Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Marquise of O- and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist

The introduction to this volume mentions, with regard to Kleist's Penthesilea, the Bacchae of Euripides. The anti-rationalism of that particular drama is a thread which runs through these stories of tragedy, violence, injustice and despair. Living in that rational age of Goethe (who spurned his one-time protege) and Schiller, and hot on the heels of the Enlightenment, Kleist (1777-1811) began his young adulthood with a plan for success. Whatever that plan may have been, it fell to pieces rather quickly, and Kleist lived the remainder of his short life in a state of restlessness and disillusionment. (A clue may be found in Kleist's reading of Kant, whose epistemological theory pulled the rug out from under Kleist's tender notions of the perfectability of man, an experience which seems to mirror that of the 20th century Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.) This dissatisfaction with human nature and political and ecclesiastical authoritarianism are well reflected in these remarkable stories, which range from a ghost story ("The Beggarwoman of Locarno"), to tragic tales of love ("The Earthquake in Chile" and "The Betrothal in Santo Domingo"), to a chilling tale of kindness repaid with betrayal ("The Foundling"), a precursor of Kafka (the title story), and an excellent novella of a man driven to madness and violence by a corrupt and unresponsive bureaucracy. ("Michael Kohlhaas").

In addition to this venerable Penguin edition, Archipelago Books has recently published Selected Prose of Heinrich Von Kleist, a collection of “short stories, novellas, and literary fragments". The aforementioned Penthesilea is included in the out-of-print Five German Tragedies, also published by Penguin, and in the collection of Kleist's plays in Continuum's excellent German Library series.