I surprise myself sometimes but last week I enjoyed The Broken Jug and The Duel so much that I thought I’d read all the stories contained in David Constantine’s anthology of writings by Kleist. I’d already read and reviewed Michael Kohlhaas, so there were only six needed to fulfill my goal. Rather than try to unlock what Kleist was saying about the rather contrary universe, in this post I’m simply trying to work out why I find them so enjoyable.
1) Kleist is a master of the first sentence.
In M, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O, a lady of excellent reputation and the mother of two well-brought-up children, announced in the newspaper: that she had, without knowing it, become pregnant, and would the father of the child she was to bear kindly declare himself since she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him. (The Marquise of O)
In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very instant of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of people lost their lives, a young man accused of a crime, a Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, stood by a pillar of the prison in which he had been confined, and was about to hang himself. (The Chilean Earthquake)
In Port au Prince, in that part of the island belonging to the French, at the beginning of this century when the blacks were murdering the whites, there lived an old negro, a terrifying man, Congo Hoango by name, on M. Guillaume de Villeneuve’s plantation. (Betrothal in San Domingo)
All of the above throw the reader straight into the intrigue of the story. There’s nothing bland here: all three sentences hint at matters of life and death and at violence in once form or another. That should come as no surprise: Kleist lived during the Napoleonic Wars, Europe was in an uproar and while Kleist doesn’t address these wars directly in his prose (and thus ensured the universality of his stories), the violence of those times is reflected into his chosen settings and situations.
2) There’s no predicting whether the story is a happy or a tragic one. For instance, The Marquise of O ends happily, after many emotional convolutions, admittedly, whereas The Chilean Earthquake has a dreadful outcome. Both stories have at their core an unwanted pregnancy. Similarly in The Duel God is a benevolent being who ensures a just outcome – eventually – yet in Betrothal in San Domingo repentant sinners are done to death. The only summary that can be made is that God moves in mysterious ways – certainly no more mysteriously than in St Cecilia or The Power of Music where four zealous reformist brothers resolve to destroy a catholic convent. Yet at the moment their attack is to begin they are miraculously overcome and reduced to a form of idiocy by the beautiful music of the Gloria in excelsis.
3) I love the labyrinthine sentences! I lose myself in them and despite their complexity find a rare visual clarity in Kleist’s story-telling. I’m delighted that David Constantine has chosen to retain this style. The importance of this choice is stressed in a translator’s note: though you might get across the lexical meaning of one of his long and complicated sentences by translating it into several shorter and simpler, doing so you would reduce and travesty the total sense, which consists not only (and often not mainly) in lexical meaning but in the long and complicated workings of the sentence itself. Kleist makes sense. He arrives at and holds on to sense through the difficult process of composing sentences. Syntax – a fitting-together- is the expression of his will to make the world make sense.
I can imagine the comfort and pleasure that composing these sentences must have given Kleist: an oversensitive man, uncomfortable in the world he lived, a man who ultimately became reconciled to it only after he had taken the decision to leave it by his own hand. That grieves me for many reasons, not least for the unwritten works of genius that never saw the light of day.