Well, it’s after Thanksgiving … which means it’s practically already Christmas Eve, which also means it’s time for me to start my yearly jumping up and down and yelling at everyone within earshot about my favorite Christmas tale: Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter.
I’m telling you about it in advance so you have time to forget to order it, then remember to order it, then forget to read it, then remember to read it … maybe just in time on Christmas Eve, as you really should. I read it every year—and I’m not the only one. If ever a book had a cult-like following, it’s this one. Stifter (almost unknown today to English-speaking audiences) was a 19th-century German who influenced a handful of bigtime marquee names that followed him: Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke—but don’t let those old gasbags scare you off!
Rock Crystal is a deceptively simple story about two very young children—a brother and sister—who go over the mountain (I’m underselling this—they’re ALPS) and through the woods to grandmother’s house (really, they do that) on a snowy Christmas Eve and get turned around in a blizzard on the way home later that evening. They are lost on a massive glacier, and the story hairpins from a charming holiday almost-folktale to a deeply moving story of survival.
It’s really a book about capital-N Nature and there are some sections of it—I am thinking in particular of the scene where the Northern Lights make an appearance—that are the reason the word “breathtaking” was coined. It’s a small story that asks some Big Questions: what is our place in the world? What is our relationship with it? Is it indifferent to us? Are we indifferent to it? No matter how many times I’ve read it, it’s always managed to make me just be quiet for a minute.
You can easily read it in one sitting, though it might be just a shaaade too long to become a read-aloud-in-front-of-the-
I prefer it the old-fashioned page-turning way, though; and while relatively few of Stifter’s books are currently available in English translations, Rock Crystal is easy to find thanks to a cool, crystalline 1945 translation by Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Mayer published by by NYRB Classics (those NYRB books are going to be the thing that sends me to the poorhouse, mark my words). There are also some beautifully illustrated editions from the 1950s out there that can be had for a song, if you’re that sort. I SECRETLY HOPE YOU’RE THAT SORT.
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