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Amber Paulen

The Marquise of O– by Heinrich von Kleist

Heinrich von Kleist

The Marquise of O–

In Reading Like a Writer Francine Prose writes so much of Heinrich von Kleist in her chapter titled “Characters” that I have been on the lookout for his books ever since I put her book down. And lucky for me I found this Hesperus edition in a bargain bin. With three pieces—one novella The Marquise of O– and two stories, “The Earthquake in Chile” and “The Foundling“—this slim edition served as a perfect introduction to this strange writer. Have a read of his opening sentence to The Marquise of O– to see what I mean by strange:

In M–, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O–, a lady of excellent reputation and mother of several well-bred children, had the following announcement published in the newspapers: that she had, without knowing the cause, come to find herself in an interesting condition, that she wished the father of the child she was expecting to present himself; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.

First published in 1808, it’s easy to imagine the type of controversy stirred up by a story like this. Even now, over two hundred years later, I found myself shocked and awed at its passionate turns and surprised that this old story has so much sex and violence. The reaction of the Marquise’s family to her mysterious pregnancy fit the time, but what doesn’t is that because the Marquise is innocent, more questions are forced into the picture than most dare answer.

Perhaps it’s only the influence of the mysterious pregnancy that causes not one of these characters to act stereotypically. How rewarding to read a book where no one acts predictably! I don’t think I’ve ever gasped out loud before as much as I did reading this story.

“The Earthquake in Chile” starts off with another bang:

In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the precise moment of the great earthquake of 1647, which cost many thousands of people their lives, a young Spaniard called Jerónimo Rugera, who had been accused of a criminal offence, was standing beside by a pillar in the prison, where he had been incarcerated, and was about to hang himself.

This story is also rich with sex and violence, but unlike The Marquise of O– it builds up to the shock and awe of the end. (Maybe I would have been more shocked at the end of The Marquise if Francine Prose hadn’t given away the ending.) Though the earthquake in the beginning is also vivid and horrible, it’s the ending I don’t recommend reading before going to sleep.

Heinrich von Kleist is one of those writers I feel as if I should have heard about earlier. The writer he is most famous for influencing is Kafka, but he must have touched many other Germans. As a person, Von Kleist seems as weird as his stories. In 1811 he sailed out to the Wannsee, shot Henriette Vogel dying of cancer, and then shot himself. Theirs was a love-and-suicide pact made out of misery. Sometimes I wonder if such fanaticism isn’t necessary for writing such fascinating stories. In any case, his early death left less works of von Kleist’s to read and more time to read these stories again.


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