“Why I Transformed Myself Into a Nightingale”–Wolfgang Hildesheimer and choice of form

At first reading, “Why I Transformed Myself Into a Nightingale” is a light, frivolous, playful short story featuring a fantastic tale of episodes in the life of a magician.  The first paragraph which begins the story is even fantastic while it sounds rather dry and factual in form, because the “magician” is telling the story after the transformation has taken place, when (presumably) all he can do is sing.  We therefore are entering his fantastic world from the first moment, because it would seem (from his bothering to explain to us his choice) that we can understand the nightingale’s “words” in his song:  “Acting on the strength of my convictions, I transformed myself into a nightingale.  Since neither the reason nor the resolve necessary for this sort of action lies within the realm of the ordinary, I think the story of this metamorphosis is worth telling.”  Yet, as will emerge, both the “reason” and the “resolve” are a great deal more easily understandable for readers than what the narrative voice asks us to believe, which is that he mastered the art of turning people into animals.  We are asked to accept the totally fantastic in addition to a tale of a man being in a rather ordinary though selfish frame of mind, or at least one which is ordinary by comparison.

The speaker begins by telling us about his parents, his father being a zoologist, his mother an actress.  It is almost as if the practical and the (aesthetically) magical meet in his family history and descent thus.  He describes the magic kit they give him to amuse himself with, which he soon masters and discards when he reads the condescending legend on it, “The Little Magician.”  Later, he asks for regular magic lessons and is caught up in giving performances for those who know him well.  A noticeable change comes about in the magician’s attitude toward what he does, however, as he grows up:  “I outgrew my teacher and began experimenting on my own.  I didn’t neglect my academic education, though.  I read a lot and went around with school friends whose patterns of development I observed.  One friend who had been given an electric train in his childhood was preparing for a career with the railroad; another who had played with tin soldiers decided on a career as a military officer.  In this way, the work force was regulated by early influences.”  Nevertheless, the magician is at least convinced that he himself is not influenced by early training, though it becomes obvious through his later “choice of form” that he is deceiving himself.

As he tries to select a career, a very telling notion occurs to him, which shows that as a person he is on the surface more concerned with ethics than others of his age.  Yet, he too ends up making “ethical” choices which clearly show in a fantastic way that he has not entirely escaped “interference” in the lives of others, which he says he is trying to avoid:  “[I had a] growing awareness that I couldn’t select a conventional, bourgeois profession without in some way interfering with other people’s lives….When I came to this realization, I came to yet another, namely that only the momentary state of things can be perceived, that it is merely idle speculation to try to draw conclusions or gather knowledge from experience.  I decided to spend my life in leisure and contemplate nothing.  I got two turtles, sat down on a lounge chair, and watched the birds above me and the turtles beneath me.  I had given up magic because my art had reached a state of perfection.  I felt that I was able to change people into animals [emphasis mine].  I didn’t make use of this ability, though, because I believed that this sort of interference into another person’s life was completely unjustifiable.”  Yet at the same time, the narrator reports that he himself has a strong desire to become a bird, because it leads what he calls a “pure existence.”  He is thinking on one level that he cannot interfere with anyone else, yet he is thinking on another that “I need[] only a test of my art” to know for sure if he can change people into animals!

As with every story of temptation, once he imagines the possibility, an “opportunity” comes along to test his powers.  A friend, Mr. Werhahn, comes to visit, and is full of complaints about the journalists whom he manages as an editor.  He happens in the midst of his complaints to catch sight of the speaker’s turtles and desolately remarks that he would like to be a turtle.  And, it’s no sooner said than done, though if our speaker had really meant what he says about non-interference, of course, he wouldn’t so readily have interpreted the remark as a factual, genuine expression of desire to be transformed.  Upon the instant, he has three turtles, though offering the reader a sop, he says, “(Just for the record, I’d like to assure you that I purchased the other two animals as such.)”  This is a very comical version of the sort of thing people say when they are making excuses for other excesses.

Next, “I used my art one other time before my own metamorphosis.”  In this case, however, the magician feels some degree of compunction, symbolically because it has to do with music, an art form in which one, while singing lyrics, may express many emotions which are contrary-to-fact.  This second case also has to do with birds, living as which may not appeal to others as it does to the speaker (to enter for a moment into his odd world).  He is sitting at an inn under a tree drinking apple cider, when five young girls come along and start singing a song, in which a speaker expresses a desire to be a sparrow.  The narrator is annoyed by their sounds, and so takes their words as factual:  he changes them into sparrows.  Though the reader may see no real difference in the two cases of transformation so far described, the narrator says that his worry is because “I had the feeling that I had acted emotionally, under the influence of my (certainly justified) irritation.  I thought that this wasn’t worthy of me, so I decided not to delay my own metamorphosis any longer.”  He assures us that he is not afraid of prosecution, because of course he could change his pursuers into “toy fox terriers!  It was more the certainty that, for technical reasons, I would never find the unspoiled peace I needed for the pure enjoyment of things, undisturbed by the will.  Somewhere a dog would always bark, a child scream, or a young girl sing.”

He decides to change himself into a nightingale because he likes the idea of flight from place to place and ironically enough “I wanted to sing because I love music.  The thought that I would interfere in the life of someone else whose sleep I might disturb did occur to me.  But now that I am no longer human, I have put away my human thoughts and interests.  My ethic is now the ethic of a nightingale.”  The real question here is whether he ever really had a human ethic, a human relationship to others, which would enable him to see their point of view.

Thus, this story about a choice of form is a meditation upon what it is really to enter into the pains and sufferings and also the joys of other human beings without wanting to change them.  Many serious ethical world texts express the idea that we cannot change the world, only ourselves.  But the ultimately selfish, egotistical/egoistical narrator comes to this belief only from a limited point of view, not because he wants to master and control his own worst impulses, but with regret because he cannot have total control over what is going on around him.  Yet, Hildesheimer is always light of touch, and we can see that this story is not only about a choice the narrator has made, to be a beautifully trilling bird perched on a branch in the dark night singing, but a choice the author has made likewise, to be a storyteller who gets across singingly in few words some of the same points that a long, anguished, and argumentative treatise on ethics might do.  We may of course remember that magic is also known as “legerdemain,” or lightness of hand.  The story is written almost as a parody of the sort of speech, partly cautionary and partly leadership-oriented, that an important public figure might be expected to give to students who are trying to choose a career, and this is where the author’s appeal is especially notable.  Is it a case of “don’t do what I did,” or is it a case of “this is what makes me particularly suited to stand before you today”?  The story almost seems to suggest that all along the character is deficient of human moral considerations, and thus is better off as a nightingale, with “the ethics of a nightingale,” those which he seemed to start out with.  Yet, the whole piece is one which a reader may be enchanted by, and may read through with whimsy, almost without noticing the seriousness of it.  As the narrator says finally, “Now it is May.  It is dusk, and soon it will be dark.  Then I begin to sing, or, as humans say, strike up my song.”

I have given some long quotes from this story, and more or less summed up the action, yet there is still a great deal to be gotten from it, and those interested in what I’ve written should certainly read it for themselves.  For one thing, there’s the moral/magical question of why, when most magic tricks involve the restoration of order once the “trick” is done (the egg is put back together somehow, the assistant is shown to be still in one piece), the narrator cannot change his friend back from a turtle to a human, or why the girls cannot be changed back from sparrows?  And who exactly is the public speaker/nightingale voice narrating?  What do you think?  A truely magical story, wouldn’t you say?


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

4 responses to ““Why I Transformed Myself Into a Nightingale”–Wolfgang Hildesheimer and choice of form

  1. Very interesting. It made me think of something entirely different, one of my favourite fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Jorinde and Joringel in which a sorceress transforms the girls into birds, nightingales and others. I think there is a connection here – telling a story – fairy tale – magic.
    I will have to see if I can find this.


    • Wonderful the connections our minds make when we get started on things, isn’t it? Thanks for the reference to the Brothers Grimm, I don’t recall that particular story, and I’ll have to check it out, because I dearly love fairy tales.


      • It’s my favourite. It’s available online for free as well. I’d like to know how you like it. I’m very keen on fairy tale retellings and that is one I’d like to retell myself one day.


      • If you like fairy tales a lot, you should have a look at A. S. Byatt’s “Elementals” and “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” two collections of her own of short fairy tales. I can’t be sure, but I would almost swear that her tale “The Glass Coffin” in “The Djinn” collection is a retelling. Maybe you would know for sure. It’s a superlative tale.


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