A century ago, a distinguished Austrian scholar observed that Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) was “the most difficult problem in literary history” and that the more we learned about him, the more of a problem he became. That state of affairs has not changed.
Kleist’s short and mostly unhappy life was a muddle of contradictions. His small dramatic oeuvre ranges disconcertingly wide, from comedy of manners to domestic tragedy, from social realism to gothic fantasy. His prose, of which Peter Wortsman has here collected and translated a welcome new selection, is stranger and more unsettling still. Romantics, Expressionists and Existentialists have all claimed him as an inspiration. Kafka called him a “blood-brother.” But Kleist belongs to no literary school and remains, as Thomas Mann observed, in a class uniquely his own. Outside the German-speaking lands, he is all too little read.
Kleist was born in the market town of Frankfurt on the Oder into an aristocratic Prussian family that had produced a long line of distinguished military men. Following tradition, he joined a regiment of the royal foot guards when he was not yet 15. He saw action against the French, but he was quite unsuited to the discipline and monotony of military life. “So many officers, so many drill masters, so many soldiers, so many slaves,” he wrote.
After a few years of service, he left the army and returned to his home town to study philosophy, physics and mathematics at the university. He acquired a reputation as a serious young man, a bit of a loner. Determined to pursue his intellectual development to the full, and guided by some firm though unspecified plan, in his early 20s Kleist embarked on a decade—his last—of anxious, unsettled life: endless travel; civil service; much reading; much ill health; a flaring of Prussian nationalist zeal; a rash attempt to join the French army; brief imprisonment as a suspected spy.
He also founded a short-lived literary journal and a daily paper. He got to know, and managed to alienate, the grand old men of German letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Christoph Martin Wieland. The literary Romantics—including Achim von Arnim, Clemens Brentano and the brothers Grimm—liked him, even revered him. An awkward, anguished soul, he might have stepped from the pages of one of their works.
Through it all Kleist wrote, though to no very wide acclaim: essays, anecdotes, shorts stories, plays. Then, on Nov. 21, 1811, at around four in the afternoon, on a small hill by the shore of the Wannsee lake just outside Berlin, having first shot dead a woman called Henrietta Vogel, who was the wife of an acquaintance and who in the subsequent autopsy would be found to have been suffering from incurable cancer, he placed a pistol in his mouth and killed himself. He was 34.
Kleist in his youth had espoused with enthusiasm all the optimism of the Enlightenment. Reason would conquer all; happiness would come with experience and understanding. In March 1801, however, by his own account, he seems to have encountered the thought of Immanuel Kant (it is not clear what precisely he read), and his world fell apart. By testing the nature and limits of human knowledge, Kant had sought primarily to establish the possibility of a meaningful metaphysics. To Kleist, however, it was much grimmer than that: Kant had shown, he believed, that empirical knowledge was unreliable, reason illusory, truth unattainable and life quite meaningless. “My sole and highest goal has vanished,” he wrote. “Now I have none.”
It was an extreme overreaction, not to mention a misreading of Kant’s philosophy, but Kleist was like that. The universe inhabited by the characters in his works is bleak and bizarre—as “Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist” reminds us. In his essay “On the Theater of Marionettes,” an ironic, fictionalized dialogue, Kleist consider’s Man’s fall from Eden and asks whether human self-consciousness is less a blessing than a curse. The characters in his works, particularly in his extraordinary short stories, try to make sense of a senseless world, to behave rationally in the face of madness, to act with purpose while at the mercy of cruel chance.
In “Michael Kohlhaas,” the eponymous protagonist is a wronged horse dealer who pursues justice to the point of death. In “The Marquise of O,” a virtuous widow who finds herself inexplicably pregnant seeks the truth quite heedless of her own disgrace. (In the mid-1970s, Eric Rohmer made this story into a compelling film.) Fate, for the lovers in “The Earthquake in Chile,” is utterly malign. Religious faith, for the iconoclasts in “Saint Cecilia or the Power of Music,” amounts to murderous bigotry. Political principle, amid the racial strife of the Haitian revolution in “The Betrothal in Santo Domingo,” is a cloak for primal violence. Recounting these horrors, Kleist does not moralize or philosophize. He does not even try to explain.
What makes these dark narratives not just bearable but readable—compelling sometimes, at the unlikeliest moments even funny—is Kleist’s extraordinary prose. Exploiting to the full the rigors of German syntax, he uses language to impose order and meaning on a profoundly disordered world. Clause follows clause in a stately, dispassionate procession of appalling events, commas marking time, paragraphs and even single sentences stretching on inexorably for line after line. Catastrophes unfold in a subclause. Idiosyncrasies of word order defer full, terrible understanding to the last possible moment.
English does not lend itself readily to Kleist’s syntactical effects. Mr. Wortsman rises to the challenge with relish. He achieves readability while preserving something of the structure and even the rhythm of Kleist’s dense yet lucid sentences: no easy task. This curious author’s contemporaries must have found his prose almost as odd and involving as it seems to us. Even in his own day, no one wrote quite like Kleist.