Johann Peter Hebel - These stories were originally published in a popular almanack edited for a wide readership. They cover a broad spectrum of human experience. Kafka called Hebel’s ‘Unexpected Reunion’ the ‘most wonderful story in the world
Johann Peter Hebel, The Treasure Chest, Introduced and translated by John Hibberd. Penguin Classics, 1995.
(Schatzkastlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes, 1811) by Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826)
These stories were originally published in a popular almanack edited for a wide readership. They cover a broad spectrum of human experience, their dramatis personae ranging from Napoleon to common soldiers, working men and women, servants, and petty criminals.
A couple of weeks ago I was dismayed to read Rachel Cusk's article about trying to get a reading group to like Chekhov. They didn't. Meanwhile, a survey of reading groups suggests that people throughout the land seem to think that, as far as they're concerned, Birdsong was the first English novel ever published. And there aren't any foreign ones.
So I'm now going to recommend a classic. Not only that: I'm going to recommend one that is German, of which you probably haven't heard, and that exists at the very margins of what we consider "literature" to be.
The Treasure Chest is, for all practical purposes, folk art. There are more than 100 stories here, some no more than a paragraph long. Their genesis lies in the ailing fortunes of (deep breath) the Curfürtlich badischer gnädigst privilifgirter Landkalender für die badische Margravschaft lutherisachen Antheils. This was basically a newsletter for the Lutheran community in Baden, but people weren't reading it any more, even though the government had ordered every household to buy a copy.
One of the people brought in to improve the situation was Hebel, a Lutheran pastor and headmaster from the Black Forest but at the time a respected member of the Lutheran establishment in Karlsruhe. His first suggestion: change the title. His next: get a man of the people, close in heart to the intended audience, to run the whole show. No one except himself seemed to fit the bill.
And so he began to write (among other things) the weird, funny, touching, good-humoured, sensible stories that make up The Treasure Chest. Told with maximum clarity and velocity, there seem to be only three criteria behind them: they should be entertaining, easy to read, and morally and socially useful. I have already read out to Mrs Lezard the tale of the man who was locked out of his house by his wife when he didn't return from the pub till one o'clock. The next day, he lifts the door off its hinges and takes it with him. "After that his wife never again shut him out and went to bed, but used love and sweetness to mend his ways."
Who knows? It might just work.
Walter Benjamin once made the striking claim, when writing about Hebel, that "death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death." He was referring particularly to the story "Unexpected Reunion", which I won't spoil for you here but which Kafka considered "the most wonderful story in the world".
It is true, there is a lot of death here, whether in the form of bad luck, the brisk march of history, or the gallows which Hebel's thieves and con-men occasionally fear; but there is a great deal of life and good humour too. There is also more than one instance of lifting a door off its hinges in the collection, and this is like Hebel's art: he will surprise you with his audacity. These stories appear naive, but they're not stupid, and they're not condescending either. This is genuinely democratic stuff, on the side of the little man (and woman), but quick to praise eminent people who do not lose the common touch.
Hebel has as sure a grasp of the world as he has of the way to amuse his readers. (The stories are not only pan-European, set everywhere from England to Russia, but they even cross the Atlantic.) Nearly two hundred years after he wrote them, you'll get the point of Hebel in about a minute, and if you're not smiling two minutes after that, then there is no hope for you.
My only gripe is that Penguin has seen fit to charge £12.99 for a book with only 175 pages. At first I thought the figure was a misprint. How Penguin thinks it is going to sell more than five copies charging a sum like that is beyond me. The best way of looking at it is to imagine that you're getting 10p's worth of wisdom each time you read one of the stories. It is worth it, but that's thanks to Hebel, not to Penguin. - Nicholas Lezard
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.) - P.N. Furbank
A Shave as an Act of Charity
A poor man with a black beard came into a barber’s shop and asked, for the love of God, not for a piece of bread, but a shave: would the barber kindly take off his beard so that he looked like a decent Christian again? The barber picked up his worst razor, thinking, ‘Why should I blunt a good one when he’s paying less than nothing?’ While he was scraping and hacking away at the poor wretch, who couldn’t complain since the bad job was being done for nothing, the dog started howling in the yard outside. ‘What’s up with Rover,’ said the barber. ‘to make whine and howl like that?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Mike. ‘Don’t ask me,’ sad Johnny. But the poor devil under the razor said, “ He must be being shaved for the love of God too, like me.’
Well Spoken, Badly Behaved
A farmer on a nobleman’s estate met the schoolmaster in the fields. ‘Schoolmaster, do you still stand by what you were telling the schoolchildren yesterday: “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”? The schoolmaster said, ‘I can’t change a word of it! It’s written in the gospel!’ So the farmer boxed his ears, both of them, for he had a long-standing grudge against him.
Meanwhile the nobleman was riding by a little way off with his gamekeeper. ‘Go and see what those two are up to over there, Joseph!’ And as Joseph came up, the schoolmaster, who was a sturdy fellow, boxed the farmer’s ears twice too, saying ‘It is also written: “With the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. Good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give unto your bosom”!’ And with that text he gave him another half dozen good blows to the side of his head. Joseph went back to his master and said, ‘There’s nothing to worry about, sir, they’re only discussing Holy Scripture among themselves!’
Remember: You must not try to argue about Holy Scripture if you don’t understand it, least of all the way they did. For that same night the nobleman had the farmer locked up for a week; and the schoolmaster, who should have had more sense and more respect for the Bible, was sent packing when school closed in the spring.