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Guest post: Leroy reviews Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

December 1, 2011 11 comments

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. 1810-1811

Here’s something new at Book Around The Corner: a guest post. I’m happy to introduce Leroy’s review of Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. Enjoy!

Kleist has been in my mind for much of this year, in a vague way: I knew his name but only recently became aware of the sensational outline of his life; I thought I’d like to read him without really knowing what kind of books he wrote; I wanted to absorb what other people thought of his work but was happy to have only the most tenuous “fix” on him in my imagination.

All of this crystallised when Guy and Emma pointed me to Caroline and Lizzy’s exemplary online exercise: German Literature Month. I had a copy of one of his books on the shelf, and Kleist had a week dedicated to him in the project. So here was the impetus to read something by this elusive but important writer, and I duly turned to Michael Kohlhaas.

The tale occurs in the sixteenth century, so we are not very far removed (if at all) from the era of feudalism. Kleist opens his book with a description of Kohlhaas as “one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day.” He is “extraordinary…the very model of a good citizen”, his children are “industrious and honest” and his neighbours acclaim his “benevolence [and] his fair-mindedness.” Yet, in closing his first paragraph, Kleist notes “his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer.” The opening said to me: this is a fable, and we are immediately in an arena of extremes, contrasts, and the tensions that must exist within a man described as Kohlhaas has been.

The story progresses to describe the affront to Kohlhaas (he is tricked into leaving two fine horses at a nobleman’s castle, where in his absence they are abused and overworked), his initial attempts at redress (he files a suit with the aid of a lawyer in Dresden, detailing his complaint) and his first set-backs (largely caused by family links within the elite ensuring Kohlhaas’s petition against his noble foe, the Junker Wenzel von Tronka, is dismissed out of hand). In the first of many such “by chance” events, Kohlhaas receives the news of his legal setback while in the presence of a sympathetic nobleman (the Governor of Brandenburg), who urges an alternative, official course upon him. Kohlhaas is relieved and renewed: he follows the course suggested (which is to petition the Elector of Brandenburg). But in short order this effort also becomes bogged down in proceduralism and the various linkages of the noble apparatchiks, whom he is relying on for justice, to the defendant, von Tronka.

I’ll admit I was already finding the book a little hard going. The plethora of titles, jurisdictions, families, petitions etc was becoming a little overwhelming. That said, I was as a reader (whether intentionally or not) in a good place to experience the frustration beginning to build in the breast of Michael Kohlhaas. His second petition is in due course rejected, setting in train a series of fatal events. Kohlhaas, refusing to live in a country where justice cannot be obtained, proposes to uproot his family and leave, and peremptorily agrees the sale of all his lands to his neighbour. His wife is appalled, and to forestall this drastic course suggests that she should petition the Elector of Brandenburg on her husband’s behalf. Kohlhaas agrees, and the (to me) predictable outcomes ensue: an apparent accident, a death, and the sparking of a black fire of hatred and vengeance in Kohlhaas’ mind.

Now Kleist really warms up: Kohlhaas’s rampage in search of justice begins. He sacks the von Tronka castle, killing some (all?) of the occupants, but the Junker escapes. He issues manifestoes. The numbers of his followers swell. He burns the town of Wittenburg, which is (unwillingly) sheltering the fugitive nobleman. He defeats forces sent against him. The ripples of his actions disturb the highest echelons of government. Eventually he takes to issuing notes that proclaim him “a viceroy of the Archangel Michael,” signed on behalf of “Our Provisional World Government.” Meanwhile the two black horses, source of the original outrage, have been forgotten about.

Kleist’s style, even when describing this extraordinary escalation of violence, is I must admit not a terribly amenable one. He describes individual scenes wonderfully, or puts stirring utterances into his character’s mouths; yet he always reverts to a rambling sort-of detail of the politics, the to-and-fro of the bureaucracy, the interplay of the seemingly endless list of title-holders and grandees drawn into Kohlhaas’s orbit. The smothering detail sits at odds with the incredible events driving the narrative, and the air of fable that we never quite escape is at odds with the sense that we are reading an ombudsman’s report about the whole affair.

When the elector received this letter, there were present in the palace Prince Christiem of Meissen, Commander-in-chief of the Realm, uncle of the Prince Friedrich of Meissen who had been defeated at Muhlberg and was still laid up with his wounds; the Lord High Chancellor Count Wrede; Count Kallheim, President of the Chancery of State; and the two lords Hinz and Kunz von Tronka, Cupbearer and Chamberlain, both intimate friends of the sovereign from his youth.

Is this deliberate? It did occur to me that Kleist was, in some way, satirising the hierarchy and the convoluted legal protocols he describes. After all, though a scion of privilege, he did reject the path he was offered, which would have placed him at the heart of the apparatus Kohlhaas is intent on destroying. Yet there is also something (seemingly) terribly sincere about Kleist’s writing, and there is no clue in the book that such slyness or irony does in fact exist. In all of this I am of course a victim of the translation I’m reading (by Martin Greenburg) and my own relative ignorance of Kleist’s other works.

We’re about half-way through the book now, and at this point no less than Martin Luther intervenes in the story, writing to Kohlhaas before conducting an interview with him (he thinks Kohlhaas is a lunatic). The scene where they debate is exactly like, in structure and content, the central part of Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, where Bobby Sands and a priest debate the morality of his hunger-strike campaign. I was riveted, and there are so many ideas exchanged about what society is, how we participate in it, what happens when it rejects us, our responsibilities, God’s role, the sovereign’s role:  it’s a packed ten pages. After this we are back into the world of procedures and titles; there is a scene with a dreadful palaver about the poor old nags who are the original cause of events; Kohlhaas enters house arrest while awaiting the opportunity to re-present his case; various red-herring sub-plots ensue. Finally, after 100-odd pages, we reach Kleist’s endgame.

Kohlhaas is dispatched to Berlin in chains, there to meet his fate in an Imperial court of the Holy Roman Empire (those ripples have spread far). On the way, Kleist contrives a “chance” meeting; we are taken back to an earlier time in the story and a completely new element is introduced. The net result of this is that Kohlhaas suddenly has a terrible power over his oppressors: how he chooses to use it determines the final course of events. Now to say this is a clunky way of finishing the story off is both true and missing the point. A modern author would no doubt be accused acting in bad faith were they to so radically re-configure our knowledge and expectations of the story. Yet for Kleist, I think this egregious final section tallies perfectly, in a way, with what has preceded. There has only barely been a coherent narrative up to this point, and the action of chance and fate has been constant (if not being manifested in quite so radical a manner). It sets up a striking final set-piece, which has the same strident, overblown quality as previous highlights we have encountered. And it leaves us (or me, anyway) with a ticklish sense of ambiguity about the whole tale – whose side are we on? What does it all mean?

Ultimately it’s the figure of Kohlhaas himself that will determine how you respond to this book. He’s a series of contrasts that never gel into a fully realised character, but he’s compelling in his passions and convictions. At the outset of the book, he seems punctilious, concerned with everything being in its right place, a model of the responsible, land-owning burgher. This is reflected in the detailed, patient way he engages with the legal processes and the early scenes of domesticity. As events unfold, this stolid figure is transformed into a violent, unforgiving zealot at war with the society he believes has wronged and mocked him. He presumes to debate with Luther; he thinks nothing of rank and status when he is consumed by his “unslaked thirst for revenge,” yet ultimately what he wants (and sets out to overthrow the order of things for being denied) is the recognition of the wrong done him and the seal of the legitimacy of his suit from the very institutions and persons he is at war with.

Is Kohlhaas really fired by a “sense of justice”, as Kleist tells us on the opening page of the book? Is there any way his response to events (pillage, murder, burning down towns, setting nations at odds) could be justified or considered proportionate to the wrongs done him? Of course, Kleist does acknowledge that Kohlhaas is a man of “excess”, which is probably putting it a little mildly, and another flavour of that excess is demonstrated at the end of the book, in the form of the cold, ruthless determination with which Kohlhaas exploits his unexpected, uncanny advantage. I’m left thinking of Kohlhaas as a forerunner of all the heroes of conservative-leaning westerns: the loner who has to serve his own justice because the damn system can’t or won’t – think also of Reagan-era action flicks with Sly and Arnie (“No One Gives Him A Raw Deal”), and even the crazed, God-defying protagonists of Werner Herzog’s oeuvre. Clearly there is something incredibly resonant about the figure of Kohlhaas, his situation and his actions.

For a short book, this is a tough read: I’d be interested in the perspective of German readers about the quality of the original prose for a modern reader. Kleist doesn’t tell his story particularly well, and the endless parade of legalisms and titles are a trial. But it has lodged itself in my mind, and I greatly enjoyed re-reading parts of it a second time to help write this up. At its best, it has quality of overflowing emotion: rage, desire, hatred. My copy describes the book as “a bridge between medieval and modern literature,” a statement the blurber neglects to expand upon or prove; for me, it has been a bridge to Kleist and his work, which I look forward to finding more of.

Postscript: this wasn’t coming together at all for me a while ago (and maybe it never did), but while I was struggling with that I went back to a short story by Robert Walser – Kleist in Thun – and it was truly alchemical the way the two books worked on each other in close imaginative proximity. I love Walser, and I’d like to do a quick follow-up on this story – if Emma is happy to indulge me once more!

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