Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Natural Disaster and An Immaculate Conception

First impressions are very important, but they can sometimes be deceiving, especially when it comes to books.  For example, my first exposure to Thomas Hardy (admittedly in my teens) was a bit of a disaster, but he's now one of my favourite writers.  With this in mind, and with my ever-so-slightly negative review of Michael Kohlhaas still ringing in my ears, I thought it only fair to give Heinrich von Kleist a second chance.  And a third :)

Michael Kohlhaas was one of three stories in the first volume of Kleist's Erzählungen (Stories), and I decided to give the other two a try, starting with the shortest of the three, Das Erdbeben in Chili (The Earthquake in Chile).  In this brief tale, a young man, Jeronimo Rugera, is in prison, waiting to be executed for having seduced the beautiful Donna Josephe (in a Catholic country in 1647, this was quite a big deal...).  Along comes a major earthquake, and Jeronimo is sprung from both his chains and his prison cell while most of Santiago is left in ruins.  Meanwhile, Josephe is being led to her execution - will she also be saved?  And what will happen to the two lovers if they survive?

Das Erdbeben in Chili is a bitter-sweet tale, telling of divine intervention and human retribution, and I think I must have actually read it before as the plot was very familiar.  The story is divided into three distinct parts: the escape from the destruction of the earthquake; a brief, temporary reprieve in a valley reminiscent of the Garden of Eden; and a final act in a church which has somehow been saved from God's wrath.

Jeronimo and Josephe appear to have been saved to live another day, but, as is often the case in literary fiction, a happy ending is a boring one, and the reader is never confident that all will be well.  Just what kind of depressing ending awaits... well, I'll leave that to the reader to find out ;)

Das Erbeben in Chili is an entertaining tale, but a good short story is not nearly enough to change my opinion of Kleist by itself, so we'll let today's second offering decide.  The last of the three Erzählungen, Die Marquise von O... (The Marquise of O...) is one of Kleist's better-known stories; certainly, it was the one I'd heard most about before reading this collection.

The story starts with an announcement to the effect that the Marquise of O... has sent out a message in a newspaper, asking for the father of her unborn child to reveal himself to her (now that's one hell of an opening sentence!).  We then go back to the start of the story, where the widowed Marquise is caught in a battle for her father's castle and attacked by a lecherous gang of invaders.  Luckily, an honourable officer comes to her aid, and she is saved from the attentions of the soldiers.  A while later, she discovers she is pregnant (without having slept with anyone!), and in the midst of all this confusion, the Duke, her noble rescuer, arrives, pleading for her hand in marriage...

Die Marquise von O... is an excellent story, and one which is far better written and executed than Michael Kohlhaas.  The idea is intriguing, and the opening sucks the reader right into what is ostensibly a mystery, but is actually an examination of family values and attitudes towards infidelity and illegitimacy.  The trials the poor Marquise has with her parents remind me of Effi Briest's family issues (but in reverse...), and Kleist manfully spins the story out, keeping the reader in suspense for as long as possible.

However (and we're going a little way into territory not to be trodden by those who wish to approach the story with an unbiased eye), I felt that Kleist missed a trick with the rather obvious ending.  The one he eventually goes for is probably the one you were expecting all along, and I felt, after having been witness to some rather disturbing family scenes, that there was another, slightly less obvious, but infinitely more disturbing, candidate for the paternity of the Marquise's unborn child...

So, is that enough to redeem Kleist in my eyes?  Well, let's call it a draw: one success, one failure, and one entertaining, but brief, little tale.  Of course, Kleist did write a second volume of Erzählungen - I suppose a final decision can wait until I get around to reading some of those :)