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'Rock Crystal' Tells Of Catastrophe's Quiet Avoidance

Susan Choi's latest book is My Education.

Long, long ago — maybe some time in the 17th century — and far, far away — but almost certainly somewhere in the Alps — two valleys lay next to each other, ringed by high mountains and linked by a sole, lonely path. One unusually warm Christmas Eve two children set out on the path from the northward valley, through pine forest and over the pass, to visit their grandmother in the valley to the south.

Conrad and little Sanna set out early, arrive in time for lunch, and are kissed and showered with gifts by their adoring grandmother. But she insists that they start for home early. The temperature is dropping. Ice is forming on the puddles in the road. As Conrad and Sanna climb the path back toward home, a snowfall begins. It's a snowfall the villagers later call once in a century: "unprecedented unwearying" and "voracious." The children climb and climb, but their path never descends as it should; they never find their familiar landmarks.

So begins the all-but-forgotten Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter's 1845 novella Rock Crystal, every re-reading of which is, for me, exactly like the first time I read it: in a single sitting, with my heart in my mouth and my breath as frozen in my lungs as the mammoth glacier in the heart of which Conrad and Sanna soon find themselves.

Writing about Rock Crystal on the occasion of its superlative English translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore — yes, that Marianne Moore — no less than W.H. Auden noted that "to bring off, as Stifter does, a story of this kind, with its breathtaking risks of appalling banalities, is a great feat. What might so easily have been a tear-jerking melodrama becomes in his hands a quiet and beautiful parable about the relation of people to places, of man to nature."

Auden is particularly right to say "quiet": For all the excruciating detail with which Stifter impresses upon us the plight of the children, the true power of Rock Crystal arises not from catastrophe's noisy consummation, but catastrophe's quiet avoidance: from the series of small miracles by which the children survive.

Although the action takes place on Christmas Eve, or what Stifter's villagers call Holy Eve, and although the Christ-child and his kindness to children are duly mentioned, what really interests Stifter, and us, in this story is not divinity but humanity at its humblest and most resilient: the attentiveness of a big brother, who makes a little roof out of the shawl that his sister is wearing, to keep the snow off her face; or the loyalty of a sister, who maintains her brother's courage simply by how much she trusts him.

Stifter's own life failed to avoid catastrophe: He died by his own hand, at the age of 63. How much more grateful that makes me for this ageless and electrifying book, which, for all the ways in which it feels like a fairy tale, never fails to restore my faith in real-life human beings. With apologies to Auden, I do cry every time that I read it, but my tears don't feel appalling or banal. They feel celebratory.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.

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Susan Choi