AN ABYSS DEEP ENOUGH: The Letters of Heinrich von Kleist by Heinrich von Kleist

AN ABYSS DEEP ENOUGH: The Letters of Heinrich von Kleist

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German dramatist Kleist (1777-1810)--of the beautiful prose style, wretched ill luck, and suicidal supersensitivity--is enjoying somewhat of a literary rebirth, due partly perhaps to his near-prefiguring of the purities and extraordinary woes of someone like Kafka. (Interestingly, Kafka wrote a short review of the 1911 Rowolt edition of Kleist's Anecdotes, which is included here along with that collection.) According to editor and translator Miller--whose introduction to this diverse material, and organization of it, is exemplary-- ""Kleist's genius was the failure of the appropriate, the bad fit between events and our reaction to them."" In an 1801 letter to his sister, he wrote: ""To me [nature] reveals the thought behind every expression, the sense behind every word, the motive behind every action; she shows everything around me in all its miserable nakedness, and myself along with it. Finally the heart is repelled by this bareness--."" Having given up a promising military career for a life of scholarship, Kleist read Kant--and all Romantic notions of perfectibility crumbled: it's one of the great soul-shakings in literary history. The first victim of the new spiritual desolation was Kleist's fiancÉe Wilhelmine (the Kafka-Felice parallel is unmistakable); and through his failed attempts at newspaper editorship and his worldly success as a tragic dramatist, there always glimmers the finale: suicide, which Kleist finally achieved, after the tumultous year of 1819, in the company of a terminally ill woman, another man's wife. A satisfying selection of essays and anecdotes is appended to these letters--and good thing, for they themselves are rarely incandescent with either stylistic beauty or biographical exactitude. Kleist poured himself into his plays (Das KÄthchen von Heilbronn, Der Prinz von Homburg) and his prose, but left little with which to make an epistolary universe. This exceptionally presented volume of letters, then, does not stand so well alone as it does in relation to the texts themselves and, prospectively, to the biography by Joachim Maass scheduled (by Farrar, Straus) for spring publication.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
Publisher: Dutton