I have just finished reading the short stories of Heinrich von Kleist on the recommendation of a friend, who mentioned their influence on Kafka. I had previously only read “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” in an anthology by Charles Neider about eight years ago. “Locarno” is the only supernatural tale in the lot, but these short works should be of interest to readers of the macabre and strange, because Kleist’s fiction is a literary delicacy of gratuitous cruelty and misfortune, making it something like German Romantic fois gras, I suppose.
Kleist shot his mistress Henriette Vogel, and then himself, on a beach in Germany in 1811 in a murder-suicide pact. They apparently spent their last hours cheerfully. Most of the eight short stories he wrote depict murder and suicide in a variety of sudden ways, with bits of skull glued to wallpaper with blood like fragments of Ming china, arrows whooshing forth out of darkness, propelled on elegant quivers into the ale-fattened hearts of noblemen. Even the two tales with “happy” endings seem to feature uneasy, pasted-on smiles at their conclusion, as if everyone is expecting to catch on fire at any minute. With Kleist, the bad often get their just desserts, and the good get it even worse. He piles on the injustices perpetrated by church, state, and the average everyday bastard, and it feels like something of a miracle if a character exits a Kleist tale without both lance and poison in their belly at the same time. He wrings outrage from the reader when unassailable countesses are betrayed, but when one of his motley of contemptible shits get theirs, it really is tremendously satisfying.
Kleist uses language as a transparent vessel for delivering plot, characterization, and theme; the words do not call attention to themselves, and are not lush or ornamental by any stretch. The sentences, buoyed along on their glassy, modest phrases, unwind to significant but not extravagant length, as if rooting through the detritus of deception to get to the bottom of things. This circuitousness, of snaking one’s hands on and on through the small intestine of the text to find blockages or tumors, is something that can be seen in Kafka as well. In “Michael Kohlhaas,” the longest tale of the lot, there is an exasperatingly long and intestinal apparatus of bureaucracy that is comically explored, interrogated, and exhausted in order to stop the depredations of Kohlhaas. Kleist, in common with much Gothic fiction, sets his works in the past in order to investigate their flaws and barbarities. It makes a good showing of what historical realist fiction can do in estranging the past, and revealing its assumptions to be contingent, arbitrary, and unjust. As one unsurprising example: women are property whose self-determination only exists in so far as it is their fault if they are sexually assaulted.
Though he was a nobleman living during the French revolution, Kleist really puts some effort into making the ancien regime look dreadful. I’m reminded of a statement I read in Chris Baldick’s “In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and 19th Century Writing”: that the ancien regime hoisted its barbarity over itself too, and that primogeniture was a process of feeding one’s young to the devouring god of property, the equivalent of shoving one’s male children into a jar and shaking it around to see who kills who in order to become the rightful heir. The paterfamilias comes off a little worse than shabby in Kleist, such as the Count or Duke (or whatever his christing title is) who is by turns murderously angry and outrageously lustful towards his daughter in “The Marquise of O.” And in “Kohlhaas” we are given Martin Luther writing an epistle to the Emperor recommending that Kohlhaas – an unrepentant murderer and sacker of cities, who is further aggrandizing himself as an emissary of god – be pardoned for all of his crimes. In Kleist, everyone is either awkward, horrible, or a saint about to be pin-cushioned by arrows.
“The Marquise of O” is a nihilistic sex comedy from 1808, featuring an unhinged young Russian count who tears around from scene to scene terrifying everyone with his startling and violent behavior. The second he leaves, he is lavished with praise as a “fine young man” of “many good qualities.” Even with the pathological allowances for young noblemen of the time, the count’s behavior is beyond the pale. This is a man who breaks into back gardens and chases marquises around until they escape into the house and lock the door. A man who proceeds in his love affairs as if he is “storming a fortress.” In other words, a fine young man of many good qualities. Not quite as fine perhaps, as the marquise’s father, who as touched on before, spends his final scene in the novella passionately making out with his daughter, “in unspeakable pleasure over his daughter’s mouth.” Translator David Constantine mentions in his footnotes that Kleist intended to offend with this story, which is more or less an exercise in the “forced seduction” genre, but with the normal happy ending strained and touched with greater perversity than even usual.
Over and over again, women in Kleist are the recipients of false accusations and misunderstandings, and over and over again, we see them thrown out of their homes without getting a single word in against their apoplectic parents or brothers, who are too emetically furious to do anything other than vomit out execrations or tears. This is the state of things for women in his fiction (a state he is not critical enough about to even anachronistically be feminist, but critical enough to emphasize its negatives): they are pieces of genetic furniture with no more say over their destinies than an antique tapestry of family history over where it gets to hang. Their courtships by and large result in their being raped by their suitors, whether in “O” or in “Betrothal in San Domingo.” Constantine mentions that Kleist loved to put women on trial in his tales, using their plight to interrogate oppressive social norms, most of which are related to sex. The effect is without doubt even more horrific to modern readers than to Kleist’s contemporaries, because the norms Kleist finds acceptable and within moderation are still terrible.
“The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is a three page exercise in the traditional ghost story. A rich nobleman comes home to find a sick old woman has been given shelter in his house, and in annoyance, asks her to move to the other side of the room away from the warm stove. In doing so, she falls and hurts her back severely, but gets up again and lays down on the far end of the room, dying shortly after with a groan. The room becomes haunted by her ghostly appearance and re-enacted death every night, thus making the house unsaleable (almost everything in Kleist is about sex or property). Other writers might leave the spectral revenge at that, but Kleist takes it farther, so that the nobleman falls into a fit of rage one night over the ghost and burns the house down, reducing himself to a cinder after a protracted death agony. From the perspective of 2016, at least, whether it’s a ghost story or the awful “forced seduction” story, Kleist really can’t do anything straight.
“The Chilean Earthquake” is a vicious tale about the possibilities of utopian society in the wake of a disaster and its leveling of the social classes and the infrastructures of church and state. This utopian glimpse is squashed, and the cruelty returns with accelerated force. “The Foundling” is another perverse tale, this time a sex tragedy rather than a comedy: out of pity, a businessman picks up a wandering young boy infected with the plague, thus causing the death of his own son who catches the disease. This occurs in the first half page, and events only worsen from there.
With scheming relatives, horny young psychopaths, a diverse cast of landed gentry stricken by their obsessions with sex and property, incestuous patriarchs, and a proliferation of suicides, there’s a lot to appreciate in Kleist. These and his intensely negative portrayals of church, state, and the ancien regime seal it for me as one of my favorite reads of the year. It is reductive as all christ, but I am reminded of John Llewelyn Probert’s classic description of the work of Charles Birkin: “No nonsense cruelty delivered simply and economically.” There is a lot more to him than this, and a lot more I could write here, but I’ll leave this posting with the observation that if I ever get around to compiling an anthology of conte cruels, Kleist will be one of the first entries.
Note: the edition I have used for this entry has been Hackett Publishing’s “Selected Writings,” translated by David Constantine. This collection also features Kleist’s plays, selected letters, and a few of his short, pungent anecdotes.