21 November 2011

Heinrich von Kleist: Not Accounted For

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) died on this day, 200 years ago, at the age of 34.

He wrote eight plays and eight short stories or novellas, along with short essays, journalism and letters. He wrote for a period of about 10 years. You could read all of his surviving writings in a couple of weeks.

Kleist is most commonly spoken of as some combination of the following:
  • a genius
  • a master of the German language
  • a misfit
  • violent
  • 'modern', or impossibly ahead of his time, or 'timeless'
  • in crisis
  • 'conflicted'
  • 'his own worst enemy'
  • dangerous
  • 'political'
  • a rebel
  • 'transgressive'
and the list could go on and on, with some references to 'the breakdown of language' and 'the breakdown of consciousness'. There's a certain amount of truth in this enumeration, despite its recourse to cliché.

For me, Kleist is one of 'the 26'--and yet, as I look back through the archives of Jascha Writes, I find that I have mentioned him only fleetingly, most recently in September in a post about Shakespeare in which I say only that Kleist is 'unclassifiable' but that his eight dramas for the most part still 'hold the stage' in German-speaking countries.

Because I suspect that most of my US readers have little direct experience with Kleist, I'm tempted to 'situate' him for them by likening him to potentially comparable writers (Büchner, Rimbaud, Kafka…) or telling stories of his clashes with better-established writers of his own time (Goethe…) or hinting at his intertextual relationships (to Sophocles, Molière, E. L. Doctorow--to say nothing of French director Eric Rohmer, who based one of his best films of the 1970s on Kleist's novella 'Die Marquise von O…'). But all of this feels like one more way of failing Kleist. (At the same time, it's worth noting that Kleist stands up to all the implied comparisons.)

Another way of failing Kleist, strangely enough, would be my usually automatic approach of sketching out my own 'relationship' with the writer in question. Does it really matter that I read him most memorably in the late 1960s and mid-1970s? That I feel I can never really finish reading Kleist, of all authors?

What I can't not share with you, though, is the fact that this author, so closely associated with tragedy and violence, also wrote what is usually considered the greatest German stage comedy, The Broken Jug. To say nothing (literally) of Amphitryon. Or Penthesilea. Or Prinz Friedrich von Homburg. Unforgettable, each in its own unaccountable way.

And those are all stage works. For those who are ready to go out and read Kleist in English, let me recommend the Penguin edition of his short fiction. Beware, though, of plot spoilers in the introduction, which at one point also takes Kleist to task (and at great length) for a plot twist in 'Michael Kohlhaas' which the editors find ill-considered and which for me makes the novella the masterpiece that most of us agree it is. (Whichever side of that question you come down on, the odds are you won't appreciate being made aware of the plot twist before you read the novella itself.)

Kleist's texts in the original German are readily available as free ebooks from Amazon.com or Amazon.de --although I benefited from the one-volume Kleist 'reader' made available this year in the series Fischer Klassik.

The German press, which overlaps with the German-language Internet, has been full of Kleist memorials and essays throughout this year and for the last few days in particular. I've been helped most (not as a blogger but as what I might call a mourner) by the contributions to the online edition of Die Zeit in general but by a piece by Volker Weidermann appearing at the FAZ website in particular.


Jim Carpenter said...

Now I must see The Broken Jug.

James Hulbert said...

There's a major German film version from the 1930s (starring Emil Jannings) that I've seen and admired, but I haven't been able to find it on DVD in the US. There's a German DVD without subtitles at http://amzn.to/rurpXi … See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Broken_Jug --which however seems to be unaware of this film. On the film, in German, see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_zerbrochene_Krug_(1937) .