This first U.S. publication of the German author is a leaden historical, based on a true story, about the (mostly) charmed life of an 18th-century German baron.
After a confusing start, the fog lifts to reveal a widow and her two children living in poverty in Lorraine, in northern France. The father, a nobleman from Westphalia, has died of consumption. In 1704 the family gains a benefactor, the Count de Mortagne, a courtier at Versailles, who secures a position as a page for the young Theodor von Neuhoff; he is the first of Theodor’s many patrons. The baron is quick to learn the way the court works, and the importance of gossip; his eavesdropping skills land him an assignment in Paris, where he loses his virginity and incurs huge gambling debts (he will be a lifelong spendthrift). From Paris the court sends him to the Hague as a secret agent to contact a high-ranking Swede, in league with the French against the English. Theodor is right at home in this world of complex rivalries, but Kleeberg is a poor guide for 18th-century Europe, a hodgepodge of nation-states, city-states, grand duchies and protectorates, and Theodor is a disappointing protagonist. Not substantial enough to be a hero or anti-hero, he is the consummate dilettante as he shifts allegiance from Sweden to Spain to the House of Habsburg. In the novel’s final third he finds himself in the thick of the struggle between Corsica and the Republic of Genoa, and offers himself to the Corsicans as their King. This brings him fame throughout Europe, but on the eve of his coronation he is still subject to mood swings (“I don’t want to do this anymore”). He eventually resumes his odyssey, and any drama drains out of the narrative in Kleeberg’s recitation of dates and places.
There’s undoubtedly a great swashbuckling adventure story here, but Kleeberg has failed to unearth it.