Memory and Urban Development in Stifter’s Tourmaline

I’m gearing up for writing on Stifter, and have been reviewing some of the stories from the collection Bunte Steine (Colorful Stones). Unfortunately I woke up one recent morning to find my well-loved Reclam edition graced with a pile of feline vomit, so I decided to spring for an edition of the collected works. The historical critical edition being out of my price range, I went with the Insel edition edited by Max Stefl.

Adalbert Stifter Gesammelte Werke Insel Stefl

Such abject matters aside, I wanted to look at the third novella in the cycle, Turmalin (a translation under the title Tourmaline is available in Eight German Novellas from Oxford UP ISBN 0192832182, sadly out of print). A historically underrated entry in Bunte Steine, Turmalin may be the strangest story in a strange collection. At the beginning the narrator tells us

Der Turmalin ist dunkel, und was da erzählt wird, ist sehr dunkel. (1959 : 133).

The tourmaline is dark in colour, and the events which I am going to relate here are very dark, too. . . (1997 : 128).

This is basically a promise of catnip to anyone inclined to the particular pleasures of nineteenth century German literature. The story is about a Viennese gentleman living probably sometime in the late 18th century in one of Stifter’s most marvelously phantasmagoric bourgeois interiors. After his wife has an affair with a visiting actor, she vanishes, so the gentleman packs up his daughter, locks the door, and vanishes. The second half of the narrative is taken up by a woman living in one of Vienna’s suburbs. She tells of how she saw the man on her street. After the father dies, she takes in the daughter, who by now has a monstrously sized head and speaks a thoughtless archaic German.

The suburbs are a curious marginal space beyond the greVienna 1780 Mapen belt that used to be the glacis to the old town city walls. It’s the “empty” space on this map of Vienna from 1780. Note also that this map shows the course of the Danube prior to its “correction.” From the 1860s to the turn of the century, this space would be a construction site as the old walls came down and it became the modern Viennese Ringstraße.

The novella ends with the girl being absorbed into a new family idyll, but lest things get too sentimental, Stifter gives us this:

Der große Künstler ist längst tot, der Professor Andorf ist tot, die Frau wohnt schon lange nicht mehr in der Vorstadt, das Perronsche Haus besteht nicht mehr, eine glänzende Häuserreihe steht jetzt an dessen und der nachbarlichen Häuser Stelle, und das junge Geschlecht weiß nicht, was dort gestanden war, und was sich dort zugetragen hatte. (1959 : 180).

The great actor is long dead, Professor Andorf is dead, the woman no longer lives in the suburbs, the Perron house no longer exists, and on its site and that of the neighbouring houses now stands a row of splendid residences; and the young people do not know what once stood there, or what happened there. (1997 : 163).

It’s an unnerving ending, as in a single sentence we find out that two people have died, the old street has all but vanished, and the space is now populated by people who have no memory. It’s an image from the production of space where the memory of a place is dependent on a kind of spatial continuity. With the old structures replaced, the new generation that has since moved in lead ahistorical lives, opening a gap into which the text of the novella presumably steps. Placing the text in this role is a move that happens elsewhere in the literature of this period, and the texts’ ability to function as a site of memory is always a precarious one. Ultimately what I find unnerving about this story is not the ephemerality of life or urban space, but the picture of collective amnesia. It’s a debilitating condition, suffice it to say. On a personal note, Stifter is describing a historical process that shaped my own life world as a teenager in an area of San Diego that is a picture of everything wrong with post-war urban planning in the United States.

If we look outside the text, it is ironic that the neo-classical and neo-gothic ensemble that would go up in what is now the Ringestraße would be a perfect case study of nineteenth century historism.

Wiener Rathaus, Vienna's neo-gothic city hall on the Ringstraße.

Wiener Rathaus, Vienna’s neo-gothic city hall on the Ringstraße.

Stifter, Adalbert. “Tourmaline.” Eight German Novellas. Trans. Michael Fleming. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. 128-163.

Stifter, Adalbert. Gesammelte Werke. Vol. III. Ed. Max Stefl. Frankfurt a.M.: Insel-Verlag, 1997. Print.

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