The Beaverskin Coat (Der Biberpelz)

Karl Kraus

My life in Vienna is flourishing again. No more creeping along the wall of life for fear of being spoken to by some fool on the path. Every day is a new adventure. How did I stand it, having no social life, no theatre visits, no flower shows, for years? Cut off from the source of life’s impressions; and who can say how long my internal resources would have lasted? Even this season’s disasters, the comet and the hunting exhibition, didn’t make any impression on me. Certainly, I don’t deny it, I did expect the end of the world to make some impression on me, but what if it was a flop again? So I kept treading the same narrow path, from the same desk to the same cafe, where I ate the same food and tried to avoid the same people. That didn’t exactly give me a lift. The world around me was brightly coloured, and I wanted to rub myself up against it, just to see if some of the colour rubbed off. I didn’t want to do without so much, without finding out how little I was really missing. To sit just once more at the fully laden table, to hear the belches of contentment once again, to shake the sweaty hand of brotherly love – I dreamt of it, and a good fairy, probably the one who sings the songs at the cradle of operetta composers, heard my plea. And now I’m back in the thick of it, the world has reclaimed me – somebody has stolen my fur coat!

Nothing could have brought me nearer to my fellow citizens than the theft of my fur coat. I would have to be Caracalla to keep them away. I can’t run away from life anymore, I’m going to have to swallow my pride and mix with the crowd! I have been making myself unpopular for long enough; and now they are prepared to forgive me for all that they have done to me. They forgive me, they love me, they feel sorry for me, they admire me, because there’s no hiding it, there’s no point denying it – someone has stolen my fur coat! And in that unguarded moment, social intercourse had me by the throat. I had been keeping myself to myself, I was a private citizen, I mean I had been a writer for years! I just didn’t realize that I was, above all, the owner of a fur coat. I wrote books, but what people noticed was the fur coat. I gave of myself, and people noticed the fur coat. They only noticed me when the fur coat was gone, but its loss now justifies the public attention I had aroused by owning it. In the cafe, where it happened, the discovery of the theft caused uproar, in the midst of which some distraught customers forgot to pay their bills, and into the focus of which I was so suddenly drawn that it was only after some reflection that I was able to be absolutely sure that I had not stolen my fur coat. The people seemed to want to tear the remaining clothes from my body, and I was reproached from all sides for my carelessness. I suppose they were just expressing their indignation about the thief, who had not had the courage to face the consequences of his actions. They had me instead, they could hold onto me, and when I leant back, exhausted by the investigation, finally able to give my attention to a newspaper, I could still hear groups of bystanders muttering, »Well, would you believe it?« I could feel the hint of reproach. I realized too late that owning a fur coat involves certain obligations towards the rest of the world, and I now had no choice but to fulfill the last of them, which I still had even though I no longer owned a fur coat: to account for my behaviour. If you don’t know where the fur coat has got to, you can at least tell the public and the police where it came from, how much it cost, how much it would still be worth, whether the collar was long or short-haired, and whether the belt-loops were made of cloth or leather. The police also asked me whether I had a suspicion. A suspicion keeps you warm when you haven’t got a fur coat any more, and the police hope that a suspicion will make up for the certainty that you have lost, and that they will never be able to give you back. But why was there any need for officialdom to get involved at all? I had always thought that the police were responsible for matters of public decency, not private affairs like a stolen fur coat. But this curiosity! My fur coat had barely been stolen before there were three police officers in the cafe, forcing their way past the extortionists surrounding my table, expressing their indignation about the theft, and asking me whether I suspected anyone. Soon the whole neighbourhood was on the scene, the rumour had spread like wildfire through the city, and a large number of bystanders, including figures who are well-known from their attendance at first performances and earthquakes, attended the official inquiry. The public sympathy was expressed as vociferously as the theft of the fur coat had been discreet. Fur coat thieves don’t like to arouse curiosity, but bank robbers insist on being the centre of attention everywhere, and seeing their names in the papers. They had miscalculated here, because the newspapers wouldn’t even notice a comet, if its tail touched my head. For the same reason, I’m afraid that the police won’t pursue this case as energetically as they do when spurred on to feverish activity by the prospect of favourable publicity. Such considerations will not, of course, affect their sense of duty. While the officers asked me about my age, occupation and criminal record, some of the other guests were expressing their regret that they had just happened to be not looking at the moment when the fur coat was stolen, and were of the opinion that the thief must have deliberately chosen a moment in which he didn’t think that he was being observed. The staff were inundated with questions, but the barmen and waiters all just kept repeating, »If I ever get my hands on ‘im, I’ll give him what for!« I asked them not to be tempted into uttering dangerous threats in the presence of officers of the law, whom I asked not to summon me, because I would not be able to say anything except that I have neither a fur coat nor a suspicion, and then withdrew from the plaudits of the crowd, taking my hat, which was still hanging there, and making my way to the exit, past the lady on the till, who was wringing her hands. Outside, I was greeted by the cabbies, who seemed to hope to somehow turn the events of the day to their advantage. One of the policemen caught up with me and suggested that I go with him and look at the album of mug-shots of known criminals. I declined, on the grounds that I had no basis for comparison, because I never saw the fur coat thief. Should the police produce him, I would be more than happy to identify his photo. One of the waiters then suddenly claimed to have a suspicion, and was determined to come along. I later heard out that his contribution had not really helped my case, but had produced very gratifying results in other directions. He recognized a number of previous regular patrons of the cafe, with joyful shouts of recognition such as had never previously been heard in a police station. In the end, they had to tear the photo album out of the good man’s hands, to stop him shouting, »Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that’s Mr. Cooper!« and »Oh, no, not Mr Smith!«. I received a summons the next day, but I didn’t respond to it. I had always made a point of not having anything of mine stolen; I didn’t want to get into trouble with the police. They had nothing on me. Was I now supposed to subject myself to an embarrassing investigation because of this one false step? Absolutely not! I am not giving myself up to the police, at least not until they recover the fur coat. I actually rather hoped that there would be a cover-up, so that I could get on with my life.

The next time I went to the cafe and tried to reach my reading corner, my way was blocked by a group of gentlemen who were usually only interested in horse racing, but were now laying bets on whether or not I would get my fur coat back. Those who thought that I would get it back were saying, »No, he’ll never get it back!« and those who were sure that I wouldn’t get it back kept saying, »Yes, of course he’ll get it back!« This helped me to distinguish between the two groups, without prejudging the merits of their respective arguments. I took a seat, from where I could hear the opinions of the players in the billiards room. »Genuine beaverskin, it was!« said one. »It was mink, I’m telling you!« said the next. »Afghan, if you really want to know!« said a third. I had the waiter enquire whether it would disturb them if I were to read my newspaper. They assured me that it wouldn’t, and changed the subject, to the time that old Mr Lyons‘ fur coat worth a thousand guilders was stolen. This raised the question, »Which Lyons?« and the impatient answer, »The Lyons who later went bankrupt, of course!« I felt with relief that I was no longer the centre of attention. I picked up the newspaper which has held its readers‘ attention for years by not mentioning my name, and tried to find a report about the theft of a fur coat from a private citizen, and perhaps that their reporter had been able to speak to the notorious thief. A lady I didn’t recognize approached me, reproached me for my negligence, and asked me whether I was still in touch with the family T. I responded that I wasn’t in touch with anybody, and paid my bill. Outside, the cabbies greeted me, pointed auspiciously to their cabs, and called after me something like, »Don’t you be catching a cold, Sir«.

I haven’t yet told you about when I next saw my domestic help, the day after the event. It was all her fault, really, because she had convinced me to wear the fur coat, which had been in storage at the furrier’s all winter, because snow had just fallen, in the middle of May. I didn’t want to, because I had hunch that fur coat thieves fairly shoot out of the ground when snow falls, while snow-clearers are idle because the local council favours the competition of the thaw. And although I was right, she insisted, and what do you think? Yes, half an hour later, the fur coat had been stolen. I hate confrontations about financial matters, so once the misfortune had happened, I was only worried about one thing: how was I going to tell my cleaner? It was a lively encounter, and I had to listen to all sorts of things, because women are very attached to material goods, and they also have difficulty letting go of other people’s possessions, whereas I was relieved to be able to leave the cafe without a fur coat, in the thaw. In fact the loss of the fur coat left me completely cold, the only thing that really bothered me was the loss of my peace and quiet. That I was the centre of attention, that I was famous in Vienna overnight, and that people pointed at me and said, »There he is «, »Do you recognize him?«, »Yes, of course, the beaverskin«, »He never did get it back, you know«. That made me sad, it ate away at me like moths at a fur coat which had not been stolen. I decided to keep off the streets until I could hear the grass growing over the affair. But when I ventured warily into my regular cafe a week later, through the back door, the toilet attendant came up to me and said, »I was really sorry to hear about it!« As I walked in, all eyes turned to my overcoat, and as I hung it up, somebody called from the corner, »You’d better be more careful this time!« and from another corner, »Yes, learn from your mistakes.« When the waiter intervened and said, »But the gentleman is always careful«, a voice from the dining room called, »Once bitten, twice shy!« The waiter said, »If I ever get my hands on ‘im, I’ll…« I paid straight away, and decided to only come back at night, when there was a different crowd in. But even then, just as I sat down, a foreign gentleman turned to me, pulled up his chair, and leaning his arms on the back of it, began, »Once was stolen from me a horse blanket…« I realized that my experience had gone beyond the need of the Viennese to gossip, and aroused international interest. I was afraid that it could give rise to a tourism boom. I locked my door behind me and didn’t re-emerge until I was sure that the warm season had burned out any mental associations with a fur coat, but straight away a black man came up to me and asked, in perfect English, whether I had ever got my fur coat back. I went to a different cafe, and the owner greeted me in a knowing manner, and said, »That would never happen here!«

I realized that there was no going back: a Viennese problem was born. It was an event of such spontaneous, shared interest that no amount of consideration for those affected by it could keep the people away. A wave of solidarity had been created by the surprisingly simple recognition that it could happen to anyone! I had been drawn into a community which stood guard over my stolen coat, and measured me up with their eyes for a new one, which they never gave me. All that was missing now was for it to dawn on the taxman that my circumstances were such that I had been in a position to own a fur coat in the first place. I began to envy the thief. Not because he now had the fur coat, but because nobody had been able to find him. Because he was still a free man, while everyone called, »Stop!« after me, and I was escorted by stupidity as though I had been caught having something stolen from me… I decided to withdraw from private life. I only had one hope left, to get the Viennese to forget me again, by publishing a new book.

May 1910

Author: Karl Kraus

Published in:

Die Fackel Die Fackel ChinesischeMauer Kraus Chinese Wall KrausV&WGrimassen Kraus V&W Grimace

KrausSuhrkampLesebuch Kraus Suhrkamp Reader LeuchtendeFackel Kraus Shining Torch KrausFischerLesebuch Kraus Fischer Big Reader

krauskokoschka Kraus Essays

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