Overdue Reads · stuff I read

The Marquise of O- and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)

Summary from Goodreads:

From ‘The Marquis of O–‘, in which a woman is made pregnant without her knowledge, to the vivid and inexplicable suffering portrayed in ‘The Earthquake in Chile’, his stories are those of a man swimming against the tide of the German Enlightenment, unable to believe in the idealistic humanism of his day, and who sees human nature as irrational, ambiguous and baffling. It is this loss of faith, together with his vulnerability and disequilibrium, his pronounced sense of evil, his desperate challenge to established values and beliefs, that carries Kleist more forcefully than Goethe or Schiller across the gap between the eighteenth century and today.

Francine Prose put me onto Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O- after I read her book Reading Like a Writer.  She recommended him for his sentences and the construction of his plot.  I was also intrigued how her students got into the story of the titular Marquise.  And then there is the story of von Kleist himself, a man who very likely had serious mental health issues (undiagnosed in early 19th century Germany) and died in a murder-suicide pact with a terminally ill young woman.

OK, I’ll bite.

In spite of an almost three-year gap – I read “The Marquise of O-” and “The Duel” then the cats managed to shove the book behind the nightstand – I finished this collection of von Kleist’s weird, dense, and occasionally supernatural stories of injustice.  Obviously, the Marquise’s story is going to have a lot of triggers for some people with it’s themes of rape, questionable incest, and the improbably happy ending (it works as a story, trust me, but then also raises the question of how many women throughout history have found themselves in such a position….chilling).  Likewise, “The Duel”, “The Earthquake in Chile”, and “The Betrothal in Santo Domingo” all deal with the supposed chastity or lack thereof of young women; one story ends happily (one of the few stories in this volume with an “up” ending), the other two do not.  “The Beggar Woman of Locarno” is a short-short piece centered on a persistent phantasm.  “St Cecilia or the Power of Music” invokes the supernatural in the form a saint’s protection of her cathedral by striking down trouble-making Protestants.  The longest piece in the book, “Michael Kohlhaas”, is the novella-length story of a horse-dealer’s long, treacherous, and tragic search for justice against a corrupt system.  Very moving.

Definitely a collection of stories to read alongside von Kleist’s contemporaries Goethe and Hoffman.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

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