As you finish one of these stories you might have the sensation that you’ve awakened abruptly in unfamiliar territory, far afield from where you thought you were headed, and that while you were busy reading, something was done to you—that, for instance, you were implanted with some device that resonates to the frequencies of the cosmos. At least that’s what happens to me ... the stories are sumptuously pictorial. They share certain highly original formal and stylistic eccentricities—which Cole takes effective pains to render into English—but there is nothing flashy about them. On the contrary, they are stately and reticent, the elements of their narratives are almost bizarrely simple, the characters are largely devoid of distinctive personalities, and until and unless one is thunderstruck by their transporting and ineffable mystery, they might seem not all that different from fairy tales, without the fairies ... Although their ingredients are, so to speak, pantry staples, the finished concoctions, with their stealth oddness and enigmatic reverberations, foil practiced responses ... The word that comes irrepressibly to mind regarding Motley Stones is 'sublime,' in its now rather archaic sense that encompasses vastness and violence as well as extreme beauty.
A collection of six tales, most of them closer in length to novellas than short stories, first published in 1853 and newly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole ... The titles Stifter gave these pieces—each named for a different type of stone—refer to a childhood rock collection he describes in a preface. The point is to assure readers that this is but a humble gathering, each story a simple stone, charming upon close inspection. In reality, Stifter’s tales are not simple at all, but sweeping and complex ... It is through storytelling that drama enters Stifter’s tales. Stories are not just accounts of experience; they are a primary means by which we encounter the world ... Catastrophe is always there, waiting to disrupt the bucolic normalcy, a dark note of existential indifference and an admonition against forgetting ... Had this volume contained an additional six stories, Stifter’s writerly patterns might start to feel repetitive. But the variations here are fresh enough to operate more as themes than formulas, and the collective result is like a map to a particular literary sensibility, a worldview in which storytelling is at the center of humanity, but humanity is not the center of the world.
This marvelous skein of six thematically linked novellas, in subtle versions that preserve the eccentricity of the originals, feels like an unexpected gift after our collective run of catastrophes ... his stories consistently have the sheer strangeness, and occasional creepiness, that we associate with such near contemporaries as Melville and Hawthorne ... His vividly described disasters—floods, fires, storms, plagues—feel unnervingly of our time, as do the narrative disruptions they carry in their wake ... Stifter’s stories are often about endangered children, perhaps reflecting his own disastrous experience when he and his wife took in her troubled niece ... It is this enigmatic (geheimnisvoll) quality that is the key to Stifter’s strange, disturbing, and wondrous stories.