As I read Aldalbert Stifter’s 1845 Christmas story Rock Crystal, which was published in 1999 as a petite volume by London’s Pushkin Press, it was easy to see why W.G. Sebald admired this nineteenth-century writer so much. Rock Crystal contains the bits and pieces required to construct a morality piece, but in the end Nature shoves everything aside with all of the rudeness of an avalanche.
South of the village you see a snowy mountain with dazzling horn-shaped peaks.
A shoemaker from one village successfully woos the daughter of a wealthy dyer from a village on the other side of the mountain. But more than a mountain separates the two villages. The dyer’s daughter has broken tradition by crossing over to the other village, and her father responds by withholding most of the dowry. Within a few years, the shoemaker and his wife have two young children who regularly trek across the mountain to spend a few hours with their grandparents before returning home.
Mothers may love their children and tenderly long for them when they are absent, but a grandmother’s love for her grandchildren amounts almost to a morbid craving.
One year on the day before Christmas, after a dry and warm autumn, the two children cross over the mountain for a holiday meal with the grandparents. They are dutifully warned about the dangers of winter storms by their father before the depart and they receive the same ominous warning from the grandparents as they set out on the return trip. Naturally, halfway home, a furious snowstorm suddenly begins.
But on every side there was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrow circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.
The two children are soon hopelessly lost in an environment that becomes less and less real and more and more dangerous.
As far as the eye could reach there was only ice. Pointed masses and irregular clumps thrusting up from the fearsome snow-encrusted ice. Instead of a barricade that could be surmounted, with snow beyond, as they had expected, yet other walls of ice rose from the buttress, cracked and fissured, with innumerable meandering blue veins, and beyond these walls, others like them; and beyond, others, until the falling snow blurred the distance in its veil of gray.
At night they take shelter beneath to massive boulders and struggle to stay awake and alive. The blinding storm abates and reveals its opposite – the infinite universe of the sky.
The arch of heaven was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array, and through their midst a broad luminous band was woven, pale as milk…
The following day the two children are found, rescue parties from both villages having set out in a symbolic breaking with the past. Stifter makes token mention of the improved relations between the villages, but the last word, as it were, goes to the mountain.
The children, however, can never forget the mountain, and earnestly fix their gaze upon it when in the garden, when as in times past the sun is out bright and warm, the lime tree diffuses its fragrance, the bees are humming, and the mountain looks down upon them as serene and blue as the sky above.
The sublime beauty and terror of snow, ice, alpine heights, and northern extremes is a thread that runs through Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature. In the first section, devoted to the sixteenth-century German painter Matthias Grünewald, we see “the ice age, the glaringly white / towering of the summits…” in the background of Grünewald’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. At the end of this section, Sebald imagines Grünewald staring at the landscape, mourning the death of his teen-aged son.
The forest recedes, truly,
so far that one cannot tell
where it once lay, and the ice-house
opens, and rime, on to the field, traces
a colourless image of the Earth.
So, when the optic nerve
tears, in the still space of the air
all turns as white as
the snow on the Alps.
In the second section of After Nature, Sebald writes of the voyage of exploration of Vitus Bering, who pursued the “vast tracts of whiteness” of the Arctic Ocean between Siberia and Alaska.
All was a grayness, without direction,
with no above or below, nature
in a process of dissolution, in a state
of pure dementia.
And in the final, autobiographical section, Sebald recounts how, at the hour he was born, a freak mountain storm killed four canopy bearers who were helping with the blessing of the fields on Ascension Day.
of doubt have I passed
since that time, but now peace
returns to the dust and I read
of the eighteenth century how a
verdant land is submerged
in the blue shadows of the Jurassus
and in the end only the age-old
ice on the Alps retains a faint
For more reading along these lines, try Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), possibly the ultimate novel of the Alps and the Arctic, and Peter Davidson’s wide-ranging study The Idea of North (London: Reaktion Books, 2005). The cover illustration for Rock Crystal, by the way, is from a painting by the British artist Jason Martin.