Monday, May 14, 2007

Heinrich von Kleist's The Marquise of O-

After reading about The Marquise of O- and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist in Francine Prose's excellent Reading Like a Writer, I decided to read the collection. (Even though it's much harder to find than the Penguin edition, I decided on the Martin Greenberg translation, which includes a preface by Thomas Mann, since that's what Prose quoted extensively and it's what hooked me. It was worth the effort. Greenberg's translation reads with wonderful clarity and directness.) Kleist, a German born in the late 18C, died in his mid-30s, and though he's known also for his drama and to some extent his poetry, I gather it's his fiction which is most often read these days, at least in English. This collection includes all of his fiction, and it represents a stunning achievement.

Prose celebrates Kleist for his opening sentences, which are indeed marvels and have apparently been admired for generations. I'm partial to the action packed opener of "The Earthquake in Chile":
In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of the year 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.
And, interestingly, having just searched the web for a copy of the sentence to copy and paste, I found various other translations which I didn't like as much. At any rate, though he often set his stories in the historical past, Kleist's fiction also feels strikingly modern. (Strange to think of him as Austen's contemporary.) Originally devoted to the ideals of the Enlightenment, Kleist apparently read Kant and had something of a meltdown and ended up a severe critic of Enlightenment philosophy. There's something a bit twisted to his sensibility, and in his introduction Greenberg points out that his world seems modern because it's unstable, shifting ("the world seemed flat but it turns out to be round").

I enjoyed every story, though I thought they varied in quality. "The Marquise of O-" has to be read to be believed. It's exceptional (and Prose devotes a lot of space to discussing it) yet I found the ending too cruel to accept. Symbolically, the resolution expresses a profound truth about human nature, but perhaps it's the modern feminist in me who can't accept it on the realistic terms which are the story's main strength up until that point. The novella "Michael Kohlhaas" is likewise an exceptional story, which I felt worked best in its first half, focused as it is on experiences that an ordinary person can more easily relate to. It's the story of a man whose attempt to seek justice is continually thwarted and decides to take the law into his own hands, becoming a vigilante. Interestingly, it's almost an animal rights story, since the initial injustice involves the mistreatment of two of his horses. The agonizingly escalating pitch of Kohlhaas' failed pursuit of justice put me in mind of Kafka, and it turns out Kafka was indeed a big fan. The story also influenced E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. (If you check IMDb, you'll see Kleist has credits for the movie version as well as for films by Rohmer and Schlondorff.) The story ends with a rather subtle supernatural twist that reminds you he was writing in the Gothic era.

Speaking of the Gothic, "Beggerwoman of Locarno" is a short story that's quite simple yet effective, a bit slight and lacking the kinds of twist I expected but nonetheless interesting. Rightly or not, I couldn't help somewhat favorably comparing "The Engagement in Santo Domingo" to Melville's "Benito Cereno," a story which disappointed me. Both deal with insurrections by slaves--the former in Haiti, the latter at sea. "The Foundling," which includes something of a rivalry between a son and an adopted boy, made for a fascinating comparison with Wuthering Heights, which I read not long ago. I found myself wondering if this story was written partly in reaction to more sentimental tales of poor foundlings made good, because it's quite a dark tale.

"The Earthquake in Chile" is, I think, one of my two favorites in the collection. It's a pure success in narrative. Its consideration of life just after a great public calamity put me in mind of 9/11 and rang absolutely true despite having the shape of an O Henry story. "St. Cecilia" is an interesting story that deals with religion, intolerance and music in a unique combination. Mann praised the story for sending shivers down the spine and expressing the horror of music's power. The final story, "The Duel," is my other favorite. Like the title story, it deals with a woman who knows herself to be innocent but who appears very guilty, and the narrative employs some delicious twists. The chivalric era is skewered, and the idea of religious faith is put to a very memorable test.

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