Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist Translated and with an afterword by Peter Wortsman. Archipelago Books. 250 pp, $15.00
Happy endings are in short supply in the Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist—a collection of tales that surprisingly calls to mind Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. The featured characters in von Kleist’s stories tend to be imperiled by those very qualities that human beings treasure most: unflinching love, generosity, loyalty, and a sense of justice. At the end of the day, the protagonists populating these narratives have little left except moral victories. It is a foregone conclusion that things will end badly for them.
The doom and gloom engulfing these characters shouldn’t come as a shock. Writers write what they know, and von Kleist certainly knew a thing or two about disappointment and bad outcomes. In the excellent afterword provided by translator Peter Wortsman, Heinrich von Kleist is described as an enigmatic author with a contradictory personality. He was “a man at once more brilliantly adept at the practice of his art and more painfully inept at the business of living.” The experiences of his short life (1777-1811) are plainly woven in many of the stories assembled in this book. He joined the army at age fifteen and resigned seven years later. He had a brief stint in the Prussian bureaucracy. After a “misunderstanding” with the occupying French military government—he was charged with being a spy—von Kleist was flung into a French prison for a short time.
The author made little attempt to hide his sense of inadequacy: “Were I able to engage in any other useful pursuit, I would gladly do so: I only write because I can’t do anything else.” His brief life ended with a bang—actually two bangs. He agreed to a suicide pact with the terminally ill wife of a friend. After shooting her with a pistol, von Kleist ended his own life also with a bullet in the head.
The settings of these stories span continents and hemispheres: Haiti, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Chile. No matter the locale, the main characters share similar profiles. They are engaged in heroic struggles, possess tragic flaws, tend to be obsessive personalities, and are on the receiving end of lots of bad karma. Despite the tragedy that befalls most of these protagonists, good things sporadically ensue for other people. Misfortune temporarily spawns acts of human kindness. Catastrophe provokes altruism. Mini-miracles rarely crop up. In the hands of von Kleist, paradox and dramatic irony are not literary devices but rather fundamental features of ordinary life.
The collection’s opening story, “The Earthquake in Chile,” is a prime example of the author’s affection for quirks of fate and incongruity. Masterfully juxtaposing compassion and cruelty, it follows two young people, Jeronimo and Josephe, who fall in love. Josephe’s disapproving father is a wealthy nobleman. He banishes his daughter to a Carmelite cloister, but love will not so easily be denied. Jeronimo sneaks into the garden of the nuns where he impregnates Josephe. Skip ahead approximately nine months. It is a religious holiday and in the middle of the pageantry of the holy festival, Josephe goes into labor on the steps of the cathedral. She gives birth to a son. The community is appalled by the transgression. The lover-sinners are both imprisoned. Josephe is sentenced to death by beheading. Jeronimo prays for her rescue, but when his plea goes unanswered he decides to hang himself.
The couple’s situation could not possibly be more hopeless. Cue Deus ex machina. It is 1647 and a horrific earthquake rocks the city of Santiago, Chile, on the very day the two lovers are scheduled to die. The cataclysm collapses most of the city. Thousands are dead. Somehow Jeronimo, Josephe, and their child are not only freed but unharmed. They reunite amidst the ruins, struck by the extraordinary cost of their love:
For they had countless things to tell each other of cloister garden and cold prison cell, and how they had each suffered for the other; and they were deeply stirred when they fathomed how much misery the world had to suffer to permit their happiness!
The disaster unites everyone—briefly. The survivors are joined “into a single harmonious family of man.” Acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, and fearlessness are suddenly commonplace. Before long, however, the violence of Nature is matched by the brutality of the human heart. While attending a religious ceremony in the cathedral, Jeronimo and Josephe are recognized and their wrongdoing is recalled. Nothing fires up a crowd like a scapegoat. The mob erupts and the couple is killed. Carnage is contagious. The final body count tallies up high. Predetermination, destiny, fate—call it what you like. It can be sidetracked, delayed, and tweaked but never escaped from in von Kleist’s fictional world.
This tension between fate and free will ripples throughout the majority of these tales. Obstinacy is depicted as an obstacle but not a remedy to the force of fate. The lengthy story, “Michael Kohlhaas,” illustrates this point. Occupying almost half of the book, the novella chronicles the life of a 16th century horse trader. The title character a) just doesn’t know when to cut his losses and quit, b) cannot let things go, c) lacks any sense of self-preservation, d) has a statistically unlikely stretch of bad luck, or e) all of the above.
The opening description of Kohlhaas serves as both foreshadowing and paradox: “One of the most upright and at the same time terrible men of his time.” Kohlhaas suffers greatly but embraces his misery to exact vengeance. He is troubled by the lack of justice in the world. If justice is even possible, then it appears to have little to do with laws. This notion of justice seems to prefigure Kafka: the labyrinth of government bureaucracy and the impossibility of attaining fairness for the ordinary man. In the end, Kohlhaas sacrifices or loses nearly everything—his wife, his freedom, and his life—for the satisfaction of righting a wrong. The legacy of this obsessive character is murky. Is he murderer or martyr, hero, or lunatic?
Much of von Kleist’s fiction concludes with just this sort of mixed message. Happiness is hazardous. Love comes with a cost. The pursuit of justice leads to jeopardy. Race relationships, pregnancy, politics, religion, and otherworldly occurrences figure prominently in additional stories. These memorable tales focus on life’s irony, desolation, and hardships. Lasting happiness isn’t an option for von Kleist’s characters. They’re much too busy struggling to survive.
Tony Miksanek is the author of two collections of short stories. He is coeditor of the New York University Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database. He teaches literature at John A. Logan College.
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