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"German Literature:" a review of Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist from Maren Meinhardt, in The Times Literary Supplement


“The Marquise of O.,” one of Heinrich von Kleist’s best-known novellas, tells the story of Julietta, a respectable widow, who feels obliged to advertise in the local paper that “she had, unbeknownst to her, been gotten in the family way; that the father of the child that she was about to bear had best make himself known; and that, for family considerations, she was resolved to marry him.” Some months previously, the citadel her father commanded was attacked by Russian troops: the castle was stormed, and the Marquise dragged off by a gang of Russian soldiers. She is rescued by the commanding officer, the dashing Count F., who, like an avenging angels, strikes down her assailants, before decourously offering his arm and leading her to safety.

As her pregnancy progresses, the Marquise alienates her family by her stubborn refusal to reveal the father of the child, and, worse, her continuing protestations of ignorance and indeed innocence. While her family, maddened, eventually turn her out, Count F. asks for her hand in marriage and distinguishes himself by his unfailingly gentlemanly conduct. Needless to say, it turns out that it was Count F. who had taken advantage of her, and naturally, the Marquise refuses him, at least at first: as she explains, he wouldn’t have seemed like a devil to her, had he not, the first time she saw him, appeared like an angel.

In the figure of the Marquise the divide between the uncompromised ideal and the reality of an imperfect world is patched over; this otherwise unbridgeable chasm is one into which Kleist’s figures stumble with unerring regularity. In the story “Michael Kohlhaas,” the eponymous horse-trader, cruelly ill-treated by the local nobleman, pursues hi rightful case with the Kleistian inflexibility that refuses to accept the flawed state of the world. In his crusade for justice, parts of the town of Wittenberg are burnt down and Martin Luther himself has to intercede before his horses are restored and Kohlhaas’s honour is satisfied – even though he knows that he will have to put his head on the block for breaking the law of the land.

This selection unites most of Kleist’s novellas (but regrettably leaves out “The Duel” and “The Foundling”), and supplements them with the best-known of his philosophical writings, “On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts While Speaking” and “On the Theatre of Marionettes.” Peter Wortsman’s direct and fluent translation makes this an accessible introduction to Kleist for English readers; the afterword seems a missed opportunity, however, in that it is disappointingly short and adds little that is new.

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