffee their Grandmother was sending home to their parents, they struggled to keep awake so as not to freeze to death. As the snow storm dissipated, stars appear, slowly, one by one, transforming the dark night into a wondrous, magical world of glistening silent beauty. Outside their stone hut they see a glacial field glittering with ice crystal diamonds.
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"Rock Crystal" is a simple tale of lost children, their childish courage, their survival and rescue. It's also a tale of a simple close-knit community that responds with humane energy to a possible tragedy and knits together even more closely through realization of shared joys and dangers. The story is set at Christmas-tide but it's very significantly NOT a Christmas story, not a miracle. Christmas is a backdrop, a scrim of shared memories and values among the people of the isolated Alpine valley. The children are resourceful; in a sense, they save themselves by making sensible decisions. Some readers have tried to see a 'divine' intervention in the spectacle of the Northern Lights, which the children behold with awe during their night of exposure on a glacier, but there is no intervention. The spectacle is Nature, already portrayed as awesome and yet material in the rocks and crevasses of the mountain where the children are stranded. In fact, the 'heavenly' display no more leads to their rescue than the glacier meant to mislead them. Humans are subject to the forces of nature, to accident and error, yet they are strong as well, especially in community.

It was a great relief for me to read this classic novella, recommended to me by my trans-Pacific amazonian book sharer. I had just read three long, grotesque novels of thorny Christian symbolism -- Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor, Christ Versus Arizona by Camilo Cela, and Voss by Patrick White. All three 'celebrate' the contemptible insignificance of humanity except in abject submission to an angry God. What a relief to find Stifter celebrating humanism and the sublimity of human life, even in a remote cleft of traditional decency in a valley surrounded by titanic peaks and glacial eternities.
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