1 DECEMBER 2018 | KAREN KAO
I discovered The Marquise of O– and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist thanks to Francine Prose. It’s on her list of “Books to Be Read Immediately” in her book Reading Like a Writer. So when I ran into a copy of Von Kleist at a secondhand bookshop in Oxford, England, I snatched it up.
I’m sorry to say: I didn’t like it. None of it. Maybe I should have held out for the edition Prose recommends with Martin Greenberg as translator and an introduction by Thomas Mann. Maybe Mann, as a fellow German, could have offered greater insight into Von Kleist, even though they were born a century apart.
Prose cites Von Kleist three times in Reading Like a Writer. First, for his complex opening sentence that
not only establishes the tone but also encapsulates something essential about the remainder of the work.Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer. Harper Perennial 2007, p. 46.
She points, as an example, to the first story in the Von Kleist collection, “The Earthquake in Chile.” Here’s how it starts:
In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jéronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.
Prose marvels at Von Kleist’s ability to pack so much “storytelling” into one sentence. But I feel buried under the avalanche of information he gives: place marker, time marker, thousands of lives lost, a Spaniard, a criminal charge, a pillar, a hanging. Should I wonder what a Spaniard is doing in Chile? (No.) Should I question the legitimacy of the charges made against him? (Yes.) I can’t see the forest for the trees.
The novella “Michael Koolhaas,” the title story “The Marquise of O–” and “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” all start in this same way: with a thicket of words.
The second form of praise Prose confers is Von Kleist’s use of physical description. Or, rather, the lack thereof.
There is no information, not a single detail, about the Marquise [of O–]’s appearance. We never hear how a room looks, or what the latest fashion might be, or what people are eating and drinking.
It’s true that writers can go overboard with description. Von Kleist, then, represents the opposite end of the spectrum. But he also doesn’t care about motivation. He’ll simply tell you what to think of his characters
then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys.Prose, p. 115
So why was I supposed to like this?
Prose never actually says what’s so great about Von Kleist. I think her point is that there are many different ways of opening stories, just as there are no rules. No rules on whether and, if so, how to describe characters or setting. No rules about character motivation.
But when you’re writing a novel, possibly for the first time, the temptation to doubt yourself is overwhelming. That’s when it’s helpful to find an author who does things the way you do. Prose’s third and final reference to Von Kleist comes in a chapter entitled “Reading for Courage.” If a writer is struggling with how to describe how a character looks, that writer can struggle on or read Von Kleist and decide there’s no need.
“The Marquise of O–” and her mates were published two hundred years ago. Tastes change. Or perhaps it’s just my own that cannot adapt to this style of writing. Some of these stories bear subtitles like from an old chronicle (“Michael Koolhaas”), a legend (“St. Cecilia or The Power of Music”) or, in the case of “The Marquise of O–“
(Based on a true incident, the setting of which has been transposed from the north to the south)
To me, the Von Kleist stories read like parables with blindingly obvious lessons. His characters feel like puppets in a Punch and Judy show with Von Kleist visibly pulling all the strings. A German fairy tale with an unhappy ending.