My favourite Kleist story, full of his trademarks: breakneck plotting, baroque sentences, relentless escalation and a deep unsolvable strangeness.
First published in 1807 as Das Erdbeben in Chili. Widely translated. Available to read and listen to here, in a translation by Peter Wortsman
Two friends meet in the park, and, because it’s early 19th Century Germany, they immediately launch into philosophical chat. The conversation, which is really a sequence of anecdotes, is about the idea of grace: a condition found, according to one protagonist, not in humans per se but in human surrogates – statues, animals, puppets. What emerges is a kind of horror story about human consciousness, which is of course not about early 19th century Germany at all, but about right now, whenever you happen to be reading it.
First published in German in The Berliner Abendblätter, December 1810 and available online here. Collected in Selected Writings, Hackett, 2004, in a translation by David Constantine
Kleist is surely due to be (re)discovered. His stories, this one especially, frequently explore the callous violence that men perpetrate against women. Scholars argue about whether the Marquise in Kleist’s story is raped while unconscious; Kleist deals with the matter ambiguously with an infamous dash, which Susan Winnett called “most delicately accomplished rape in our literature”. With its scenes of elided rape and possible incest, it is a troubling story that deserves careful reading and will continue to provoke heated debate amongst its readers.
Included in Selected Writings, J. M. Dent, 1997, and widely collected.
I first heard this story in summary during a performance of Lucy Beynon and Lisa Jeschke’s amazing David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife Songs, performed in Cambridge around 2013 or ’14. Pavel tells the play’s protagonist a version of this story. Kohlhaas leave two horses as collateral with an official of a certain nobleman. He finds out that this collateral was totally arbitrary, and demands the return of his horses. When he arrives at the castle of said noble, he discovers that the horses have been over-worked and his hired man, who protested against the mistreatment of the horses, has been beaten. Kohlhaas sues the nobleman for the cost of medical treatment for both. Due to political machinations, he is unsuccessful. Kohlhaas resorts to criminal means, beginning a snowballing vendetta worthy of Kafka. The problem is that “everybody forgot about the original horse-abuse.”
First published in 1810. Collected in The Marquise of O – And Other Stories, Penguin, 1978