Inching Toward His Due: On Two New Translations of Kleist

December 14, 2021   •   By Dylan Brown


Heinrich von Kleist

Michael Kohlhaas

Heinrich von Kleist

GERMAN-LANGUAGE WRITERS are enjoying a little bit of a revival in America at the moment. “Kafkaesque” is an increasingly overused descriptor, although one could easily argue that for too long it went underused. W. G. Sebald’s legacy appears to grow larger (and more complicated) by the day, with the first biography of him published this fall coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Austerlitz’s publication. Contemporary German writers like Jenny Erpenbeck and Heike Geissler have also found an audience in America, and in the past few years, NYRB Classics has published several newly translated books by authors such as Alfred Döblin, Robert Walser, and Anna Seghers. Meanwhile, the unsung hero predating them all inches toward his due.

Heinrich von Kleist is, unfortunately, not quite as popular as his peers — regardless of how you define “peer.” During the 19th century, Goethe’s revulsion by, and dismissal of, Kleist’s work was adopted as the prevailing attitude, something that would hold for another hundred years. It also didn’t help back then that Kleist’s writing is short, peculiar, and often violent, or that he died by suicide at 34 after shooting a close friend who was terminally ill. Praise from the likes of Roberto Bolaño, Susan Sontag, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Auster, and Thomas Mann has no doubt helped in keeping interest in Kleist alive, but the degree to which he influenced Kafka — and through him various branches of the Western canon — has largely gone unacknowledged until recently.

In a New Yorker review of Michael Hofmann’s excellent new translation of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, out from New Directions last year, the reviewer makes the case that writers such as Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Witold Gombrowicz, Thomas Bernhard, and J. M. Coetzee are “unimaginable without Kleist’s example.” I would add too that more recent novels such as Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season and Bolaño’s By Night in Chile also trace part of their feverishness back to Michael Kohlhaas, a novella about a man’s deranged pursuit of justice that Bolaño called “a story about bravery and its twin, stupidity.” To those who haven’t read the novella, it’s hard to convey the force with which it moves — it is a relentless, sprinting work that pulls its readers from one harrowing scene to the next in a way that’s bizarrely well suited to a time like ours.

Many of the pieces included in Matthew Spencer’s deft translation of Kleist’s Anecdotes, out from Sublunary Editions this October, approach but do not match the blistering nature of Michael Kohlhaas; these are instead shorter tales (as the title informs us) that could be told over beers in the tavern, while waiting for the train or coach, or sitting by the fireplace. The book collects an assortment of fiction, reportage, fables, and essays. The charming result is something like a Ripley’s Believe It or Not mass-market paperback if it had been written and edited by a melancholy genius. That is to say, in Kleist’s wide-ranging feuilleton there is a depth of literary richness that demands to be pored over repeatedly. There are strange, supernatural, and beautiful stories of ghosts, mermaids, feats of bravery, miracles, and duels alongside more mundane tales such as simple stories about Diogenes’s witty burial request or Bach’s tragicomic response to a servant — all are written in an accessible style suitable for the newspaper in which they appeared.

Still, many of Kleist’s sentences are winding, making full use of German’s capacity for linking clauses together like some never-ending series of train cars. Spencer’s translation is faithful to these constructions, and while there were some moments where I questioned smaller decisions — such as translating “Monden” to “months” instead of the more literal, though outdated and slightly affected, “moons” — the overall result is a text that balances faithfulness, on the one hand, to the literal sense and, on the other, to the tone and feel of the work.

Spencer’s introduction and footnotes are also welcome additions, providing useful context throughout the collection. The anecdotes appeared originally in the Berliner Abendblätter, a small newspaper edited by Kleist and published by Julius Eduard Hitzig. In Spencer’s intro to Anecdotes, we learn that the paper lasted about six months before folding and that likely its content would’ve been lost if the Brothers Grimm hadn’t collected issues specifically for the anecdotes they considered to be “small masterpieces of vernacular literature.”

The first anecdote in the selection is titled “An Occurrence,” and in a few sentences it tells the tale of two men standing under a tree. One of the men complains to the other that the tree is too small for the both of them and the other, a “placid and humble man,” moves under another tree, whereupon the man who complained about the lack of space is struck dead by lightning. Like “An Occurrence,” many of the other tales function as peculiar stand-alone fables, but some, when read in the context of Kleist’s life and other literary works, become illuminated. “A Curious Affair That Transpired During My Sojourn in Italy” is eerily similar to Kleist’s novella The Marquise of O—. “An Occurrence,” for instance, happens to illustrate the route Michael Kohlhaas ought to have taken instead of revenge. While the “humble man” is spared, divinely it seems, men like Kohlhaas, who do not yield, forgive, turn the other cheek, or deny themselves revenge, are destroyed. Because some of the tales included in Anecdotes are legends and stories that predate Kleist, we not only get to read Kleist here but are also able to glimpse his interests as a reader.

Some of the anecdotes are harder to parse. In “The Gallantry of the French,” one of Napoleon’s generals is approached by a Prussian citizen who essentially snitches and suggests that logs are free for the taking in a naval yard, which could be used by Napoleon’s army to make floating bridges. When the general responds that he can’t take the logs, the citizen protests that the wood is royal property, belonging to the king of Prussia. The general then says, “I know,” and tells the citizen that the king needs the wood to hang scoundrels like him. Kleist, who had previously been imprisoned for six months by the French on charges of spying, nevertheless idolizes the general, while he mocks the Prussian (in the original German, the general also addresses him as “Er,” reserved at the time for non-nobles), delivering for our entertainment a witticism at the Prussian’s expense.

This template of a contentious relationship between the nobility and commoners is one that Kleist would also use in Michael Kohlhaas (published around the same time as the Berliner Abendblätter, between 1810 and 1811), another story in which a Prussian commoner’s troubles start with the aristocracy making him the butt of a joke. In both tales, the commoner is duped by an aristocrat; the main difference in the anecdote is Kleist’s more overt admiration of the general over the common man. The original German version includes a subtitle under “The Gallantry of the French,” which reads, “worthy of being engraved in bronze.”

Part of the joy of Michael Kohlhaas, and a key reason for its relevance now, is Kleist’s portrayal of Kohlhaas’s Sisyphean struggle against forces far more powerful than himself. When damage is done to his horses, Kohlhaas seeks justice, going so far as to summon a ragtag army to terrorize and pillage the countryside. But even as the narrator mocks him, we cannot help but sympathize with Kohlhaas. In a particularly brilliant moment, Kohlhaas is put in his place by Martin Luther (perhaps the only character presented without fault) when Luther posts a damning letter in “towns and villages throughout the Electorate” asking Kohlhaas if he thinks his “tactics will confuse God.” Luther and his admonitions serve as a kind of “straight man” in the novella, pulling us back, briefly, from buying into Kohlhaas’s spiraling justifications of his campaign for revenge.

Another reason for its relevance lies in the fact that it’s hard to read Kohlhaas without being reminded of a prototypical mass shooter. Kohlhaas is a middle-class merchant on his way to Saxony, who, when wronged by a castellan of a castle while en route, retaliates disproportionately and attributes the sins of the individual to the general populace. Critics such as Helga Gallas have argued that Kohlhaas’s loss of his horses and papers is a metaphoric castration, which, combined with the death of his wife by the butt of a guard’s lance, turns him into a cuckolded incel. In pleading his case before Martin Luther, Kohlhaas describes himself as an “outcast” because the community’s laws have offered him no protection. He goes on to say, “And whosoever would deny me such classes with the savages of the wild; he gives me, and how can you argue with this, the cudgel with which I protect myself into my hand.” Luther, rightly so, is mostly unimpressed by Kohlhaas’s justifications and asks him, “[W]ouldn’t you have done better to forgive […] ?” Of course, Kohlhaas cannot forgive, in the same way that Kohlhaas also cannot have justice: he exists outside of those constructs. Like most of the young white men who go on to commit mass murder, he is not suffering from a mental illness, he feels he has been wronged to such a degree, deprived of what he thinks is rightfully his, that war is the only means he has at his disposal to regain his masculinity and be heard.

His banishment from the community doesn’t start with the damage to his property though; it begins when the castellan tells Kohlhaas that he needs special papers in order to pass with his horses. The papers, however, aren’t actually required, they are instead a cruel joke played by the castellan who is abusing his power. It’s easy to see, only a few pages into the novella, why Kafka had a habit of reciting Michael Kohlhaas to his friends: stories such as “In the Penal Colony,” “A Message from the Emperor,” and The Metamorphosis all contain shades of Kleist’s novella, whether it’s the confusion and frustration, labyrinthine (and ultimately uncontestable) bureaucracy, or a state of otherness carried to an extreme conclusion.

That the anecdotes don’t match the power or frenzy of Michael Kohlhaas (although some do come close) is not a reflection on them so much as it is a testament to the genius of Kleist’s masterpiece. “Saint Cecila or the Power of Music (a legend)” and “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” — the longer stories in Anecdotes — are both gripping and strange, and neither shies away from the violence and madness found throughout Kleist’s body of work. We encounter wonderful lines such as this one:

They added that the young men, for six years now, had led this spectral life; that they slept very little, took very little food; that not a sound passed from their lips; except that they would rise from their seats at midnight and intone, in a voice to shatter the windows, the Gloria in excelsis.

As furious as Kleist’s prose tends to be, it is also remarkably precise and restrained. It is, oddly enough, this restraint that gives Anecdotes and Michael Kohlhaas their power. Anything superfluous is cut, and what’s left is a kind of story reduction; we’re left with hyper-saturated narratives in which something new takes place in every sentence or clause.

“The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is another violent story (one of which E. T. A. Hoffmann was especially fond) from Kleist’s Anecdotes in which the aristocracy is needlessly cruel to those of a lower station. In a castle in Italy, the wife of a marquis has invited the eponymous beggar woman, whom she finds at the main door, to stay in one of their chambers. When the marquis returns from the hunt, he stumbles upon her in the room and orders her to get behind the stove. Her crutches break in the process, and as she struggles to move behind the stove and comply with marquis’s orders, she dies. Years later, the marquis comes into “dire financial straits” and hosts several buyers, including a knight, all of whom are scared off by the dead woman’s ghost. The marquis ends up “weary of his life” and perishes when he sets his wood-paneled castle on fire — all this occurring over the course of one long tumbling paragraph at the end of the story. It is, of course, the “countryfolk” who gather his “white bones” and set them in a pile in the corner of the room where the beggarwoman died.

The anecdotes make for good yarns and are mostly delightful — it’s easy to see why the Brothers Grimm were fans. But the stories also tend to point to a persistent concern of Kleist’s: that power and nobility can lead to corruption, often to the point of incompetency and evil. Even Kohlhaas, who is himself wronged, is not immune from power’s corrupting force. The longer he wages his war for retribution and the larger his army grows, the more he is responsible for the deaths of innocent people. Kohlhaas’s descent shows the cost of abusing one’s power; his is a cautionary tale of what can happen when one person is cruel to another. But for all of Goethe’s admonitions, Kleist’s work is not depressing so much as it is truthful — if the truth is depressing, that’s no fault of Kleist’s.

Kleist was evidently not meant for the 19th century, but there’s no doubt he understood where things were heading. Today, there is something joyous in reading, or recognizing, the resurrection of an author whose work had been more or less ignored for a few centuries. Martin Greenberg, in his introduction to an earlier, 1960s translation of a collection of Kleist’s stories and anecdotes, laments this, writing that “Kleist remained unknown to the world for so many years and even his own countrymen ignored him for almost a century.” If there is any justice in the world (Kleist wouldn’t hold his breath) these new translations from Hofmann and Spencer suggest we are in the midst of a reappraisal of Kleist’s work among English speakers that has been going on steadily for a half-century, and that this new interest could end with Kleist placed at the forefront of authors from his time. Kleist may finally be thought of alongside other great German-language writers like Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse. It’s not really a consolation to be recognized long after your death, but to readers who are alive to witness that moment in time, as it’s happening, it’s an event that feels worth celebrating.


Dylan Brown's writing has appeared in places like Tin HouseBright Wall / Dark Room, Lit HubHobart, and Gulf Coast. He was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, and currently lives in Los Angeles.