Last year, Stanford University Press published a selection of Hannah Arendt’s essays on the arts under the title “Reflections on Literature and Culture.” One of the pieces in the volume was Arendt’s review of a 1945 translation of the novella “Rock Crystal,” by the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter. To Arendt, Stifter (1805-68) was “one of the very few great novelists in German literature,” whose work stood out for its “pure happiness, wisdom, and beauty.” Above all, Arendt stressed the power of Stifter’s natural descriptions: He was “the greatest landscape painter in literature … someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words.”
In casting Stifter as a writer of lucid serenity, a maker of natural idylls, Arendt was following a long critical tradition. One standard history of German literature describes him as “a poetic soul” with “a serious, sane view of life,” who remained “untouched by the political currents of his age.” It all sounds a bit dull and worthy, and perhaps helps to explain why Stifter remains almost unknown to English readers, despite his high rank in German literature. As even Arendt acknowledged, “nothing in our time or in the non-German literary tradition … meets this work half-way. Our sense of homelessness in society and of alienation in nature … are constantly contradicted by Stifter.”
more from the NY Sun here.