Standing with Stifter


Nerves jangling, uneasy for several days, unable to concentrate on my writing, I turn to the Austrian Adalbert Stifter’s 1867 historical novel, rumored to be the most boring book ever written.

This should slow me down, I thought, this ought to order my jagged thoughts, give them weight the way good sentences and slow stories can.

An armed young man rides through woods on a fine horse:

“Da der Reiter die Schlucht hinaus rit, sah er weder rechts noch links, noch nach der Stadt zurück. Es war eine frühe Stunde eines Tages des Spätsommers, der schon gegen den Herbst neigte. Der Tag war heiter, und die Sonne schien warm hernieder. Das Pferd ging durch die Schlucht in langsamem Schritte. Als es über sie hinausgekommen war, ging es wohl schneller, aber immer nur im Tritte. Es ging einen langen Berg hinan, dann eben, dann einen Berg hinab, eine Lehne empor, eine Lehne hinunter, ein Wäldchen hinein, ein Wäldchen hinaus, bis es beinahe Mittag geworden war.”

It’s a passage of motion, of riding at a slow walk through a gorge, up a hill, along a flat section, down the hill, up a slope and down, into a wood and out of a wood until it is almost midday.

The rider comes to some houses built on uneven ground:

“Die Häuser lagen in Unordnung zerstreut, und der Grund, auf dem sie standen, war ungleich. Es war hier schon kühler als an der Donau; denn da in Passau viele Obstbäume standen, ragte hier nur der Waldkirschbaum empor, er stand vereinzelt, und stand in einer Gestalt, die in manchen Teilen zerstückt war, und bewies, daß viele harte Stürme in den Wintern an ihm vorübergegangen waren. In sehr schöner Bildung dagegen stand die Eberesche umher, sie stand bei vielen Häusern, und mischte das Grün ihres Laubes und das beginnende Rot ihrer Trauben zu dem Grau der Dächer. Die Herberge war ein Steinhaus, stand auch neben Ebereschen. . . . Auf der Gasse standen mehrere steinerne Tischen. . . . Hinter den Schoppen stand Waldwuchs. . . .”

This description, this list of trees and house and stone tables and underbrush, is riddled with things that stand. The many fruit trees standing in the more agreeable climate of Passau are contrasted with the cherry tree of the woods that stands alone and stands blasted by winter storms. In contrast, the mountain ash trees stand beautifully. Because of the uneven mountain ground, the houses stand without order.

The rider stops an an inn, eats, drinks, and gives precise orders for how his horse is to be cared for. The conversation with the innkeeper is precise and courteous. A conversation with another man contrasts the young rider’s knowledgeable self-assurance with the man’s uncertain braggadicio. The care with which the young man performs each action reminds me of the formality of the hunt and meticulous excoriation of the deer in Gottfried’s Tristan.

Then the young man rides on, again up a slope and down and into a wood, repeating the motion of the earlier scene:

“Er ritt in der Richtung zwischen Morgen und Mitternacht fort. Er ritt wieder eine Lehne hinan, eine Lehne hinab, ein Wäldchen aus, ein Wäldchen ein, der Boden wurde immer unwirtlicher und war endlich mit Wald bedeckt.”


What could be more simple? The description moves from verbs of movement to verbs of standing. And then continues the movement.

And my mind has slowed down, is more carefully ordered.

A few pages later Witiko meet a girl and the verb “to stand” sprouts like weeds:

“Sie blieben stehen, sahen auf ihn hin, und er stand gleichfalls, und sah auf sie. . . . das andere blieb stehen. . . . ‘Was stehst du mit deinen Rosen hier da?’ ‘Ich stehe hier in meiner Heimat da’, antwortete das Mädchen; ‘stehst du auch in derselben’?

They stood, looked at him, and he too stood and looked at them . . . the other one stood . . . Why are you standing there with your roses? I’m standing here in my homeland, the girl answered. Are you standing there as well?

. . . and so on. If the novel continues this way, with this emphasis on standing, it will explain why some people find it boring (they just stand there?) and it will give me an additional source for my study of the standing metaphor.

…………….. that’s how I started reading the novel several months ago. Now I’ve come to the end, to page 877 and my intuitions were right. This is a novel about the construction of order in the 12th Century, about loyalties and disloyalties, about establishing law, about constructing order in the face of chaos. There is the forest landscape that under careful husbandry becomes useful. The political uncertainties and wars that arise with the deaths of rulers are forged into a stable system. The single young rider finds his way to a formal arrangement with the family of the girl with the roses and marries with great ceremony. He becomes the leader of the men of the forest and supports the King in Prague with skill and courage. He furthers the cause of Christianity. He builds a castle. He attends, finally, the Reichstag in Mainz in 1184.

Although there are difficulties to be overcome, the steady progress of the good man is never in doubt. He rides. He stands. He rides. He stands. The house he builds, the political system he helps to establish, and the family he begins are marked, like the cherry tree and also like the ash trees by the forces of the forest. The steady progress is marked by the standing metaphor. Again and again and again.

A couple of examples will have to suffice, although I could cite hundreds.

An early meeting in Prague to decide who will be the next ruler features a long discussion in which each man, named and described in detail, in strict order, stands and speaks. A decision is finally made as the men stand to signal their agreement: “Zdik blieb bei der Glocke stehen, und blickte auf the Versammlung. Der Bischof Silvester erhob sich, und blieb aufrecht stehen. Der Abt von Kladrau erhob sich” [as do 17 more named men and many more with them] (114).

Much later in the novel, the ruler chosen at that early meeting who has proven himself wise and courageous and has been named King, faces strong disagreement among his followers about a decision to support the Kaiser in a war against the city of Milan. The discussion tends toward chaos and even potential violence until he finally rises to speak: “Jetzt erhob sich der Koenig Wladislaw langsam von seimem Stuhle, und stand aufrecht da. . . . So stand er da” (810). His standing erect and standing there signal his resolve. His words convince the men quieted by his standing. Witiko speaks after the King about how their deeds in Milan will help to reestablish “order and law” and will finally be celebrated in stories ages hence (816).

Witiko’s deeds lead to his being named a ruler himself, and the word is Standeserhoehung (653). He has been raised in status, given a higher place in the social and political order.

The standing meeting between Witiko and the girl with the roses (Bertha) is repeated a few years later, and although there is a carefully negotiated kiss, the formality of their conversation is proof of their steadfast uprightness and not till a third meeting later in the novel will Witiko ask her parents for her hand in marriage. At this second meeting, however, the standing metaphor again signals the ordered nature of the meeting. Witiko comes through the forest to a great granite stone “der aus dem weichen Grase emporstand. . . . Vor dem Stein war eine Bank aus Holz, und neben der Bank stand Bertha. . . . Sie stand, und sah auf Witiko, Witiko sah auf sie. Dann sagte sie: ‘Bist du gekommen, Witiko?’ ‘Ich bin gekommen’, sagte er, ‘und du stehst wieder wie meine Weissagung am Rande des Waldes, aber ohne rosen’ (410). Here, as in many, many places in the novel, order and righteousness and goodness are indicated by the standing metaphor. The marriage is established, the castle is built, the peace is ensured, justice comes into being. And we have nothing to fear because of Witiko’s and Bertha’s and the King’s uprightness.

Finally, there are the songs written about the deeds of the brave men who establish the new Reich, the epic poems by Heinrich von Oftering that “entstanden” or, literally, “stood into being.” Like Stifter’s novel, which itself stands as a monument to the bold and loyal and careful creation of the German Reich in the 12th Century.

Never have I read a book so utterly consoling, so deeply certain, so steadfast. And, yes, so conservative. The Reich established in these pages will have its crises, will exert its power unjustly. It will have tragic consequences, especially in its third iteration. But at this time and with these fundamentally good people it stands a reminder of what can be done, what can be built, what can be ordered, what can be given beautiful form.

Who would, who could write such a novel?

A man with severe liver problems. A man whose eyes are failing. A man suffering from psychological breakdowns. Adalbert Stifter must retire early, must seek relief where he can. The year after part three of Witiko is published he attempts suicide with a razor and lives for two days before dying.

That tortured man wrote a novel so precise, so detailed, so rich with description (I thought while reading that were one to cut out all descriptions of what people wear, the novel would be a pamphlet), so replete with nouns, so packed with long lists of names of people and places, so firmly established on the foundation of the standing metaphor that it stands as a monument to discipline and hope.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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3 Responses to Standing with Stifter

  1. flowerville says:

    i love the last line, monument to discipline and hope. that how the book feels to me too.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      so, if you ever meet another person who has read the book, let me know. and i’ll do the same.
      i’m about to begin musil’s mann ohne eigenschaften, which i’ve never read. stifter has given me an appetite for length and slowness.


  2. flowerville says:

    ok will do. i have never met anyone else who has read witiko. have read musil – i dont know, maybe ten years ago or so. or more. it has its moments, but then i am more a proust person, so i prefer him over musil. i’m running out of really long books, if you have some recommendations?


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