One of Hebel’s stories stands out because of the extravagant, almost unbelievable praise it has received from Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, and friendly commenter humblehappiness. “The most wonderful story in the world,” for example. The two page (plus woodcut) story is titled ‘Unexpected Reunion” in my translation, although I think of it as “The Mines of Falun,” the title of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s much expanded 1819 version. Hugo von Hofmannsthal tried to turn it into a very strange play, but he never finished it. Richard Wagner apparently wrote a one page treatment for an opera based on the story. W. G. Sebald more or less stole it for the last sentence of the first chapter of The Emigrants (1992). These are just the descendants I know of.
At Falun in Sweden, a good fifty years ago, a young miner kissed his pretty young bride-to-be and said, “On the feast of Saint Lucia the parson will bless our love and we shall be man and wife and start a home of our own.” (25)
But the miner dies in the mine. Fifty years later, miners find his perfectly preserved corpse. The bride-to-be, now an old woman, claims the body and has him buried, promising to join him soon.
“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.” (28)
The Sebald, where a man emerges not from a mine but a glacier, is:
And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots. (The Emigrants, 23, tr. Michael Hulse)
The story is obviously built for all kinds of symbolic meaning, religious and visionary, or could this be another parable of war somehow? It could; I have skipped the most interesting of the story’s five paragraphs. The miner vanishes and the woman mourns, all in the first paragraph. Here is the second:
In the meantime the city if Lisbon in Portugal was destroyed by an earthquake, the Seven Years War came and went, the Emperor Francis I died, the Jesuits were dissolved, Poland was partitioned, the Empress Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed, and America became independent, and the combined French and Spanish forces failed to take Gibraltar. [Another event-filled sentence takes us into the Napoleonic Wars.] The millers ground the corn, the blacksmiths wielded their hammers, and the miners dug for seams of metal in their workplace under the ground. (26)
The power – in context, the uncanniness – of this passage of plain summarized history is hard to understand. I guess the reader can be pretty sure the miner will somehow return just by looking at the title, but the long gap expressed in this particular way seems to give the unchanging dead man something like cosmic significance. He stays the same while kings and nations change, when war and nature destroy whatever they can. But as the last sentence shows, it is not just the dead man who stays the same. So do many live men.
It all seems so obvious when taken apart, but that is not how it seems in the story, much less mixed in with the other gentle and less gentle stories in The Treasure Chest. Hoffmann is so scared of it that he adds a lot of weird fairy tale stuff. Well, his version is good, too, just not the most wonderful story in the world.