Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s “The Light Gray Spring Coat”–Coincidence and the Inconsequential in Fiction

Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s “The Light Gray Spring Coat” is at first encounter a short, short, and flimsy tale about a coat, of all things.  It isn’t as “big” or as long as Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” for example, though it is riddled with absurdities as well.  It is rather about coincidences and the inconsequential which add up to the breakdown of true communication, and the result is that it causes one to wonder if one has in fact understood what real communication is about.

The story begins when the character narrating, Paul Holle, receives a note from a long-lost cousin who had disappeared twelve years before after going out to mail a letter.  But the absurdity begins almost at once:  the cousin writes, requesting that Holle mail to him in Australia his “light gray spring coat,” but notes that he may keep the book about edible mushrooms which is in the pocket, because there are no edible mushrooms in Australia.  When Holle tells his wife that he’s had the letter from his cousin, she doesn’t respond in a characteristically human way, by asking where the cousin has been all this time, or expressing surprise that they’ve heard from him.  Rather, she simply asks “‘Really?  What does he write?'”  When Paul tells her the message, he reduces it likewise to something inconsequential:  “‘He needs his light gray coat, and there are no edible mushrooms in Australia.'”  His wife responds that the cousin (Eduard) should then eat something else.  The conversation ends here, and once again, all lines of ordinary communication are shut down:  there is no further curiosity expressed between these two characters about Eduard’s motives in leaving or his choice of Australia, or anything else for the time being.

The next section begins with “Later, the piano tuner came.”  One wonders just what the “through line of action” could be, but this is not left a mystery for long.  While the piano tuner is working, Paul notices that what he takes to be his cousin’s “light gray spring coat” is hanging in the closet, and knowing his wife’s habits, is surprised that she has brought it downstairs so promptly from the attic, “for normally my wife does something only after it no longer matters whether it gets done or not.”  He takes the coat and mails it out, but forgets to remove the book from the pocket.  When he gets back, his wife and the piano tuner are searching for something, which turns out to be the piano tuner’s coat:  it is the one which Holle has mailed out to his cousin by mistake.  When he tells them he has just sent it to Australia, “by mistake,” he explains no further, nor do they ask for an explanation, except that his wife asks “‘Why [to] Australia?'”  He only repeats “By mistake,” and the piano tuner takes his part in the farcical dialogue: “‘Well, then I won’t intrude any longer,’ said Mr. Kohlhaas [the piano tuner], somewhat embarrassed, if not particularly surprised.”  The humorous here is invested in the fact that Kohlhaas is not in fact surprised, since he knows nothing about the similar appearing coat, nor about the cousin.

They give the piano tuner the cousin’s coat in exchange, but the mistake (despite the fact that Paul has a sherry with the man and they talk about pianos) is never explained.  Two days later, they receive a box of mushrooms from the piano tuner, and a letter which he found in the pocket of the cousin’s coat, sending a now twelve years old ticket to the opera to a friend and telling him that he was going to be out of town for a while.  The incurious wife only asks about why they’re having mushrooms for lunch, and when she’s told that the piano tuner sent them, remarks that it’s “nice of him,” but he “shouldn’t have” without apparently seeing any connection with the previous remark at the beginning about there being no edible mushrooms in Australia.  When she sees the opera ticket on the table, she asks about it too, but when told simply that it’s twelve years old, says only “‘Oh well….I wouldn’t have cared to go to [it] anyway.'”

But the ridiculousness of the situation doesn’t end there.  The cousin writes another letter and says that he needs to be sent a tenor recorder.  The cousin reports that in the coat pocket of the coat he has received “(which, strangely enough, had grown longer)” he has found a book on how to play the recorder and is going to use it.  He also says, however, that recorders are not “available” in Australia (this is patently absurd, to borrow a phrase, but by now the point is clearly made).  When Paul reports to his wife that he’s had another letter from his cousin Eduard, the wife once again asks, as if by rote, “‘What does he write?'”  When Paul ridiculously condenses the whole matter into the information “‘He says there are no recorders in Australia.'”  His wife simply responds:  “‘Well, then he should play another instrument.'” Paul agrees.  The story ends with the simple two-sentence paragraph, “My wife is refreshingly and disarmingly matter-of-fact.  Her replies are straightforward but thorough.”

What creates the highly comic atmosphere of this story is in fact the combination of coincidence (the two light gray spring coats appear similar, each has an instruction book in its pocket, there are several letters) with the inconsequential manner in which every possibility for the characters to create a genuine kind of communication about the events is neglected and short-circuited.  It’s true, the issues at hand are not major life and death issues and are purposely mundane and somewhat silly.  Yet, if this is how these characters ordinarily communicate, what on earth would they do with a more devastating event?  In each case where there is an opportunity for the narrating character to explain more about what he knows, he neglects to do so.  What’s more, the other characters (including the piano tuner, who loses his own coat and finds a book on mushrooms in the replacement coat he is given, and the cousin, who receives a coat that doesn’t fit and a book on recorders in the coat pocket) regard this situation as normal, and don’t ask for further information.  The punchline of the whole story truly does occur in the final paragraph, because the speaker is praising his wife’s matter-of-factness, straightforwardness and thoroughness which she exhibits while lacking total information without which she is acting or advising action.  One must therefore wonder what this marriage is based on, a serious point in the midst of so much humor, if the characters or even one of them routinely hide matters from the other, or speak so definitively about something they don’t have complete information about.  But they obviously feel secure with each other this way.  And in fact, since all the characters in the story share this notable lack of curiosity, what sort of world is it they live in which provides for such incompetence in social circumstances without devastating catastrophes of misunderstanding?  If the stakes were a little higher and had to do with something more than a misplaced overcoat, this story itself might depict such a catastrophe.  As it is, once again Hildesheimer has managed to captivate and enchant with his off-beat, quizzical, absurdist view of life.

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2 responses to “Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s “The Light Gray Spring Coat”–Coincidence and the Inconsequential in Fiction

  1. Did Hildesheimer normally write stories where characters just took things at face value, without much thought as to why?

    A mind that doesn’t question is a dangerous thing. It is this aspect that turns people against some religions, if a ‘brainwashing’ mentality is observed.

    • Though Hildesheimer is a new interest of mine and hence my experience of him is limited, he has a great sense of humor and a very light touch. I don’t think that he meant to indicate a simple mind that didn’t question as that possibly he was parodying the way some people run their lives, and their marriages, not perhaps really wanting to know. His stories that I’ve read so far are all comical, absurd, and whimsical, though the theme of each story is different, so no, all his stories aren’t about people “taking things at face value.” He has a book out, “The Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer,” published by the Ecco Press, and has apparently written others, including a much-acclaimed biography of Mozart and a “fictional biography” (so-called, I don’t know why) of Marbot. Have a look at some more of his stories if you can get them, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

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