The writers become increasingly obscure as my Nineteenth Century Rehab post-Booker therapy takes me deeper and deeper into unknown but very exciting mittel European book territory.
Amongst the books from Angel Classics some excellent discoveries and names unknown to me so I've made a start with Adalbert Stifter (1805 -1868).
Thomas Mann described him as
'one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature.'
thus making his current invisibility even more surprising.
Perhaps, like Irmgard Keun, a resurgence is imminent as I discover Pushkin Press will be adding to the available work of Adalbert Stifter next year and Brigitta, the book I'm reading also readily available.Let's hope his Amazon ranking of 1,575,263 takes a turn for the better because it deserves to.
Austrian writer, poet and painter born in Bohemia.
By all accounts a sad life, but you begin to wonder how possible happiness was in those days, impossible to judge by present-day expectations.
His father was crushed to death by an overturned wagon when Adalbert was twelve but thanks to his grandfather, Adalbert's education continued and he studied Law at the University of Vienna.After a five year courtship his marriage to Fanny, the true love of his life, was forbidden by her parents so he settled for the beautiful but uneducated Amalia. Finding themselves childless they tried to adopt Amalia's neices but one ran away and another disappeared and turned up drowned in the Danube four weeks later.
Adalbert became a tutor to the aristocrats of Vienna and was held in high esteem there at least and gradually established a profitable writing career.Sadly life and his liver went into a terminal decline and with it his mental faculties until finally Adalbert slashed his throat with a razor at the age of sixty-three.He died two days later which doesn't bear thinking about and is probably best glossed over.
So there you have the man and with no expectations about his writing I embarked on Brigitta, a book of novellas translated by Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly and the first story Abdias.
I quickly realise that this is where Stifter explores those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The stuff of life and what it can throw at you.
'For the ancients this was fate, frightful, final, inflexible cause of events, farther than which one can see and beyond which nothing more exists, so that even the gods themselves are subject to it: for us it is destiny, therefore something sent by a higher power which we should accept. The strong submit to it humbly, the weak rebel against it complainingly, and the base are dully amazed when the monstrous occurs, or go mad and commit crimes.'
The scene is set for us to follow the life of the Jew Abdias, now a stooped ninety-year-old figure sitting outside his house day after day.
Set initially in Africa and later in Europe, Abdias is born into a wealthy trading family living in the desert lands beyond the Atlas Mountains.Cosseted and pampered by his mother, his father has the right but slightly misdirected idea and eventually pushes him out into the world with just a camel and gold coin and parting words along the lines of 'don't come back until you've sussed it.'
'since man owns nothing in the world apart from what he acquires for himself and what he can acquire for himself again at any moment, and since nothing makes us secure except this ability to acquire, go out now and learn it.'
It is fifteen years before Abdias returns, rich in both gold and life experience and all constantly put to the test for the rest of his days. Arguably chronically emotionally wounded by it all Abdias is both wily and ruthlessly cunning, but equally capable of deep love and quiet, gentle emotion and this is never so evident as when he is left to raise his baby daughter.
On occasion fate deals him a seemingly good hand and it is fascinating to surmise on all this as you read, because good hands for Abdias so often hold promises of woe. However I suspect it was a genuine royal flush the day that the only animal nearby when the baby needed feeding was a lactating donkey.
I had always understood that donkey milk was the closest in composition to human milk, more so than cow's milk, so little Ditha was lucky indeed and here's startling evidence to confirm.
There is certainly an overwhelming and melancholy sadness to the story, a sense of lives tossed around helplessly in the storm, but it is beautifully crafted. Underlying elements of vision and ways of seeing prevail as the story unfolds and as the translator suggests in the introduction
'if one sees with the eyes only, one is blind.One must see with the heart'
Stifter cleverly suggests that readers suspend judgement on Abdias and in the end I didn't feel like passing any at all on a man who had lived the life he was given and dealt with whatever it threw at him to the best of his ability.
What more can be asked of any of us?