Michael Kohlhaas 
by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by Michael Hofmann.
New Directions, 112 pp., £11.99, April 2020, 978 0 8112 2834 3
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There​ are few suicide notes more ecstatic than those of Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, who died together on 21 November 1811. ‘May heaven grant you a death even half as joyous and inexpressibly cheerful as mine,’ Kleist wrote to his sister. He was ‘blissfully happy’, he told his cousin, and looking forward to this ‘most splendid and pleasurable of deaths’. Vogel called it ‘their great voyage of discovery’ and, writing to the husband and daughter she was leaving behind, said: ‘I am dying a death such as few mortals have enjoyed … exchanging earthly happiness for eternal bliss.’ Having sent their letters by express post, they picnicked on the banks of the Kleiner Wannsee, wrote each other love poems, drank wine, rum and, according to newspaper reports, ‘about sixteen cups of coffee’, before Kleist shot Vogel through the heart and himself through the head. She was 31 and he was 34. The local church recorded their deaths as ‘Mord und Selbstmord’ – murder and self-murder.

Their graves, by the edge of the lake, are now a tourist attraction, enhanced by an immersive audio experience inviting visitors to contemplate the many unknowns that surround their last days. Depending on your degree of cynicism, their relationship was a meeting of pure souls or an arrangement of ruthless pragmatism. They had met just two years earlier. Did Vogel – who was suffering from incurable uterine cancer – really love Kleist or did she think of him as a one-man Dignitas? Did Kleist really love her or was he merely glad to find someone willing to add a literary flourish to his own long-planned suicide? Is the ‘unprecedented joy’ in their final letters a performance, a pathology or even – just possibly – genuine? Kleist thrived on these kinds of mysteries. His gravestone gives two dates of birth. On one side it’s engraved 18 October 1777, which matches the official records; on the other, 10 October, the date put forward by Kleist himself.

He was born into a famous Prussian military family. Among his ancestors were eighteen generals. His father, a captain in the army, died when Kleist was ten and his mother when he was fifteen, by which time Kleist was already a corporal in the guards regiment, heading off for battle against the armies of the French Revolution. He remained a Prussian soldier for seven years, during which time he concluded that it was a career ‘utterly incommensurable with my whole being’. Aged 22, he left the military, against his family’s advice, to pursue his ‘moral development’, studying philosophy, maths and physics at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder. He drew up a strict study plan, a document he soon expanded into a full-blown Lebensplan, a step-by-step guide to his own enlightenment and future happiness. He would go on to write many such documents. The fervour with which he made his plans was matched only by his talent for sabotaging them.

No sooner had Kleist committed to student life than he got engaged to the eighteen-year-old daughter of a general. Her parents said they would support the marriage only if he quit his studies and got a job. So he left university, took a position in the civil service and tried to reconcile himself to conventional life, a decision he regretted even as he was making it. In 1800 he left town without warning and spent the next few months avoiding his fiancée. No one was more confused by his behaviour than Kleist himself. In 1801, he suffered a quarter-life crisis when, after reading too much Kant, he realised that we’re all doomed to see the world through grüne Gläser – green glasses, or the bias of our experiences. ‘We cannot decide whether what we call truth is truly truth or whether it only seems so to us.’ This was the epiphany that drove him to begin a journey around Europe in the hope of understanding himself. He ended up in Paris, where he was profoundly miserable. The pleasure-seeking Parisians seemed frivolous and grotesque, the narrow streets gave off ‘a thousand repellent smells’. Today we might say that he was suffering from Paris Syndrome – the condition which, every year, afflicts a handful of tourists when the City of Lights fails to live up to their inflated expectations. (The Japanese consulate has been known to fly home traumatised citizens.) Kleist did not want to go home. Instead he escaped to an isolated Swiss farm where he tried to commune with nature, taking daily walks around the lake. He wrote to his fiancée, saying that if she truly loved him she’d leave her friends and family to live, like a peasant, on his lonely smallholding. The emotional cowards among us will recognise this as a please break up with me letter. When it didn’t work, he ended the engagement himself.

In 1802, he rented a room on a tiny island in the River Aare and made his first real attempt to prove he was a writer. The following year, he published a play and was hard at work on what he anticipated as his masterpiece, a tragedy called Death of Guiscard, the Norman. He hoped the play would revolutionise contemporary theatre, transcend Shakespeare and ‘tear the wreath off’ Goethe’s head. It’s not surprising that he couldn’t finish it. After struggling with Guiscard for five hundred days and nights, he returned to Paris (which he disliked just as much the second time round) and set fire to the manuscript. Feeling utterly defeated, he decided to hike to the coast, join Napoleon’s army and ‘die the beautiful death of the battlefield’ invading England. That he embarked on such a journey despite hating both Napoleon and life as a soldier gives a good sense of Kleist’s perversity – and his commitment to self-destruction. Near Boulogne, he met a French army doctor who recognised that Kleist was undergoing a mental breakdown. After several months of recovery, he reluctantly returned to Berlin, where he was told, not for the first time, to give up his ‘silly ideas’ and get a proper job.

Travelling did not make him happy, but he had at last found his theme. In the years that followed, he began to write plays and stories that took our collective blindness as their subject; his characters make bold choices but don’t learn from them, fail truly to know one another and never get what they deserve. This was not an aesthetic that made him popular during his lifetime. As a writer, he struggled for money and recognition. As a human, he just struggled. ‘I am not suited to human society,’ he wrote, ‘and the reason, to put it bluntly, is that I do not like people.’ At parties, he was awkward, prone to blushing and stuttering. He always managed to feel inferior to other guests while simultaneously thinking them vacuous. He was known to mutter to himself at the dinner table.

The closest he came to success was during his time in Dresden in 1808. He published some of his best stories and plays, established a literary magazine with his friend Adam Müller and received the news that Goethe wanted to stage one of his comedies. For the first time in his life, his work was being read and admired. He felt certain that he would soon be famous and happy. As any reader of his stories will know, this is never a good sign. The first night of Goethe’s Weimar production of The Broken Jug went so badly that, by the final act, the performers’ voices couldn’t be heard for all the coughing, hissing and stamping. The duke and duchess watched appalled from the balcony. For days afterwards, high society spoke of nothing but Kleist’s ‘horrible comedy’. The scandal even got a write-up in the Journal for the Fashionable World. There were no further performances.

Neither he nor his career ever fully recovered. His magazine folded after twelve issues and he left Dresden defeated and in debt. It wasn’t until 1810, a year before his suicide, that he made one last attempt at a sustainable literary life. He took a job editing and, to a large extent, writing Berlin’s first daily paper, the short-lived Berliner Abendblätter. He contributed opinion pieces, short stories, philosophical essays and poems, as well as a regular selection of ‘Anekdoten’ that essentially amounted to a macabre gossip column, allowing him to tell bleakly comic stories. In one characteristic piece, he wrote about a fight between two famous English boxers:

And when very soon the Plymouth man hit the Portsmouth man so hard in the chest that he spat blood the latter wiped his mouth and cried: ‘Bravo!’ – But when soon after that, facing up again, the Plymouth man took such a blow from the Portsmouth man’s right fist that he rolled his eyes and dropped, he, dropping, cried: ‘And that’s not bad either!’ – Whereupon the people, in a ring around them, cheered and whilst the Plymouth man, hurt in the guts, was carried off dead they named the Portsmouth man the champion. – The Portsmouth man however is said to have died next day of a haemorrhage.

Death usually provided the punchlines.

It’s easy to see why – with his pursuit of ambiguity and his grim sense of humour – Kleist appeals more to modern readers than he did to his contemporaries. His short stories tend to start as clear moral tales – knights duel over a woman’s chastity, a wronged man seeks justice, true love is thwarted by societal conventions – then he steadily grinds away at the certainties until it’s all an uncomfortable mess. But, to me, Kleist’s most striking quality is his narrative speed. His fiction often reads like synopsis, each sentence burning through scenes to which other writers would dedicate a whole chapter.

Nowhere is this better displayed than in his novella Michael Kohlhaas, first published in its entirety in 1810. It tells the story of a husband, father, horse dealer and ‘good citizen’ who, while attempting to cross into Saxony to sell his wares, gets ripped off and mocked by the Junker of the castle at the border. Kohlhaas responds to this indignity with such fervour that, just 36 pages later, he has sacrificed his home; seen his wife killed in the act of trying to help him; looted and torched the offending castle; and, with a small army of men, chased the Junker first to Wittenberg, a town they swiftly burn to the ground, then on to Leipzig, where Kohlhaas is proclaimed the leader of a new ‘provisional world government’ whose sole purpose is to ‘punish with fire and sword all those who took the side of the Junker’. What makes this breakneck escalation so remarkable is that it feels believable – even reasonable. We are firmly on the side of the madman.

It’s not surprising that Kafka loved this book. He read it ten times. The back cover of this edition – a vivid and witty new translation by Michael Hofmann – even has a blurb from him. ‘It carries me along on waves of wonder,’ Kafka wrote, which is a very Kafka response to a story in which everyone suffers terribly and/or dies. That the other blurbs come from Roberto Bolaño, Susan Sontag and Paul Auster indicates that Kleist at last achieved the fame he longed for in his lifetime. In 2013, there was even a big budget film version – Age of Uprising – starring Mads Mikkelsen at his most weatherbeaten. This is the seventh English translation since 1960 and Hofmann does a good job of distinguishing it from its predecessors. His memorable take on the book’s famous first line introduces Kohlhaas as ‘at once one of the most righteous and appalling individuals of his time’. (Most other translators go for ‘upright’ or ‘honest’ and ‘terrible’.) This edition also stands out for its sparing use of speech marks. While it may be a truer reflection of the original German (which was written in huge slabs of intimidating text), I still feel that in a novella full of long, clause-laden, boomeranging sentences – with groups of men called things like Hinz and Kunz arguing at length about matters of regional law – it’s a reasonable courtesy to let the reader know which knight of the realm is speaking. But this is a small complaint relative to the problem shared by all editions of the book, English as well as German: the ending. Kafka wrote that, were it not for the final act, Michael Kohlhaas would be ‘a thing of perfection’, which is a diplomatic way of saying that Kleist absolutely butchers it. In fact, one of the many interesting things about this novella is that, like its contradictory protagonist, it manages to be at once a masterpiece and a disaster.

Most readers, if they are enjoying a book, will happily ignore a few clunky coincidences deployed in the service of advancing the narrative. But how many is too many? I once attended a talk by an American screenwriter who told us that, over the course of a ninety-page script, we were allowed only one. Any more will permanently damage the viewer’s faith in the story. He also said that a coincidence should only be used to get a character into trouble, not out of it. Watching this screenwriter pace the conference room, his muscle tone giving off an aura of unbearable success, I was determined not to believe him. Art transcends your petty rules, I thought, and yet – as Kleist goes out of his way to prove – there are limits.

The trouble begins on page 86, when Kohlhaas sets up camp for the night in a farmyard near to where, as luck would have it, his sworn enemy, the elector of Saxony, is hosting a hunting party. The party gets interrupted by a herd of passing stags, in pursuit of which the elector, now drunk, gets lost and stumbles across a tent that he might well have ignored had two men not happened to emerge from it talking loudly about how the tent belonged to Michael Kohlhaas, who doesn’t know about the presence of the elector of Saxony. These comments inspire the elector’s female companion to suggest that they sneak into the tent and surreptitiously interrogate Kohlhaas, an awful idea but one the elector agrees to because he is in love with her. They enter the tent, where Kohlhaas is so absorbed in the task of feeding bread and milk to his sick child that he doesn’t notice the man he hates most in the world is one of the new arrivals whose personal questions he proceeds to answer by telling a long and, in itself, very silly anecdote about a time seven months earlier when he happened to be standing among a crowd of people watching the very same elector of Saxony have his fortune read by a ‘gypsy woman’, who wrote down the elector’s fate on a piece of paper but decided, rather than giving it to the elector, to hand it to a stranger in the crowd (to Kohlhaas, of course), an event we are invited to accept for no reason other than that this woman is inherently mystical. And so, since that day, Kohlhaas has carried the elector’s fate concealed in a lead cartridge which he is currently wearing around his neck. After hearing this account the elector is so shocked that he falls ‘unconscious to the floor’, which conveniently allows him to be bundled outside for medical treatment, thus delaying the big showdown with Kohlhaas which, we later realise, is being held back for the book’s brilliant final scene. Because of the – by my count – 22 coincidences required to create it, that brilliance will always feel like a cheat.

How many dei can fit in one machina? Kleist must hold the record. His rationale for such an aggressive betrayal of the reader’s trust becomes clear only on the final page. Kohlhaas is standing on the scaffold, waiting to be executed. He is being punished for his wrongdoings but he has also been fully compensated for every wrong done to him and so appears positively serene. This sense of equilibrium was, for Kleist, exactly the problem. Moral neatness was inconceivable to him; he would sooner believe in 22 coincidences. And so, just before the axe falls, Kohlhaas suddenly, gleefully and childishly swallows the piece of paper containing the elector’s secrets, proving that he, Kohlhaas, is not so enlightened after all and still thirsts for vengeance. What this revelation tells us about Kohlhaas is less interesting than what it tells us about Kleist. In a novella about how overcommitment to our ideals makes us blind and self-destructive, the writer leads by example.

His​ unwavering dedication to ambiguity made Kleist a frustrating correspondent. His letters are full of elaborate obfuscations, most famously around a trip he made to Würzburg in 1800. He told his loved ones that something incredible happened there – something foundational – while also refusing to give any details. He promised that one day ‘I will explain these obscure passages, and you will cry out in astonishment: Ah, so that is what you meant.’ Critics have speculated that it may have been the moment he discovered his true destiny as a writer. Or perhaps Würzburg was where he had an operation to correct a problem with his foreskin and so represented the beginning of his sex life (another subject of speculation). His relationship with Henriette Vogel was, probably, not physical and he, probably, preferred men. He wrote his most passionate love letters to his close male friends and his cousin Marie, while sending some of the driest notes imaginable to his fiancée.

After his death, Sophie von Haza (a woman whom Kleist had once fallen in love with, and whose husband he had tried to throw off a bridge) said that she had read a work by Kleist called The Story of My Soul which cleanly resolved his contradictory life and work, providing closure at last ‘for those desirous of knowing him and appreciating him to the full’. Happily, The Story of My Soul has never been found. It is presumed lost or burned – I prefer to think that he set fire to the document and to what it represented, the pursuit of a unified self.

For almost two hundred years, Vogel was not memorialised at their gravesite. In 2003, a small stone was placed there, a footnote to Kleist’s block of granite. In 2011, the bicentennial of their deaths, fresh paths were laid and Vogel’s name finally joined Kleist’s on the bigger stone. Her death has always been seen as the more straightforward: she was terminally ill. But it’s clear from her letters that, like Kleist, she resisted simplistic explanations. In her final note to her husband, she emphasised that she could not make her feelings fit any known diagnoses: ‘I can no longer bear life because it clings to my heart with iron shackles – call it illness, weakness, or whatever you like, I know not what to call it myself.’ In another farewell letter, she signs off with a poem: ‘Exactly how this happened though/I’ll tell you all some day./ I haven’t time to now.’ She knew there was no way to make her loved ones understand. When she wrote to one of her closest friends, asking him to take care of her and Kleist’s remains, he found her tone so ‘droll’ and ambiguous that he thought it was a joke. ‘My esteemed friend,’ Vogel had written, ‘a great test is in store for the faithful friendship you have always shown me. Kleist and I are here at Stimming’s on the road to Potsdam, in a state of utter helplessness or, more specifically, shot dead.’ Boom boom.

When she and Kleist sat down to write their love/death poems – listing each other’s attributes without context or explanation – the thing they got right was the form. They acknowledge one another as a beautiful pile-up of incongruities. ‘My Heinrich,’ she wrote, ‘my golden chalice, my air, my warmth, my thoughts, my dear sinner … my happiness, my death, my fond heart, my loneliness, my ship … my soul, my nerves, my golden mirror’. And so – at least through my own grüne Gläser – I see the joy of their final moments as genuine, a blissful release into contradiction.

Herr and Frau Stimming, the owners of the inn, did not approve of the guests who were picnicking by the lake. It was too cold for that – and fog was coming in. They could not make sense of this strange, jolly couple who skimmed stones and ran ‘hand in hand, joking and chasing each other’ and calling one another ‘dear child’. Through the afternoon, they watched the mist get thicker, the couple slowly blurring.

The next day, two doctors arrived to examine the bodies. By the light of sputtering candles, Kleist and Vogel were undressed and laid out for inspection in a nearby hut. The doctors rummaged around in their chests, carving open any organ they came across. They found that Kleist’s jaw was clenched so tightly that it had to be prised open with a retractor. His skull was highly resistant too and, opening it, they broke their bone saw. Afterwards, as a consequence, the doctors were unable to get inside Vogel’s head – and instead had to settle for guesswork. It’s what the happy couple would have wanted.

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