’Kleist in Thun’ by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

There are few stories that make me feel as unstable as ‘Kleist in Thun’. Describing a visit by the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist to the Swiss town of Thun, the text lurches between descriptions of natural beauty and nightmarish fears. At one moment Kleist’s surroundings are “like one vast embrace”, the next, “terribly cold and void”. Sentences suddenly drop into darkness, as if the ground has opened under our feet. “Around Thun”, one begins, “the fields are thick with flowers, fragrance everywhere, hum of bees, work, sounds fall, one idles about; in the heat of the sun” – and here we lose our footing – “you could go mad”.

In the first part of the story Kleist wanders the district. He goes boating on Lake Thun, visits the market, and sits on a churchyard wall as the evening grows damp and sultry. Some of Walser’s greatest writing is found here, such as when the distant Alps “come to life and dip with fabulous gestures their foreheads into the water. His swans down there circle his quiet island, and the crests of trees in dark, chanting, fragrant joy float over – over what? Nothing, nothing.”

In the story’s final section Kleist grows frustrated with his writing. “He wants the highest mastery, good, good. What’s that? Not sure? Tear it up. Something new, wilder, more beautiful”. But what he writes “makes him grimace: his creations miscarry”. He “wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet” – a line that sounds to me like one of Frank O’Hara’s brilliant exclamations – but all that his frenzy leads to are his manuscripts lying scattered on the floor, “like children horribly forsaken by father and mother”.

On the last page, as Kleist and his sister leave Thun in a stagecoach and return to Germany, Walser steps into the foreground, snapping us into the story’s present day. The tempestuous emotions of the story recede, replaced instead with desultory chat about trade fairs and the Bernese Oberland. The shift is surprising and even feels gratuitous, but it can be understood if we consider the ways in which Walser’s life echoed Kleist’s, only in a minor key: Kleist became a national poet, Walser a literary curiosity; Kleist killed himself after shooting his terminally ill lover, Henriette Vogel, while Walser’s suicide attempt ended in failure – “I couldn’t even make a proper noose”, he later noted. In Thun, Kleist wrestled with genius and madness, while Walser, according to the story’s brilliant and unexpected closing lines, “worked as a clerk in a brewery there”. Yet Walser’s story, a unique blend of humour and horror, is also a defiant act: in the minds of those who fall under its influence, it unites these two unalike men forever.

From The Walk, Serpent’s Tail 1992, first published in I think 1913 although some sources claim 1907 – an uncertainty that’s entirely fitting

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