"In most places, midnight as the very hour of his birth is solemnized by ritual of great splendor, to which the bells ring out their heartsome invitation through the still darkness of the wintry air; then with their lanterns, along dim familiar paths, from snow-clad mountains, past forest-boughs encrusted with rime, through crackling orchards, folk flock to the church from which solemn strains are pouring—the church rising from the heart of the village, enshrouded in ice-laden trees, its stately windows aglow."
I realize now that, as a child, whatever magic surrounded Christmas for me seemed drawn exclusively from the past: old movies and old storybooks; my grandmother's anecdotes of her own childhood Christmases; paintings, photographs, or other such images culled from or invoking of antiquity. I've just read Adalbert Stifter's novella Rock Crystal (New York Review of Books Classics, $14.95), quoted above. It was written in, I believe, 1853. I was immediately entranced and even moved by the book's delicate evocation of a time of year that as an adult I've come largely to dread—I'm irreligious, have no children, dislike frantic shopping and hate most Christmas music—and this relationship between Christmas's former allure and such elements as the darkness of long nights unadulterated by streetlamps and luminous skyscrapers, genuine quietude, ancient rites and activities, and the serenity of an era that predates modern consumerism, now seems very obvious to me. I didn't want to be transported to a mall; I wanted to be transported back to several decades before my birth. I've always had a special attachment to Ingmar Bergman films—maybe I just wanted to share my holidays with Fanny and Alexander.
The story of Rock Crystal is easy enough to summarize: two children travel from their tiny Alpine village to a slightly larger Alpine village to visit their grandmother on Christmas Eve; on the way back they're lost in a snowstorm and forced to pass the night outdoors. The problem with offering such a synopsis is that this little drama constitutes only about half of Rock Crystal's page-count. The first third or so, in which Stifter's trickling prose runs through descriptions of the villages of Gschiad and Millsdorf, their inhabitants and customs, their relationship to the world beyond and most especially to the natural splendour surrounding them, initially seems to promise no drama at all. It seems rather like a work of wondrous, affectionate anthropology, until we gradually realize that everything Stifter details foreshadows the children's journey: the hubris of their shoemaker father, the gifts provided by their grandmother, the discovery of the remains of a baker in the woods. Stifter draws his narrative from an exacting sense of place, an approach that, along with Rock Crystal's setting, may have had a considerable influence on Visitation, a wonderful recent novel by the contemporary German author Jenny Erpenbeck.
I don't know how I first came to hear about Stifter, who was born in Bohemia in 1805, and died in Austria in 1868. Everything I've read refers to him as unknown or forgotten, but my finally getting around to reading Stifter was prompted by WG Sebald, that specialist of the forgotten, who cited Stifter as an influence and, indeed, whose ornate sentences not only owe something to Stifter's, but whose particular obsession with history possessed an unmistakable precedent in Rock Crystal, whose descriptions are so rapturous that it's as though posterity depends on sheer urgency and devotion.
(Incidentally, Stifter's description of how the residents of Gschaid "are obliged to keep their dead with them over the winter till they can bring them to the valley for burial after the snow has melted" reads almost exactly like the description of dealing with the dead in Sebald's own Alpine village offered in Sebald's 1998 Writers & Company interview with Eleanor Wachtel.) In the writings of both Stifter and Sebald, memory is a living force, the past inextricable from the now, and the dead remain somehow present. Reading their work inevitably comes with an air of melancholy, but it also comes with deep consolation, perhaps most of all during these longest nights of the year. V