In 1811, the German writer Heinrich von Kleist shot the woman he loved and then himself in a murder-suicide pact.
His beloved Henriette Vogel was dying of uterine cancer and Von Kleist, though just 34, had long questioned the purpose of life. In his final letter, to his sister, he wrote: “The truth is, nothing on earth can help me. And now good-bye: may Heaven send you a death even half equal to mine in joy and unutterable bliss: that is the most heart-felt and profoundest wish that I can think of for you.”
Von Kleist enjoyed little acclaim in his life but his best plays, stories and novels were soon recognized as masterpieces of the Romantic movement which saw emotion, not reason, as the pathway to truth. “For not through words,” he wrote, “but through actions, true faithfulness and true love are shown.”
Some Romantics were, well, romantic; others were quite pessimistic. Von Kleist was definitely in the latter camp. His work almost anticipates existentialism as he combines a grim view of life with poetic intensity of expression. But he was not some gloomy Gus, but an artist who depicted humanity in its fullness. His stories, which often described men pushed to their limits by society and fate are graced with imaginative leaps and comedy as well as tragedy.
Von Kleist’s most famous play, The Prince of Homburg (1809), concerns the title character who is so besotted by the King’s daughter that he fails to follow the battle plan in the war between Germany and Sweden. His inattentiveness leads to victory but still he is sentenced to death for insubordination. The Prince accepts his fate, which may be his only hope of saving his life.
Von Kleist is most widely remembered for his short stories and novellas. One of his great admirers was the late American writer Paula Fox. Like von Kleist, Fox faced setbacks. By the early 1990s all of her novels – including Desperate Characters (1970 and The Widow’s Children (1976) had fallen out of print.
But Fox lived a long enough life—she died in 2017 at age 93—to see her work gain wide recognition. In this short appreciation she suggests why she so admires von Kleist’s writing.
Appreciation of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O — and Other Stories by Paula Fox
Heinrich von Kleist was born in 1777 and killed himself thirty-five years later in a suicide pact with a young lady, after having been blessed, or cursed, with a formidable talent for writing. During his brief life he turned out eight plays, among which is the marvelous one-act Robert Guiscard; eight stories, including the novella Michael Kohlhaas; and a long story, The Marquise of O. He also wrote a philosophical discourse, “On the Puppet Theatre,” a group of anecdotes, and some brilliant journalism.
Von Kleist was a true Romantic, yet he is utterly modern in the swiftness and depth of his perception of his subjects. Perhaps he didn’t choose them —they chose him, as it often seems with such a writer, a kind of fatality of choice.
In Michael Kohlhaas, von Kleist writes of the passion for justice turning a man into an outlaw. In The Beggarwoman of Locarno, a three-page arrow of a short story, a man sets fire to his own house. The Marquise of O begins with an advertisement, placed in journals by a widowed Marquise, that pleads for the father of the child she is carrying to come forward and marry her. She hasn’t the faintest idea how her pregnancy came about.
And here’s the remarkable opening line of “The Earthquake in Chile”: “In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.”
There are other stories of so lyrical yet violent a nature that the reader is infected with a fever of interest and admiration; at least this reader.