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The Treasure Chest: 'Unexpected Reunion' amd Other Stories.

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) was a man who rose to considerable eminence in the Church and public life of his native Baden, but remained essentially a man of the common people from whom he sprang, and gave literate expression to their common sense, their realistic fatalism and their down-to-earth wit and humour. He recorded the oddities of human nature (and the curiosities of the natural world) and the strange quirks of human fate from the standpoint of one to whom these quirks and oddities still ultimately made a reassuring kind of sense. His output included both poetry, in Allemanic dialect, and prose; John Hibberd has selected and translated about a hundred of the short prose tales and anecdotes which Hebel originally composed for a series of popular almanacs, then himself collected under the title Schatzkastlein. 'Unexpected Reunion' is justly the most celebrated of Hebel's tales, for in less than four pages it epitomizes his vision of the world. A young woman is betrothed to a miner, who is lost underground. Through half a century of vicissitudes and disasters in the natural and human world of Hebel's own lifetime, from the Lisbon earthquake through the American and French revolutions to the Napoleonic wars, she remains faithful to her love, to the day when his body is recovered, miraculously petrified, from the depths of the mine. This message of enduring constancy through change and often violent upheaval is no doubt the reason for Hebel's appeal, not least to minds of very different stamp - from E.T.A. Hoffmann, who transformed Hebel's tragic but heartening story into a gloomily symbolic parable of the 'subterranean' destiny of the Romantic artist, to moderns such as Kafka and Canetti, Benjamin and Heidegger. Hebel sees mortality, even violent death and execution, as part of an assured order of life. Even an unsolved mystery, as in 'A Secret Beheading', contains no Kafkaesquely subversive implication: executioner, and reader, can sleep soundly in their beds, assured that the victim must have been guilty of some, albeit unrevealed, crime deserving of death. Even when 'An Innocent is Hanged', we are not left totally disoriented (as we are by Hoffmann, or Kafka, or Kleist), for if all other answers fail, 'then we know Satan is still alive and active'. Hebel's religious faith is tolerant and undogmatic, but ultimately unquestioned. So too, politically, he emerges unsurprisingly as a liberal conservative, a supporter of enlightened monarchy, a spokesman of the common people, but an enemy of revolution. He celebrates the human face of great men, such as the Emperor Napoleon, remembering his debts to the fruit-woman of Brienne, or General Suvorov, having to be reminded to obey his own orders (again, how different from Kleist's Prince of Homburg!), or the Tsar and the King of Prussia, chatting on the seashore at Memel and mistaken by a stranger for ordinary folk; but Andreas Hofer, the Tirolean freedom-fighter celebrated as a martyr by nineteenth-century liberals, he sees as a mere agitator, 'fishing in troubled waters'. The sentiments are not unlike Goethe's - but without the older man's awareness that the world had in his own time irrevocably changed, and that henceforth it would never cease to change. Hebel believed, as set forth in his great poem 'Die Verganglichkeit' (see Leonard Forster's Penguin Book of German Verse), that one day the Last Trump would sound and all would be swept away, but that until that day all that was essential remained fixed and immutable. These certainties we can, regrettably, no longer share; but in this elegantly translated and beautifully produced volume, the contents of Hebel's treasure-chest still gleam with untarnished brightness.

F. J. LAMPORT Worcester College, Oxford
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Author:Lamport, F.J.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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