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.
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .