On the morning of November 21, 1811, Heinrich von Kleist and his terminally ill friend Henriette Vogel strolled to the shore of the Wannsee, near Berlin, and carried out a suicide pact. A passerby had seen them moments earlier, walking hand in hand, apparently in gay spirits. A few days before, the thirty-four-year-old Kleist had sent his cousin Marie a letter in which he described his life as "the most tormented that any human being has ever lived," and on the morning of his death he wrote to his half-sister, Ulrike: "The truth is that no one could really help me on this earth. . . . May Heaven grant you a death at least half as happy and full of unutterable joy as mine."
He must have seemed to himself the very type of the failed writer. He had written once to Ulrike: "Hell gave me my half-talents, Heaven grants a man a complete talent or none." Few at the time would have disagreed with him. (Goethe found him too unhealthy a specimen: "His hypochondria destroys him both as a man and a writer.") It would take decades for the magnitude of his achievement to become apparent. In eight years or so, he had written—along with a mass of essays, political articles, poems, and letters—eight plays and eight stories that mark the moment when European culture, or more precisely the European conception of what culture was, came asunder. As an artist he sought not to destroy but to build, yet his works unavoidably gravitated toward the contemplation of destruction. Outward catastrophes—earthquake, massacre, cannibalism, warfare, the iconoclasm of religious fanatics, the savageries of thuggish barons—mirrored equally terrifying forms of inward fissure. His protagonists were condemned to bewilderment, self-doubt, obsession. Yet this was a writer who in his early youth believed, or wanted to believe, that happiness consisted of "the pleasant observation of the moral beauty of our own selves."
He came from an old military family, an aristocratic Prussian line of much pedigree and little money. A soldier from the age of fifteen, he fought against Napoleon in the war of 1792, came to despise army life, and resigned his commission in 1799 to devote himself to science and philosophy. There followed a prolonged period of wandering, a broken betrothal, various halfhearted attempts at earning a living, life plans mapped out and abandoned, works drafted and destroyed. Undertaking to fuse Sophocles and Shakespeare into a new form of verse drama, he wrote plays (among them Penthesilea, Little Katherine of Heilbronn, and The Prince of Homburg) that, while they found no audience in his lifetime, are without doubt the greatest of their period in any language: tortuously twined theater-poems of violence and desire that strain at the forms that embody them. The almost dungeon-like rigor of Kleist's dramaturgy encloses a counterforce of rebellious fury. His plays, like his stories, are constructed with strands of legal argument and military strategy, each bit of linkage reasonable in itself, but leading to a point where the inexorability of human logic becomes an aspect of the world's unappeasable irrationality.
The stories—of which six are translated by Peter Wortsman in his very welcome Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, along with a few brief but endlessly suggestive essays and fragments—were written in between the plays and in between the episodes of a life rapidly unraveling. Kleist spent nine months as a minor bureaucrat in Prussia's taxation department and six months as a French prisoner wrongly suspected of espionage. He had a brief career as a newspaper editor and was fervent in the cause of German nationalism. His personal circumstances were dire. The stories offer no direct commentary on any of this. They are tales, supernatural incidents, mock-historical chronicles, exotic adventures, discreetly erotic comedies. None point to an obvious moral; in fact, they deviously confound attempts to locate any such thing.
Two of them—The Marquise of O . . . and the novella-length Michael Kohlhaas—seem to me pretty much the best stories ever written, and the rest are of nearly equal fascination. Yet there is nothing to which their manner and texture can really be compared. They are machines that, once turned on, move ineluctably forward: sometimes with the swift, destructive force of a military unit, sometimes with the lumbering, exhausting weight of a protracted lawsuit, sometimes with the maddening, hair-splitting insistence of a theological argument carrying with it the threat of some savage punishment, and sometimes like a joke spun out beyond normal bounds. We wait for a punch line, which, when it comes, plunges us deeper into mystery. The stories do not pause for breath; even less so in Wortsman's translations, which seek to convey the intricately enmeshed patterns of Kleist's syntax, so that, for example, the hundred or so pages of Michael Kohlhaas seem almost a single sentence. Once one engages with Kleist's narration, its peculiar urgency forces attention even as the plot spins into unforeseen byways.
He is the least quotable of great writers. Extracting a sentence from one of his stories is like taking a stone from a wall of Machu Picchu—every phrase is wedged into its context. Yet in Kleist's paradoxical fashion, these sentences do not so much shore one another up as engage in low-level conflict. A meaning is asserted, only for an ensuing sentence to sabotage or undermine it. His unities are built out of internal contradictions. The Marquise of O . . . by its premise (a respectable and virtuous woman who inexplicably finds herself pregnant and sets out to discover the father of her child) might be the sort of elegant, ribald joke a Boccaccio or Aretino would have told. Yet as it moves from one psychological conundrum to another, the joke mutates by turns into a medieval saint's legend and a kind of modern novel not yet invented. We guess what the solution must be, yet, even as the answer turns out to be as obvious as we supposed, new questions arise that make the joke mysterious and troubling. Who, after all, are these people? We know more about them than any simple jest could contain, yet what we know only leads further into the unfathomable. Between any two connecting points of Kleist's remorselessly airtight structures lurks a potential abyss.
No Kleist text offers a simple reading. However neatly it works out—and there is no one like Kleist for elaborately logical explanations of improbable events—the import remains naggingly suspended. His art enacts a resolution and by the same gesture shows it to be impossible. "It is not we who know, but rather a certain state of mind in us that knows," he writes in an essay included here, hinting at the dark recognition toward which his stories advance, an intimate and appalling apprehension that the abyss is where we already live. His parables reveal only reversible truths, as if there were always the possibility that everything might be otherwise, that love might after all be hate, justice deception, understanding madness. Everyone has their reasons, even the corrupt noblemen of Michael Kohlhaas and the vengeful revolutionaries of The Betrothal in Santo Domingo, and all their reasons fail to account for uncanny and savage manifestations of unearthly justice like the miracle that turns bullying religious bigots into howling madmen in Saint Cecilia, or the Power of Music, or the visitation recounted in The Beggar Woman of Locarno, one of the greatest (and shortest) of ghost stories.
Michael Kohlhaas, the tale of how an upright horse trader evolves into a ferocious avenger because of a small incident involving the misappropriation of two horses, has often been seen as a somber parable of justice denied. Yet a dark hilarity runs through it as Kleist savors the chain of random circumstances that drags in, finally, the infrastructure of a society. At every point, an imminent solution is forestalled by yet another contingency, some accident (such as a messenger seized with cramps) or coincidence or overlooked minor law or privilege. The story desperately wants to conclude but cannot. Toward the end, the beleaguered hero entertains a notion to "ship off to the Levant or East India," the sort of escape forbidden to anyone inhabiting the universe of Kleist. Then, when the tale seems closest to finding an exit, Kleist injects a subplot involving a Gypsy prophecy and the fate of the Electorate of Saxony, an interpolation some critics consider an aesthetic mistake but that yields a suitably hermetic closing image: the hero, just before his execution, swallowing a piece of paper so that no one will ever read what is on it.
Whatever death wish may have gripped Kleist throughout his short life, there is nothing the least morbid, ghostly, wan, or attenuated about his work. Although it can hardly be discussed without invoking despair and the erosion of self, that work is infused nonetheless with an enlivening energy that can properly be called joyful. It is a joy perhaps limited to artmaking, in a life otherwise intolerably conflicted and frustrated but nonetheless bursting out, bright and exhilarating, in every branching, relentless thrust of invention.
Geoffrey O'Brien is the author of The Fall of the House of Walworth, to be published in August by Henry Holt.