- The Treasure Chest by Johann Peter Hebel, translated by John Hibberd
Libris/Penguin, 175 pp, £19.95, May 1995, ISBN 0 14 044639 7
It is important not to misinterpret what the disgruntled hero of Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’, tired of hearing about the vaunted ‘universal progress’ of the dog community, says about ‘old and strangely simple stories’:
I do not mean that earlier generations were essentially better than ours, only younger; that was their great advantage, their memory was not so overburdened as ours today, it was easier to get them to speak out, and even if nobody actually succeeded in doing that, the possibility of it was greater, and it is indeed this greater sense of possibility that moves us so deeply when we listen to those old and strangely simple stories. Here and there we catch a curiously significant phrase and we would almost like to leap to our feet, if we did not feel the weight of centuries upon us.
I suspect that, among the stories that Kafka or his Dog had in mind, were those of Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826). At all events, Kafka called Hebel’s ‘Unexpected Reunion’ the ‘most wonderful story in the world’, and the judgment does not strike one as absurd.
Hebel’s stories, or parables, first appeared in the Lutheran almanac for the grand duchy of Baden. Most German states had their own almanac or Landkalender. The Baden one, however, had fallen on evil times (it was not helped by a government edict that every household must buy it), and Hebel, as headmaster of the Karlsruhe grammar school, had taken on the task of reforming it. One of his first steps was to give it a new and snappier title – Der Rheinländische Hausfreund – and the ‘friend’ suggested by this title, with his companionable, slyly didactic, never quite predictable manner, became an essential feature of his persona as author.
Hebel was the son of a weaver and a peasant’s daughter from the Black Forest. With the help of his father’s employer, a well-to-do Swiss officer in the French Army, he was enabled to attend the Karlsruhe Gymnasium, where he trained for the Lutheran ministry, and eventually he made a distinguished career for himself in the Church, and also as a teacher. At Karlsruhe he taught Hebrew, Greek, Latin and geography; and when, in 1803, the French Army was approaching and the Margrave and his court decamped, taking with them the professor of botany and biology, Hebel had to take on those subjects too. He protested his incompetence but within a few years was being offered membership of leading German scientific academies.
By tradition, a calendar-maker was, or had to pose as, a polymath, and it was a role, as one can see, for which Hebel was excellently equipped. He was able to instruct his readers about the mechanism of cloudbursts and the medical danger of leather garters, about how to make ink and the habits of moles. (It was an instructive example in logic, he explained, that the mole, quite unjustly, was blamed for eating the roots of plants. It was true that wherever plant-roots got eaten one would find moles and molehills; but it was not the moles, but certain grubs or white worms, who ate the roots, and the moles were there to eat the grubs. This could be clearly proved from the construction of the mole’s jaw.) He instructed his readers about arithmetic and astronomy, though not astrology (the stock-in-trade of almanacs) and was a man committed to philanthropy and reason. (Some of his Bible stories were widely used in Baden schools until 1855, when it was decided that his approach was too rationalistic.)
Another of Hebel’s interests was medieval German. He convinced himself that the dialect of the Black Forest region, which he had spoken as a child, was a language with a distinguished ancestry, being in truth the ‘Alemannic’ of the Minnesänger; and on a return visit to his childhood haunts, in a sudden burst of inspiration, he composed a volume of dialect verse, the Alemannische Gedichte, which became very famous, earning him the reputation of a sort of German Robert Burns. Goethe admired the poems greatly, and Jean Paul declared he never tired of reading them.
Thus when he took on the editorship of the Rheinländische Hausfreund he was already known as a writer; and soon the almanac was being read, and items being reprinted from it, far outside Baden. Goethe came across an issue in 1810 which delighted him and made him eager for more, and his publisher Cotta commissioned Hebel to put together a selection of the stories, which came out in 1811 as The Treasure Chest: the SchatzKästlein da Rheinischen Hausfreundes. It established his reputation firmly, and from then on he has never been short of distinguished admirers. Chekhov and Gogol loved his stories, Tolstoy knew some of them by heart, and Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Elias Canetti have paid ardent tribute to them.
The praise is well deserved. This Treasure Chest strikes me as quite a treasure; and the new edition, with its chaste green jacket and endpapers, spacious layout and most ‘speaking’ woodcut illustrations from the original almanac, is a nicely calculated piece of book production, evocative without quaint-ness. John Hibberd’s Introduction is sympathetic and informative; and his translation – to a reader with very feeble German – seems extraordinarily appealing. He only offers a selection, though a substantial one, from the Schatzkästlein, together with a few pieces from other sources, and has placed the emphasis on the stories. Thus we do not get Hebel on rain and snakes and spiders and ‘the earth and the sun’; but one can see that a perfectly reasonable case could be made for this.
The virtue of those woodcut illustrations is their concentration on the point in hand. Never could it be less in doubt that this is a corpse, or an avalanche, or Napoleon, or an unexpected encounter: the pictures are almost indistinguishable from language. In this they remind one of Hebel himself and his trick of summarising a disaster, or a historical sequence, in the fewest possible words. (‘Napoleon sailed straight back to France over a sea swarming with enemy ships, arrived in Paris and became First Consul.’) One could even suppose he got inspiration from such pictures; for it is a leading feature of his style that he pares a story down to its innermost core or essential logic. As C.P. Magill, in ‘Pure and Applied Art: A Note on Johann Peter Hebel’, rightly remarks, ‘Hebel does not construct stories; he lays them bare.’ The consequence is that, in these brief and distilled stories, the slightest gesture may have its effect. Nor can one predict where this effect will be made or the emphasis fall: it may be in some detail of the narrative, or equally in some fleeting moralising comment. How strange and altogether characteristic is his story ‘Mixed Fortunes’. It tells, with a kind of remote humour, how, during the Russo-Turkish war of 1806-12, one of the Russian ships blows up and two seamen are shot skywards, turning somersaults over each other high in the air, and then fall safely back into the sea (‘and that was a stroke of good fortune!’). They are hauled from the water by the Turks and thrown into the damp, dark ship’s hold (‘and that was bad luck!’), and then the Turkish ship blows up too, and the sailors fly up into the air again and are retrieved, still alive, by the crew of their old ship (‘and that was a stroke of good fortune!’). But there was a price to pay for their luck: they have each lost both legs (‘and that was a terrible misfortune again!’); and ‘In the end they died, first one and then the other, and after all they had experienced that wasn’t the worst thing to have happened.’ The tone of this (‘first one and then the other’) is mysterious and most touching. Kafka or his Dog, one feels, could well have had Hebel in mind when saying: ‘Here and there we catch a curiously significant phrase and we would almost like to leap to our feet.’
Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Story-teller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’, has an appealing remark: ‘There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis.’ It comes to mind when one reads the most famous of Hebel’s stories, ‘Unexpected Reunion’. The story, which is only three pages long, tells how a young miner at Falun in Sweden taps at his bride-to-be’s window in the morning as he goes to work but does not return from the mine that evening; ‘and in vain that same morning she sewed a red border on a black neckerchief for him to wear on their wedding-day, and when he did not come back she put it away, and she wept for him, and never forgot him.’ Fifty years later, miners discover the body of a young man, soaked in ferrous vitriol but otherwise untouched by decay and unchanged, and his aged fiancée – the only one to recognise him – has him taken to her house till he can be buried and follows the coffin next day in her best Sunday dress, ‘as if it were her wedding-day’.
You see, as they lowered him into his grave in the churchyard she said: ‘Sleep well for another day or a week or so longer in your cold wedding bed, and don’t let time weigh heavy on you! I have only a few things left to do, and I shall join you soon, and soon the day will dawn.’
‘What the earth has given back once it will not withhold again at the final call,’ she said as she went away and looked back over her shoulder once more.
Among all the arresting touches in this story, one might single out that ‘and looked back over her shoulder once more’, which is beyond all question ‘right’, but which we spell out to ourselves in twenty different ways.
Benjamin’s remark, about ‘that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis’, applies very neatly here. He is also quite right in saying that, in Hebel, ‘the moral always appears where you least expect it.’ All the same, there is something in his approach to Hebel that one digs in one’s heels against. The essay I have been quoting is a lament for the death of the professional storyteller, the man ‘who knows the local tales and traditions’ and who perpetuates ‘the voice of the anonymous storyteller, who was prior to all literature’; and in another essay (‘Johann Peter Hebel: On the Centenary of His Death’) Benjamin speaks of something (a certain kind of cosmopolitanism) that is ‘the mark of all spontaneous popular art’. But after all, one of the ‘marks’ of the popular storyteller is to be long-winded and repetitive – the very thing that Hebel, who pinned everything on extreme concision and laboured over his tales like a Flaubert (though taking care, as he said, that the ‘art’ and the ‘labour’ should not be visible), was signally not. Nor does ‘spontaneous’ seem the right word. As for ‘popular’, the art of the almanac must certainly be that, but the term should be taken in its widest meaning. The Volk for whom Hebel is writing, if we are to judge from the frontispiece, includes not only a rustic or two, but a gentleman, as well as a child and a dog.
Further, the traditional storyteller likes to strike the note of the proverbial and this is not a quality that Hebel, who sets many of his tales in his own Napoleonic times, seems to be after. When he has reworked La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Miller, His Son and the Donkey’ as ‘A Strange Walk and Ride’ it is no longer didactic, or only pretendedly so; it has become purely, and very charmingly, absurd. It is true, some would say, that his stories well deserve to become proverbial; but here another remark of Benjamin’s is relevant. He points out, observantly: ‘It is a peculiarity of these tales by Hebel, and the seal of their perfection, that we see how easy it is to forget them.’ This forgettability is a point of great aesthetic significance.
Behind Benjamin’s notion of the ‘story-teller’ there is lurking a familiar theory or idée reçue, that there are only six or ten or twenty plots that a story can have, and that all the stories in the world have already been told. (He speaks of ‘the web which all stories together form in the end’.) It is an idea I never find very plausible; and it is worth noting that Vladimir Propp, though holding that there is a fixed repertoire of folk-tales (contes merveilleux) and that the laws for constructing them can be established, explicitly says that these laws apply only to folklore: ‘They are not a characteristic of stories perse.’
When we listen to those ‘old and strangely simple stories’, Kafka’s Dog says, what moves us so deeply is the ‘greater sense of possibility’. It is an encounter, not with something traditional, but with something totally new – giving the lie to the notion that all stories have been told already. Kafka said of writing, ‘It’s a birth, an addition to life, like all births,’ and this, surely, will have been the basis of his admiration for Hebel. Hibberd, and even more Magill, tend to speak of Hebel’s appeal to Kafka as the attraction of opposites. ‘Hebel,’ Hibberd writes, ‘had no problems deciding what was true and what was right, when it was appropriate to laugh and when to cry, and the modern reader may well, like Kafka, find welcome relief from some of the products of modernism (and its successors) in an author who is eminently accessible, is not ashamed of sentiment, is cheerful and humorous and sane and human.’ The accent of this seems somehow all wrong, not so much because of what it says about Hebel but because of what it says about Kafka. It is as if he found ‘modernist’ writing a burden to him, whereas it elated him beyond measure. What he felt for Hebel, it seems much more plausible to say, was a sense of profound kinship.