Wolfgang Hildesheimer Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Hildesheimer’s literary biographer, Henry A. Lea, was a translator with him at the Nuremberg Trials. In 1997’s Wolfgang Hildesheimers Weg als Jude und Deutscher (Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s path as Jew and German), Lea shows that it was not until several years after the Trials that the reports of Nazi atrocities had their full impact on Hildesheimer. In 1957 he emigrated from Germany a second time. From then on, he saw the world in terms of victims and oppressors. The main characters in Hildesheimer’s works are victims, alone in an absurd world.

Hildesheimer’s short stories, collected in Lieblose Legenden (loveless legends), were written over a period of twelve years, from 1950 to 1962. During those years, the first-person narrator experienced changes in the world and in his perception of the world. Hildesheimer suggested in 1983 that tracing those changes is the key to understanding the book.

The stories are loveless only insofar as they do not include a love story; Hildesheimer later stated that he regarded the world quite lovingly at the time. They are also not legends. The alliterating title is appropriate in tone: It sounds ludicrous. Most of these early works are relatively carefree and are often humorous.

Hildesheimer’s approach to language is analytical. He enjoys plays on words and literal interpretations of figurative expressions. For example, one of the Lieblose Legenden has the main character carry an owl to Athens, a mockery of the German saying whose English equivalent is to carry coals to Newcastle.

The Scottish critic Roderick Watt has shown that Hildesheimer’s humor often alienates the reader. Unlike his contemporary and fellow German, Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll, Hildesheimer presupposes considerable erudition, then satirizes the very group that possesses the cultural knowledge to understand his references. His irony is born of pessimism.

“The Light Gray Spring Coat”

“Der hellgraue frühjahrsmantel” (“The Light Gray Spring Coat”) is the first story in Lieblose Legenden and a fine illustration of Hildesheimer’s complexity of composition. A letter arrives from a cousin, Edward, who disappeared twelve years ago. At the same time, the piano tuner arrives. The main character, Mr. Holle, mistakenly sends the piano tuner’s coat to the cousin in Australia but makes amends by giving the piano tuner the cousin’s coat. The humor of the story derives not only from the confusion but also from the trivialization of potentially extreme events: the disappearance of the cousin, the reaction of the piano tuner to losing his coat, and the behavior of the main character. All require background knowledge.

The story was written in 1950. If the cousin disappeared twelve years earlier, that means he disappeared in 1938, a year before the Germans initiated World War II but already five years into the Nazi persecution of Jews and intellectuals. One can realistically fear the worst for Cousin Edward. Against this background, his simple...

(The entire section is 1262 words.)