‘Unexpected Reunion’ by Johann Peter Hebel, translated by John Hibberd

Allegedly Kafka’s favourite short story, and lauded by Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti, the tale shares the same subject matter as D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ as a mining disaster leaves a widow grieving, but the compression, historical sweep and fairy-tale quality make it very different in treatment, if no less affecting. Published in the same generation as Wuthering Heights, there is a shared fascination with a body miraculously preserved after death. I read the story around the time I also read J.M. Barrie’s account of his friend Captain Scott immortalised by ice in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways,and the cryogenic fate of George Mallory chronicled by Wade Davis in his magisterial Into the Silence. This little nexus of texts made a powerful impression. Spooky and beautiful, Hebel manages to handle a local tragedy with a deep-time perspective, and lightness of touch, while capturing a wife’s feelings as she experiences extremes of love and loss. All in simple language, and just a couple of pages long. 

First published in German in 1811. Collected in English in The Treasure Chest, Penguin Classics, 1994. Read the story online here

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