I discovered Johann Peter Hebel’s book during one of my recent visits to the bookshop. It was part of a new series called ‘Little Black Classics’ brought out by Penguin. The books in this series are around fifty pages long and are collections of short stories (sometimes one short story), essays, poems and sometimes excerpts from longer works. They are of the right size and can be put in one’s pocket or purse and can be taken out to be dipped into while commuting to work or while waiting – an excellent way of introducing classics to the reader of the modern era with a waning attention span. I thought I will read it for German Literature Month.
Johann Hebel was from Basel and lived during the late 18th century and the early 19th century. He published this book in 1811.
Johann Hebel’s book is a collection of short stories. Or rather fables. Most of them are one or two pages long and the occasional one is just a passage long or three or more pages long. Some of them have explicit morals or implied morals. Many of them have surprise twists in the end.
I enjoyed reading Hebel’s book of fables. Hebel reveals himself as a master of the short-short story form – he shows what delightful magic can be woven in just a couple of pages. Some of the stories have a historical backdrop and it is amazing how much Hebel squeezes into one story – the historical backdrop, a sketch of the characters, moving the action at a reasonable pace, the surprising twist in the end. And all this in two pages. The stories are peopled by an interesting cast of characters and sometimes the good guys don’t necessarily have a happy ending. I read most of the book while having dinner at a restaurant and after reading some of the stories I was laughing out loud and some of the other guests looked at me strangely. I thought to myself – don’t blame me, blame Hebel 🙂
The only problem I had with the collection was the title. I wouldn’t have chosen such an unwieldy title. Trust Penguin’s English editors to come up with an unwieldy title like that. I would have gone with the title of a couple of other short stories – like ‘The Lightest Death Sentence’ or ‘Unexpected Reunion’.
I had many favourite stories from the collection. Here are two of them. The first one is the shortest story in the collection. Both of them made me laugh aloud.
A Short Stage
The postmaster told a Jew who drove up to his relay station with two horses, ‘From here on you’ll have to take three! It’s a hard pull uphill and the surface is still soft. But that way you’ll be there in three hours.’ The Jew asked, ‘When will I get there if I take four?’ ‘In two hours.’ ‘And if I take six?’ ‘In one hour.’ ‘I’ll tell you what,’ said the Jew after a while, ‘Harness up eight. That way I shan’t have to set off at all!’
One day a Frenchman rode up on to a bridge over a stream, and it was so narrow there was scarcely room for two horses at once. An Englishman was riding up from the other side, and when they met in the middle neither of them would give way. ‘An Englishman does not make way for a Frenchman!’ said the Englishman. ‘Pardieu,’ said the Frenchman, ‘My horse has an English pedigree too! It’s a pity I can’t turn him round and let you have a good look at his backside in retreat! But you could atleast let that English fellow you’re riding step aside for this English mount of mine. In any case yours seems to be the junior; mine served under Louis XIV in the battle of Kieferholz, 1702!’
But the Englishman was not greatly impressed. ‘I have all the time in the world!’ he said. ‘This gives me a chance to read today’s paper until you are pleased to make way.’ So with the coolness the English are famed for he took a newspaper from his pocket and opened it up and sat on his horse on the bridge and read for an hour, and the sun didn’t look as if it would shine on this pair of fools for ever, it was going down quickly towards the mountains. An hour later when he had finished reading and was about to fold up the newspaper again he looked at the Frenchman and said, ‘Eh bien?’ But the Frenchman had kept his head too and replied, ‘Englishman, kindly lend me your paper a while, so that I can read it too until you are pleased to make way.’ Now, when the Englishman saw that his adversary was a patient man, he said, ‘Do you know what, Frenchman? Come on, I’ll make way for you!’ So the Englishman made way for the Frenchman.
Have you read Hebel’s collection of fables? What do you think about it?