Friday, April 11, 2014

things were pretty violent and bloody during the last war - Johann Peter Hebel's war stories

The other 19th century war fiction I recently read was Johann Peter Hebel’s Treasure Chest (1811, more or less), which I read, of course, because of the chapter in Sebald’s A Place in the Country.  Almost none of the Hebel used by Sebald is present in the English Treasure Chest (tr. John Hibberd, 1994), or in English anywhere outside of the translated Sebald essay, which is an irritation.  I read this book as a substitute for a book that does not exist.

Hebel’s main literary form was the almanac, which he wrote under the guise of Der Rheinländische Hausfreund, the Rhineland Family Friend, beginning in 1808 and continuing, off and on, through 1819.  I am surprised it is not a form still in use by some literary eccentric.  I am not sure how “real” the almanacs were – what the weather prediction and holiday calendar was – but the form was flexible, allowing for stories, jokes, real news, fakes news, crime, moral tales, songs, poems, and riddles.

The almanacs were popular, thus the 1811 “greatest hits” collection of The Treasure Chest, which leans towards the fully formed stories and away from the more topical writing.  The result is less personal, by which I mean there is less digressive fun – Hebel knows his Sterne – with the narrator, the Hausfreund as Sebald calls him.  And the translated book is itself just a selection of a selection.

I sound like I am complaining, but I am not.  I would just like to read more Hebel, that is all.  The strange thing about the English Treasure Chest is that something like a story begins to appear, even from the fragments.  The story is a war story.  What else, after all, made up the news of 1808 and on for several more years?

In the Tyrol things were pretty violent and bloody during the last war.  They had just murdered a Bavarian staff officer, and their swords and dung forks were wet with blood as they pushed into the room where his wife was, weeping with her child in her lap, telling God of her grief, and they were going to murder her too.  (120)

The story, just a page and a half long, is titled “An Officer’s Wife Is Saved,” so we know it turns out all right for her, if not the poor officer.  Horrors of war show up in more and more stories as the book goes along, and if not the war than something as bad, like “Terrible Disasters in Switzerland,” three and a half pages (plus a woodcut!) of anecdotes of those killed by or miraculously saved:

… in that one night, and almost within the space of the same hour, whole families were smothered by avalanches, whole herds and their byres were crushed, pastures, gardens and orchards were swept away, scooped out down to the bare rock, and whole forests were destroyed, flung down into the valley below or the trees tangled, crushed, bent and broken like blades of corn in the fields after a hailstorm.  (106)

I compare this to passages of Hebel quoted by Sebald, for example when Hebel “calculates matter-of-factly” some of the material costs of war, for example the materials used in one ship, “1,000 mighty oak trees, as one might say a whole forest; further 200,000 pounds of iron” (A Place in the Country, 29), plus the rope and canvas and tar and, incidentally, men, most of this soon to be destroyed.

The avalanches somehow become an aspect of war; war takes on a cosmic character; the author emerges from behind his gentle moral tales and riddles as a visionary writer.


  1. Hebel's almanacs are almost exactly contemporary with that chronicle of war's disasters, Goya's The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

  2. That us true - that is interesting. What a strange connection. I mean the two artists have such different temperaments.