Best of the Web

Dustin Illingworth on Heinrich von Kleist

With New Directions reissuing Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, in a fresh translation by Michael Hofmann, Dustin Illingworth makes the case that the novella is “the book that made the novel modern”:

The ecstatic violence that such men commit is one of Kleist’s central themes. But the indulgence of his novella — scenes of blasphemy, defenestration, disaster, augury — is offset by the Latinate solidity of his prose. It is a stony eminence, slab-like and somehow airtight despite its continued accretion of character and event. Kleist confounds us by appraising his fevers with the exactness of a logician. “The war I am waging against the bulk of mankind is sinful,” Kohlhaas tells Luther, “were it not that I am, as you assure me, cast out from it.” Kleist erects gorgeous, formal structures in which to house the demons that plague him. He locates a profound mystery in the hearts of men and the institutions that guide them, something inexorable, unyielding, and ultimately destructive.

Kohlhaas, determined to set the world to rights, seeks clarity within the mystifying apparatus of the courts. They do not represent the law but something like its hardened excrescence, or else a vexing formal discipline, like calculus or ballet. From the first, Kohlhaas is out of his depth. Subject to a dizzying hierarchy of peerage and obscure jurisdiction, justice eludes him at every opportunity. His pleas are interrupted, denied, or ignored, due to well-placed adversaries. Smelling blood in the water, Tronka and his retinue begin “with cunning and obstructive arguments to deny their guilt altogether.” Infinite barriers of paper and plausibility accumulate. Kohlhaas is punished, finally, not for his crimes but for his novitiate status.