Lizzy's Literary Life

How A Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by A Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog – Johann Peter Hebel


What usually happens during #germanlitmonth is that piles of recommendations are stored in my wishlist, purchased when I have spare cash and then left to collect dust in the TBR until … who knows when?  This year I decided that I would read and review at least one new-to-me recommendation before the month was out.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be a selection of stories, with surely the longest and quirkiest title of the month, published in 1811!  Yet Johann Peter Hebel’s The Treasure Chest was added to the wishlist after reading The Old Book Appreciator’s review at the beginning of the month.  When Thomas of Mytwostotinki added an endorsement saying it was one of his favourite books ever, I was moved to the purchase stage.  Yet £12.99 seemed quite expensive for a 208-page paperback.  Plus the risk.  Early C19th century moral fables? They might be hard to swallow. So instead I spent 80p on the Penguin Little Black Classic as a 26-story sampler.

Never has so little money been spent on so much pleasure.

These stories were everything that the Old Book Appreciator and Thomas promised.  (And I urge you to go read that review, which puts the whole into context. It would take me weeks to put something so well-crafted together.)  Yes, some of these short stories do have a moral, but they were written by a pastor who understood not to sacrifice the entertainment value of his tales, and a pastor who might have been a little subversive at times – because the bad guys don’t always get their just desserts.

Though some do.  In the ghastly story from which the Little Black Penguin takes its title (and is too long to retype) two murderers are undone when, after killing a travelling butcher for his money, and their own child who witnessed the murder, the butcher’s dog uncovers the corpses.  The conclusion, as Hebel reports it demonstrates a black sense of humour and the twinkle in his eye which can always be glimpsed in his narrative style.

The criminals were taken and brought to court. Six weeks later they were put to death, their villainous corpses bound to the wheel, and even now the crows are saying, “That’s tasty meat, that is!”

Stories, such as Unexpected Reunion (incidentally Kafka’s favourite story) have a more emotional register. A week before their wedding,  a couple are separated forever by a fatal mining accident. 50 years later, the well-preserved body of a young miner is brought to the surface. No one recognises the corpse or even remembers the accident from so long ago. Until his former bride-to-be hobbles up on her crutch. As the only person laying claim to him, she gives him a decent burial. Who can fail to be moved at her parting words?

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.

In his essay on Hebel contained in A Place in the Country, W G Sebald discusses Hebel’s “vision of a better world designed with the ideals of justice and tolerance in mind.”  Of course, that is a C19th century vision, not necessarily aligned to C21st values. (Though the way I’m feeling right now, I’m not convinced of the latter.  But that is a completely different story.) It is also a vision with biblical precedents – as is to be expected from the pen of a Lutheran pastor.  Some of this can be seen quite clearly in stories such as The Clever Judge, a witty reworking of the Solomonaic judgement, in which the judge is asked to adjudicate, not over two mothers fighting over a child, but a package containing 800 thalers.

In the introduction to The Treasure Chest (because, of course, I have now purchased the Kindle edition to carry around with me on my phone for some cheering company, whenever I have a spare 5 minutes), Hebel’s translator, John Hibberd discusses Hebel’s enduring appeal. Regarding the naturalness of his writing, he says:

It was undoubtedly that secure naturalness that appealed so strongly to Kafka as a contrast to his own abysses of uncertainty. Hebel 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 humane.

Amen to that.

Hebel’s vision is all the more remarkable given the times he lived in.  Tumultuous is the least that can be said of the Napoleonic era in which Hebel’s early hopes that Napoleon would be a harbinger of beneficial change were gradually dashed.  And yet, he retained his sense of humour.

I’ll leave you with the final story in “How A Ghastly Story …”.  It’s always good to end on a laugh, whatever the circumstances. And this is a particularly good way to end the 2017 edition of German Literature Month.

The Safest Path – translated by Nicholas Jacob.

Now and then someone drunk has the occasional notion or good idea, as a fellow did one day who didn’t take his usual path home from town but walked straight into the stream running alongside it instead. There he met a good man ready to offer a hand to a fellow, even a drunk one, in trouble. “My good friend,” said the man, “haven’t you noticed you’re in the water? The footpath’s over here.”  He too, replied the drinker, generally found it best to use the path, but explained that this time he had had one too many. “And that’s just why I want to help you out of the stream,” said the good man. “And that’s just why I want to stay in it,” replied the drinker.  “Because if I walk in the stream and I fall, I fall on to the path, but if I fell when walking on the path, I’d fall into the stream.”  And that’s what he said, tapping his forehead with his index finger, as if to show that he still knew a thing or two that might not have occurred to anyone else, despite being a bit the worse for wear.


Footnote:  Another unplanned read for me this #germanlitmonth, which saw me – at last – break my Sebald duck!