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November Books

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Issue: 56 Section: Literature & Ideas

December 10, 2008

November Books

New works by Stifter and Endicott

by Linda Besner, Robert Kotyk

Rock Crystal
Adalbert Stifter
Translated by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore
New York Review of Books Classics, 2008.

Rock Crystal, a 19th-century Austrian story now available in an attractive little edition from NYRB Classics, is written in pure, evocative language, never too virtuosic but not at all plain, and the narrative is relayed with majestically broad omniscience and a bountiful sense of history. It is a story that starts off calm and easy but gradually becomes a tale of excruciating suspense. It is about Christmas, but it is not insipid or Christmassy.

A boy, Conrad, and his little sister Sanna embark on a hike to their grandparents' village on the other side of an alpine mountain range. Their grandmother, whose hunger to lay eyes upon the pair "amounts to a morbid craving" (a perfect characterization of grandparental longing), receives them, feeds them until they are full, loads them with snacks and gifts for their parents, and sends them trundling home. On the way back, the children run into trouble: it begins to snow and they take shelter in a mountainside cave. Their grandmother's bundle keeps them warm for the night, a canister of coffee staves off sleep and cold, and in the morning they are found by a search party, to the supreme relief of their mother, whose fears have brought the village to the family's aid. These themes of communal living and of the constancy of rural communities emerge near the beginning of the story, as the narrator surveys the region and its customs:

"The village people thus constitute a separate world, they know one another by name and are familiar with all the grandfathers' and great-grandfathers' tales. All mourn when anyone dies; all know the name of the new-born; they speak a language which is different from that used in the plain; they have their quarrels and settle them; they help one another, and if anything unusual happens, come flocking together."

The author, master stylist Adalbert Stifter, lived from 1805 until 1868, but did not do so with the assistance of any such flocking. When his father died young, Stifter was sent to boarding school. He was barred from speaking to the love of his life, and, when he did marry, one of his adopted children ran away and another was killed. Suicidal, he bled to death from a self-inflicted wound.

How painful it must have been to know tranquility and to have lived its opposite, and how rare to have retained the gift to describe it so acutely. There can never be too many lucid evocations of the past in literature, partly because of the memory-distorting effects of nostalgia, which, as Austria would find out less than a century after Stifter, can usher in problems for the present by erasing those of the past. Stifter is worth reading because he evokes nostalgia without succumbing to it. It should come as no surprise, then, that the late, great W. G. Sebald, possessor of the most clear-sighted vision of the past in recent literature, admired Stifter's powers of expression. So should we all.

– Robert Kotyk

Good to a Fault
Marina Endicott
Freehand Books, 2008.

It is unusual to come across a contemporary novel that takes up moral themes as modestly as Endicott does in her latest work, Good to a Fault. Goodness, in this meditation, is a functional thing, a hospital corridor where reluctant visitors brush past each other on their way to confront realities larger than themselves. Clara Purdy, a middle-aged insurance clerk, is driving to the bank one July day, “thinking about herself and the state of her soul,” when she plows into a beat-up Dart conveying (and housing, as it turns out) the Gage family: hardscrabble parents Lorraine and Clayton, a mulish mother-in-law, and three children; Dolly, Trevor and baby Pearce. Clara’s life is transformed; with Lorraine in the hospital for an extended period, Clayton deserts the family and Clara ends up taking over the care of the three children.

There is immense subtlety in the way Endicott handles her characters and themes; when Clara looks at sleeping Lorraine, Endicott observes, “her mouth had fallen slightly open, relaxed, and her hand lying nearest to Clara had opened too. Long fingers, nicely shaped. She was worth helping.” While the Gages’ lower-class status fundamentally shapes their interaction with Clara, her childlessness acts as an equivalently handicapping ‘status’ marker. At the grocery store, “They got the special grocery cart with the red baby seat. Secretly, Clara supposed, she must always have longed to use this cart. And now she had every right to pop Pearce into the vinyl seat and wrestle with the knotted straps and bent buckles.” Good to a Fault is a work of nuanced social portraiture, and the slow romance between Clara and her (Anglican) priest draws out the problem of childlessness and societal worth in a surprisingly modern way.

– Linda Besner

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