For as little known as he is, for as long ago as he lived and for a short a time as he was alive, it’s amazing the amount of impacting work German short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist Heinrich von Kleist produced during his life time. Born in 1777 and dead of suicide in 1811, Kleist suffered the bane of many famous writers—ridiculed and dismissed during his lifetime but respected and revered once time passed and history decided he was a worthy entry in the annals of literature. Today his plays are considered classic stalwarts of the German theatrical canon and his prose is known to have heavily influenced Kafka and Mann. And once again, the English speaking contingent of world literature can thank Archipelago Books for bring his varied and masterful work to our attention.
The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a collection of superbly crafted stories and essays that span cultures and centuries but deftly exposes the universality of human tragedy. Although at first glance the language may feel dated and melodramatic, it is deceptive to label him as a writer with an antiquated style that was only relevant to his era. His style is distinct and was also considered so at the time, and what becomes more evident to the reader as she moves through this collection of prose is that the complexity of his language serves as a respite for the reader from the tension created by the intricate plotting. Once the reader settles into his prose, the language laden sentences that seemingly turn themselves inside out mesmerize us into a leisurely pace that is comforting in its cadence.
But what drives the narrative are the perfect marriage of character and plot. From the beginning of each story, we know what will happen to these characters, yet still we read on because Kleist gives the illusion that hope is just after the turn of the page. A slight altering of a worn maxim can cover Kleist’s characters and their travails—destiny hath no fury like a fate scorned. And scorned they are.
There are the cursed lovers in “The Earthquake in Chile” and “The Betrothal of Santo Domingo,” the mysterious and plagued fortunes in “Saint Cecilia and The Power of Music (A Legend)” and “The Marquise of O . . .” and the ugly side of revenge in “Michael Kohlhaas.” “Michael Kohlhaas” is more of a novella and is the mainstay of the collection. It chronicles the path of a horse trader, Michael Kohlhaas, who is wronged by a local junker and spends the rest of his life seeking vengeance. Of course he loses everything in the process, but Kleist draws this out in a believable manner.
What’s also dazzling about this collection are the topics: unexplained pregnancy, biracial love affairs, and mental disorder. Sign me up. Perhaps the contentious nature of these stories caused hostility toward Kleist during his lifetime, but his unwavering commitment to truth makes his work seem more contemporary and more courageous considering the social mores of the time. His characters are the antecedents to what later became the classic character types in German literature. This innovativeness paired with his fast-paced plotting make him a necessary read for the consummate short story reader or writer.
Finally, the collection closes with two ruminative essays on meditation and art: “On the Gradual Formulation of Thoughts While Speaking” and “On the Theater of Marionettes” are light and astute pieces that display his process of self-reflection. After the intensity of the short stories that precede these essays, their presence and tone gives a welcome insight into the artist himself.
The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a work that surprises, unsettles and engages. His language drowns you and the unfortunate fate of his characters enduring the relentless blows of an unforgiving plot keep you tense. These are classic tales from a talented writer whose work refuses to let literature or history to look away.
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