Goethe, a literary father-figure to Heinrich von Kleist, may have sensed an Oedipal bloodlust in the emerging poet and playwright: “With the best will in the world towards this poet,” he wrote, in a review of The Broken Jug, “I have always been moved to horror and disgust by something in his works, as though there were a body well planned by nature, tainted with an incurable disease.”
Kleist worked aggressively against the Romantic perfection of Goethe and Schiller and combined a variety of modes to produce (intentionally, Thomas Mann argued) a “confusion of affects.” After the plays, he went on to short prose, publishing his Gesammelte Erzählungen (Collected Short Stories) in 1811.
The story of “Michael Kohlhaas (From an Old Chronicle),” sometimes published as a stand-alone novella, is a touchstone of German literature, allegedly moved Kafka to tears, and was used by E.L. Doctorow as a structural guide while writing Ragtime. Kleist wrote it while Prussia was crippled by Napoleon’s army, as a thinly veiled treatise against French rule. The narrative was inspired by the16 th-century merchant Hans Kohlhase, who was said to have launched a campaign of terror in provincial Saxony after a lawsuit he filed over a trifle seizure of goods was ignored. It’s a hell of a read, and the undeniable centerpiece of Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, edited and translated by Peter Wortsman), available this month from Archipelago Books.
Several translations of Kleist’s major prose works are available, but Martin Greenberg’s translations continue to be in prominence in a collection entitled The Marquise of O, originally published by Criterion Books and recently reissued by Penguin Classics,. Mann wrote in the introduction, “Even if [Greenberg’s] version were only half successful, he would still command our respect—for I honestly believe that no more arduous job of translation can be imagined.”
As Mann stressed to Anglo-Saxon readers, one cannot account for Kleist’s narrative quirks with historical perspective. “No other contemporary writer resembled him in the least. His method of storytelling is as eccentric as his plots, and with very few exceptions…Kleist’s contemporaries found his fiction intolerably mannered, unpalatable in fact.” Some of these qualities, such as run-on sentences and endless indirect discourse, are more abundant today, but the way that Kleist spirals the illogical actions of his characters amidst implausible events in a matter-of-fact tone balances the stories’ volution on a precipice that is singular even now. Greenberg, for his part, found an adequate point of entry, but his habit of reducing certain phrases to explanation has deprived the text of opportunities for idioms and humor; a reader of those translations might yearn to get closer to the writer.
Wortsman has done a fine job of preserving the sharper points in Kleist’s loquacious paragraphs, and he’s made them funnier. For a passage of “Michael Kohlhass,” in which two noblemen scheme to discredit the story’s protagonist, Wortsman describes the pair passing around “sideling disgruntled 'i-told-you-so' looks.” Greenberg has the nobles affecting “sage displeasure”—it’s clever, if a bit vague, and lacks the texture evident in Wortsman’s version.
Also notable in Selected Prose are “The Marquise of O” and “The Earthquake in Chile,” (both of which express outrage over the social mores surrounding marriage), and two meditations on art and consciousness, “On the Gradual Formulation of Thoughts While Speaking” and “On the Theatre of Marionettes.” The latter simulates a discussion in which it is proposed that marionettes possess more grace than human dancers. This opens up the paradox that art transcends human imperfection:
Grace return[s] once perception, as it were, has traversed the infinite—such that it simultaneously appears the purest in human bodily structures that are either devoid of consciousness or which possess an infinite consciousness, such as in the jointed manikin or the god.
Kleist isn’t just going after Goethe anymore, he’s attacking the Classical notion of art in general. Modernism advanced us to see works of art as objects that exist independently from their creators, and Proust figured out that the pain of love can be transcended through art, but we’re still chipping away at this paradox. Just look at all the buzz surrounding David Shields’ forthcoming book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines verisimilitude as “the appearance of being true or real.” Can the artifice we construct as artists to reshape or capture our realities ever be considered real? And what is real, anyway?