The Marquise of O and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) - Heinrich von Kleist I originally gave The Marquise of O - three stars (“I liked it”) but upon reflection I feel I have to round it up to four. There are no clunkers in the collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s short prose work (he was also a poet, playwright, and wrote operas) and the translations are excellent, retaining the robust, Teutonic sentences of the original German without sacrificing readability.

Von Kleist is another one of those fortuitous discoveries that I wish I had made before entering my twilight years (if I had known about him during my days slaving over German texts, I might have invested greater effort). His stories address themes that interest me such as the arbitrariness of life; the meaning, extent and possibility of justice; and the irrationality of humans. I am an Enlightenment Romantic, which may be a contradiction but I think it describes why I enjoy these stories. Like von Kleist (1777-1811), I am heavily influenced by Enlightenment ideals yet recognize and despair at their limits, the human propensity for irrationality and the Universe’s utter indifference to it all.

In order of preference:

“The Betrothal of Santo Domingo” – “Betrothal” takes place during the Haitian slave revolt against the French and involves the doomed love of Gustav, a white man, and Toni, a mixed-race woman. It’s a bit like Romeo and Juliet and with an equally tragic ending.

“The Earthquake in Chile” works in a similar vein. It too is about star-crossed lovers (in this case the Santiago of 1647) and tragic. As the story begins both Jeronimo and Josefa are condemned to death for fornication – Josefa is being led to the gallows, and Jeronimo is preparing to hang himself in his cell – when an earthquake miraculously frees both. The tale recounts their miraculous survival, the extraordinary acts of kindness found among the refugees, and the lovers’ brutal murders at the hands of a self-righteous mob when they return to the city.

“Michael Kohlhaas” is the best known of von Kleist’s prose works. It’s based on real-life events around the time of the Reformation, and recounts one man’s attempt to achieve justice. It’s a fast-paced tale and it swept this reader up as Kohlhaas goes from ordinary merchant to insurrectionary and nearly brings about war between Prussia and Saxony.

“The Foundling” is the story of the eponymous wastrel Nicolo and the tragedies that ensue when his jealousy destroys the lives of his benefactors (and his, as well).

“The Duel” and “The Marquise of O-” follow the same patterns and deal with many of the same themes as the stories above but they end happily. As a sentimental pessimist, I didn't find the stories to be as powerful as the tragedies. And I imagine that some modern readers may have qualms about the rape (and its denouement) that forms the central event of “The Marquise.” Von Kleist certainly doesn’t dwell on it:

(Count F- having just saved the marquise from being raped by a gang of Russian soldiers) “led her into the other wing of the palace which the flames had not yet reached and where, having already been stricken speechless by her ordeal, she now collapsed in a dead faint. Then – the officer instructed the Marquise’s frightened servants, who presently arrived, to send for a doctor; he assured them that she would soon recover, replaced his hat and returned to the fighting.” p. 70


I’m not entirely convinced or understand the marquise’s eventual accommodation to what happened but I think I grasp part of what von Kleist is saying about society and human nature and the rape is an integral part of that story, however distasteful.

In “St. Cecilia and the Power of Music” von Kleist writes about religious mania. “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is a straightforward ghost story.

In terms of stars, the first two stories are definitely 4.5-5 starworthy, and the last two are solid threes, the rest falling somewhere between. As I wrote above: “no clunkers.”

This translation of von Kleist is highly recommended with two minor quibbles: (1) There’s an egregious typo in the table of contents where “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is written “The Beggarwoman of Lacorno,” which is inexcusable. (2) I echo another reviewer’s admonishment to NOT READ the “Introduction” until after you’ve read the stories (if then).