Brigitta and Other Tales: Kitsch or Force of Nature?
Stifter polarized despite his romantic-sounding stories. His texts divided the readership. Thomas Mann criticized the old-fashioned, moralizing style, while Friedrich Nietzsche praised his work as a literary icon. What is it about Stifter's texts that some appreciate and others revile?
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1967
Stifter polarises - even though one might not think so, considering his seemingly romantic stories. But soon after his texts' publication, his audience divided. On one side, there were people like Thomas Mann, who found his style too moralising and too old-fashioned. Others like Friedrich Nietzsche however, were deeply impressed by his works and called him a literary icon. But what is it about Stifter's texts, which is either adored or abhorred?
For a start, his stories often revolve around an individual person and their struggle with fate. This is the case in most stories from "Brigitta und andere Erzählungen". Brigitta is and has always been a good person, but she constantly has to struggle due to her ugliness. Abdias has to cope with several misfortunes at once. He is robbed, his wife dies and his only daughter loses her eyesight. And the children in "Bergkristall", Konrad and Sanna, also have to face a difficult challenge. Right in the middle of a snow storm, they lose their way in the mountains. They are caught between two rival villages - with their mother being from one village and their father from the other. After visiting their grandparents, the children can no longer find the way home.
In many of Stifter's texts, Christian values and the good in people are praised. Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) is considered a Biedermeier writer, whose depiction of rural idyll and moral is often seen as kitsch nowadays. Some of his stories might indeed seem rather conservative. Making sacrifices for others and a virtuous life are frequently at the centre of the story. But that is not enough of a reason to dismiss Stifter's texts.
After all, there is no other author who could capture the appeal and effect of nature quite like the Austrian Stifter could. He created something that was much bigger than the stories themselves, as he was a true master in describing landscapes. In his stories, nature impressions elaborately transition into the depiction of characters. As a result, the reader will not only experience a story but an entire world.
The description of the mountains in "Bergkristall" for instance, also turns into a depiction of the inner life of the scared children, who are lost in the cold winter on Christmas Eve. They are not only physically but also emotionally caught between the two rival villages. This isolation is reflected in the landscape.
Stifter thus creates atmospheres that transcend the stories. In his texts, everything seems connected. They have a magic spark that still has not faded, even a century after their first publication. On the contrary. Especially in our time, where we have become so disconnected with nature, it is all the more exciting to read these texts. They enable us to take a moment and sink into another world. His texts illustrate a deep love of nature and humanity. Instead of inventing fantastic worlds, he concentrates on what his readers know first-hand but might have forgotten over time. And it would be a hasty judgment to dismiss Stifter as melodramatic or kitsch, because it would ignore his true value. Or - to use Stifter's own words: "What would an artist be, if every fool could understand him right away?"