Saturday, April 12, 2014

What the earth has given back once it will not withhold again at the final call - the most wonderful story in the world

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.


  1. Thanks, I'd never heard of Hebel and I'm trying to expand my German reading.

  2. One of these days I should do a post on all the authors who were born or lived in the city I live in. I always forget it's quite a crowd.
    Hebel is a bit of a scare crow for me to be honest. School .... I say no more.
    I would love to know the German title of this story. Can you find it, please?

  3. OK, sorry, I found it. Unverhoftes Wiedersehen. It seems it was a true story his friend Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert told him.

    1. Sorry - again - shame typo Unverhofftes Widersehen.
      Here's the German original for those who are interested

  4. Thanks for finding the title and the original. Poor Hebel, so kind, yet forced on unknowing students. He would not want to be forced on anyone.

    Guy - my pleasure! I only wish there were more than one book to recommend.

  5. So interesting that this premise would generate so much enthusiasm. I wonder if it was in any way an inspiration for C.F. Ramuz's Deborence (When the Mountain Fell), in which the twist - a big one - is that the buried spouse is so well preserved that he's actually still alive. That book, anyway, can be read as a parable of war.

  6. The question remains, which is the most wonderful story in the world? I'd say either Pu Songling or Feng Menglong (Painted Skin or Magical Foxes lose a book...). Skipping the usual suspects, here are 12 stories filled with delights and wonders while not often listed among the very best of the best.

    Nabokov's Spring in Fialta .
    Marcel Ayme's La Grace,
    Julio Cortazar's Manuscript Found In a Notebook.
    Robert Coover's Spanking The Maid
    Hebel's above mentioned story,
    Henry James' The Middle Years.
    Marguerite Yourcenar's How Wang Fo Was Saved
    Kafka's Jackals and Arabs
    Ludwig Tieck, Eckbert The Blond
    Manuel Peyrou's That Night, Repeated
    Gogol's Ivan Shponka And His Aunt
    Rudyard Kipling's The Dog Hervey.

    1. I love this list, especially as I have not read a single thing on it except the Kafka story, and that was some 20 years ago. Off to the library...

  7. The Ramuz story seems like the next logical step.

    I have read half of those stories, humblehappiness. I think. Let's say half. How I wish I enjoyed James the way his best readers enjoy him.

    The Tieck story is one I have frequently recommended along these lines.

  8. I feel bad. First I have not read this story (Hebel's) and I have not read any on Humblehappiness list.

    This (Hebel's short story) gives credence to the fact that when the short story is handled well, it is magic.

  9. I would not feel too bad. The stories on that list are - and by nature should be - pretty obscure. Nothing on it is likely to show up in a short story anthology.

    A publisher of short story anthologies should correct that!

    But still, you would need an unusually good library to find printed translations of many of these stories.

  10. Complete agreement here. Literature is one vast ocean and at its bottom 'there's treasure lying everywhere' (as Hobbes once said, or was it Calvin?). The stories I listed are just a handful of rare pearls grabbed almost serendipitously. The common thread which runs through them is that they are delightfully surprising in their twists and turns and leave you with a smile of wonder at the end.

    I wanted to list even more tales, but then you end up with unmanageably completist lists like '200 short stories I admire' or the table of contents of Daniel Halpern's Art of the Tale books.

  11. As soon as I read your description I thought, "Walter Benjamin!" but then I had to scratch around to find out where he'd mentioned it. He mentions it in The Storyteller and quotes the same sentence: "The city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, and the Seven Years' War came and went ..."

    "Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death. In other words, it is natural history to which his stories refer back. This is expressed in exemplary form in one of the most beautiful stories we have by the incomparable Johann Peter Hebel. It is found in the Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes, is entitled "Unexpected Reunion," and begins with the betrothal of a young lad who works in the mines of Falun ..."

    (tr. Harry Zohn.)

  12. The recently translated Sebald book reminded me that I should read Benjamin. As I approach certain topics, my scattered secondhand knowledge of him has become inadequate. Likely inaccurate, too.

    I have a fantasy of someday, now that self-publishing is so cheap, printing out my own (public domain) Art of the Tale kind of book. And a favorite poem anthology while I'm at it. And a book of essays.