London: Penguin Books, 1995. Translated by John Hibberd. Compiled from stories initially published in 1811 as Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes (“Treasure Chest of the Rheinlander House-Friend.”) 175 pages.
I don’t want to ruin the surprise (and delight) you will feel when you open The Treasure Chest for the first time; some bottles of joy can only be uncorked once. The author, Johann Peter Hebel (1760 – 1826), was a country pastor who spent the bulk of his life and career in Karlsruhe, a town in the Black Forest region of Baden-Württemberg, in southwest Germany. Some pastors are known for their grave demeanor, for their fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, while others get by with charisma and geniality (like this guy.) Judging from the stories collected in The Treasure Chest, it is a safe bet that Father Hebel fell into the second camp. Hebel’s stories have been loved by Germans generally and by such illustrious writers as Gottfried Keller, Leo Tolstoy, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, W.G. Sebald and so on—but none of that really prepares you for the stories themselves.
So what’s in the Chest, yo? I can tell you that The Treasure Chest consists of several dozen very witty microfiction-sized stories that, as Hebel’s translator John Hibbel explains, were published in farmer’s calendars/almanacs showing grain prices, weights and measures, saints’ names, tables for calculating interest, alongside which would be these moral tales written by a local pastor, which (so we are told) until Hebel tried his hand at them were generally boring and little-enjoyed in this part of Germany. Hebel’s stories created an instant sensation, probably because they were (and still are) hilarious, but also because (without having examined the genre at all) we can surmise that these stories probably came off, at the most superficial level, as a sort of piss-take parody on the traditional calendar story.
Whereas the traditional calendar story (again, surmising here) told a straightforward moral tale about the good that happens to the good, and the bad that happens to the bad, Hebel’s stories are about greedy farmers and tradesmen, noble soldiers and daring knaves, good-humored princes and clever paupers; they celebrate not merely goodness, but also cleverness; a poor man’s wiles are as valued as a rich man’s riches, and nothing is more celebrated than a brilliant, off-the-wall scheme. Hence in one story we read of the traveler whose “pebble soup” scheme fools the inn-keeper’s wife into giving him more soup, in another a judge’s Solomonic solution to a dispute between a rich and a poor traveler, in another of two lazy blokes who sell fake medicine balls to people. These schemes can get fabulously arcane, and even when they end badly for the schemer(s), Hebel seems to relish narrating the attempt.
Another feature of traditional calendar stories these stories parody is the didactic part, the “moral of the story.” On the surface, each of these stories comes attached to, and illustrates, a moral: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t trust strangers with your money etc. Much of the time in Hebel’s stories, though, the moral comes right on the heels of a totally bonkers, sui generis plotline that seems rather dubious as an illustration of anything other than how wacky the world can be, and so the morals that derive from such stories read like Saturday Night Live parodies of those The More You Know PSAs. If emojis had existed in Hebel’s time, these morals would each have to come with an ;).
Johann Peter Hebel
In the story “A Strange Walk and Ride,” for example, a man and his son get told off by a succession of passersby, first for letting the father ride the donkey while the son walks, then letting the son ride the donkey while the father walks, then having them both ride the donkey, then having neither of them ride the donkey while all of them walk, the ultimate result of this being that the man and his son are both forced to walk while carrying the donkey. The perfectly reasonable moral of this bonkers story? “That’s what can happen if you try to please everybody!” This combination of reasonable conclusions derived from strange premises makes the reader go, “Wait, what!?” And those two characters—!?—accurately convey the emotion I repeatedly felt on finishing many of these stories. Hebel is very much a writer of that wonderful feeling of !?, which all at once conveys confusion and amazement, but more the latter than the former; not so much, “What the heck!?” so much as, “Dude, that’s so random!?” (and brilliant.)
The stories were initially published in 1811 under the title Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes (“the Treasure Chest of the Rheinlander House-Friend”), and the stories are told by a sort of folksy character of the House-Friend. Hebel enters into popular prejudices in order to negotiate his readers past them: When a nobleman’s hidden wealth is exposed to the occupying French by his workman, Hebel appeals to our sense of fairness, saying, “Now that is one of the most dastardly tricks the devil can chalk up on anyone’s list of sins.” When he’s arguing that moles are beneficial and should not be killed, he mimics the expected skepticism:
‘That’s another of stories dreamt up indoors or read in books,’ you’ll be saying, ‘by someone who has never set eyes on a mole!’
But wait a moment! The man we’ve just heard knows the mole better than any of you, better than your expert molecatchers, as you will see.
There follows an explanation that the mole’s teeth prove that moles eat grubs and worms that prey on plants, not the plants themselves. Like a late 18th century Bill Nye the Science Guy, Hebel is using logic and compelling scientific demonstrations to move his audience towards the more reality-based point of view.
There is a great deal of variety in terms of the subject matter of these stories. Many of the stories concern the occupation of German land by French soldiers in Napoleon’s army, and they were written during the Napoleonic Wars when the outcome was still very much in doubt. Hebel has been praised for having a tolerant attitude towards Jews, as shown, for example, in his piece on “The Great Sanhedrin of Paris,” but even his defenses of the Jews are tinged with the folksy anti-semitism that associates Jews with usury, greed, and thievery, and Hebel defends the Jews without quite challenging these prejudices head-on.
Here is my second attempt at assigning numbers to my opinions/gut reactions:
And here are some illustrations culled from a German edition of The Treasure Chest from 1922.