In my collection of translations the publishing house Sovetskii pisatel' decided to include a drama by Kleist; another publishing house put out his comedies. And so here it behooves me to say a few words about him.
Heinrich von Kleist is one of the most interesting German writers of the past century. The realm of his fame is not nearly as wide or as unquestionable as the world of Schiller, Goethe, or Heine, and for that reason he should not be compared to them. Yet everything he has ever written brims with force and exceptionality, placing him in the first rank right after the abovementioned triptych.
Kleist is distinguished by a level of materiality unusual in German literature, as well as by a restrained wealth of passionate, bright, and original language. He bequeathed us eight dramas and just as many stories. These are the sole existing expressions for his particular flights of human passion. For example, one's instinct for justice in its blind embodiment. In Kleist we see when, under the influence of perceived offense and with a thirst for vengeance rising in one's throat, what would otherwise be a beneficial gift is transformed into a source of numerous evil deeds and crimes committed without accountability. When we read about arson and murder in Kleist, crimes committed at the height of emotion and enragement, we cannot rid ourselves of the impression that Pushkin might have known Kleist when he wrote Dubrovsky.
In vain is Kleist clustered with the Romantics. Despite their contemporaneity and his friendship with some of the more notable in the movement, between them lies a gaping abyss. In contrast to the penchant for amateurishness of which all Romantics were proud, and the formless fragmentariness for which they strove, Kleist battled his whole life with being undereducated and irrelevant, qualities he had long since suspected in himself. And although not everything created by him can be rightly deemed perfection, everything was infused with the sullen seriousness of a genius who knew in life neither peace nor satisfaction.
He was born on October 18, 1777 in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. Being a member of the old clan of Kleists meant that from the cradle he was destined for a military career. At the age of fifteen he became a member of the rank and file guard; at eighteen he participated in the Rhine campaign against revolutionary France. When he returned home his parents had already passed away. He then served for two years in the Potsdam garrison.
A new period of his life began. Napoleon, an omnipresent, magical, and, before long, hated name, became his inspiration and then his victim. Amidst the daily changes to which the borders, mores, duties, and notions of these states were subjected, a new societal division assumed the form of a middle estate or stratum for whose sake a declaration of rights would feature articles about personal freedom, and which the Petersburg nihilists of the 1860s would call the intelligentsia. Schiller spoke about the realm of aesthetic ideas; the nineteenth century was in the palm of his hand complete with its own future lexicon; the expression "the development of one's own I," which indicated an education in the humanities, came rather easily to Fichte; in this way Kleist was encircled in pedagogical fever. As a result he enrolled as a student at the University of Frankfurt.
This decision lowered him in the eyes of his kin and forced him into lifelong justifications before the highest judgments of the old house of Kleist by the quay, a location of a future post office. Kleist imagined that once he had taken the world by surprise and done something no one had ever done before, he would again rise in their estimation. This pathologically intensified his self-esteem and imbued his works with both hyperbole and violence.
A certain receptibility bordering on mediumism speckled his life with signs of everything in his environs. In his works one detects traces of Schlegel's unfinished Shakespeare, the meanderings of time and its sensations. He mined Schiller's The History of the Revolt of the Netherlands for a Germanized version in The Broken Jug, and the South American travels of Alexander von Humboldt for an exotic tale that would not involve cutting off an ear and calling it a national custom. In those days Kant was not only the main event of the intellectual world, he was also the pride of Eastern Prussia. An exposure to contemporary trends and ideas settled Kleist's choice on mathematics and moral philosophy.
In order to cease the ordeal and approach a certain degree of solemnity vis-à-vis his relatives, Kleist decided from his initial foray as a student that he should prepare himself for a career as a professor; he even ordered a professorial chair from a joiner and proceeded to regurgitate what he had learned in a series of lectures to a modest number of ladies, wives from a circle of officers whom he knew. The main visitors among them were Wilhelmine von Zenge and his half-sister Ulrika. She was the envy of her gender and, in the manner of the cavalry-maiden, Nadezhda Durova, would walk around in breeches with a long hunting crop. She understood her brother and would later become privy to his secrets, his companion when he traveled, and, to a certain degree, his sponsor whenever he became impecunious.
Kleist soon cooled to the theories of speculative reason and dropped out of university, at which point his relatives set him up with a job in one of the ministries. He left for Berlin. Soon people began getting alarming messages from him: something had happened to him which had driven him to deepest, then persistent melancholy. This matter was never explained or named and has lent itself to widespread speculation among biographers. In Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, in a way a German Pugachev, one has to read pages and pages about child heroes so as to understand how influential Kleist's heredity was. Yet another facet that would cost him dearly. Kleist was temperamental, mistrustful and impatient. Unexpectedness offended him and made him, having revolted against everything on earth, into an enemy of society.
In reply to his letters full of despair, grandiosity, and strange preteritions, Ulrika came to see him in Würzburg, where he had gone into hiding. In order to calm him down, it was decided that he would be sent on a long trip abroad. Ulrika accompanied him.
In 1803, after a long stay in Paris, Kleist ended up in Switzerland near Lake Thun. Beyond his window loomed the Schreckhorn and the Finsteraarhorn. Smoke rose towards the sky from the villages ensconced in the valley. He was surrounded by winter Alpine beauty, pure lines, pure mores, and people who believed in him and who were devoted to literature. Not long thereafter the gift of creativity awoke in him. Until this point he had never even contemplated poetry.
Here he gave his will over to his inspiration. It poured out into three very different works: the first is The Schroffenstein Family, his rather feeble debut, a helpless and protracted tragedy replete with silliness; the second is Kleist's short comedy, The Broken Jug; and the third, the crown jewel of his efforts, Robert Guiscard, a fragment of a tragedy which occupied Kleist his whole life and which was destroyed in several published versions.
One of the Swiss acquaintances with whom he stayed, the Bernese publisher Gessner, put out The Schroffenstein Family without including Kleist's name. In Der Freimutige, August von Kotzebue's publication which relentlessly sought out opportunities to spite Goethe, there appeared a eulogistic critique of the tragedy under the headline, "The Birth of a New Poet."