miércoles, 23 de noviembre de 2011

The Duel

The Duel [Der Zweikampf] (Melville House, 2011)
by Heinrich von Kleist [translated from the German by Annie Janusch]
Germany, 1810

Apparently I need to deepen my acquaintance with the smash hits of German literature.  Superb long short story/short novella which, in addition to providing an easy way to pad one's reading statistics for the year, dares to investigate the question of whether God's will is at all fathomable to mere mortals.  That in itself would be unexceptional, of course, but even godless bloggers will have to admire Kleist's audaciousness in advancing his theme--spinning a spare page-turner of a tale in which a duel pitting one Count Jakob Rotbart, a fourteenth century ladies' man accused of killing his brother the duke but who has a seemingly airtight alibi predicated on the claim that he was otherwise busy seducing an aristocratic woman on the night in question, against Sir Friedrich von Trota, the murdered duke's chamberlain and a valiant defender of the disgraced Lady Littegarde von Auerstein's honor after her denial of Rotbart's claims goes unbelieved even by her immediate family in the wake of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, will reveal God's "infallible verdict" in a trial by combat that's binding by law.  That the answers provided by the duel can be seen to reflect poorly on God's judgement, man's interpretation of same, the value of honor, innocence, true justice, and mercy, or any and all of the above is just one example of Kleist's slippery winning ways, but I won't dwell on the primal ambiguities since I'm led to believe that most bloggers want only simple solace and maybe a costume drama/retro vibe outta their goddamn historical fictions.  While there's little of those things here, on an entirely unrelated note I'm tickled by the fact that the 19th century icon Kleist, at least in the promo photo below, is probably the first author to be featured on this blog who could ever be mistaken for a band member in one of the mid-1980s incarnations of the Fall or the Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain.  Yes! (www.mhpbooks.com)

Heinrich von Kleist

14 comentarios:

  1. Kleist has rock star potential in some ways, I'd say. Definitely a bit on the Goth side. He was surely way ahead of his time. Never seen this painting btw. Did the intro not bother you at all? Style wise, I mean.
    You need to read The Marquise of O. A woman who doesn't know how she got pregnant should be great fodder for one of your posts. And no - it isn't a spoiler, this is said in the first page... And even so, you could handle a spoiler.

  2. Yes, this sounds like Kleist. You really should read all of his fiction - the eight stories add up to less than 300 pages. And then seek out the essay about marionettes. The plays are excellent, too.

    What is wrong with the style of the opening? It is modeled after medieval chronicles. Kleist is a strongly conceptual writer, with a style that varies from story to story.

  3. Laughing at your last sentence, haha. So true!

  4. Tom, I'm a native German, French and Italian speaker and feel not qualified to say anything about the English translation of the Duel but the German is unwieldy. Maybe an influence from my most hated language Latin.
    Since I purely translate into German and French, I'm, as said, less familiar with translating into English but it does seem according to nicole's post
    that the translation is smoother than the original. The whole sentence has been completely rearranged to make it better understandable, it's still long, but readable whereas the original is really not.
    "Herzog Wilhelm von Breysach, der, seit seiner heimlichen Verbindung mit einer Gräfin, namens Katharina von Heersbruck, aus dem Hause Alt-Hüningen, die unter seinem Range zu sein schien, mit seinem Halbbruder, dem Grafen Jakob dem Rotbart, in Feindschaft lebte, kam gegen Ende des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts, da die Nacht des heiligen Remigius zu dämmern begann, von einer in Worms mit dem deutschen Kaiser abgehaltenen Zusammenkunft zurück, worin er sich von diesem Herrn, in Ermangelung ehelicher Kinder, die ihm gestorben waren, die Legitimation eines, mit seiner Gemahlin vor der Ehe erzeugten, natürlichen Sohnes, des Grafen Philipp von Hüningen, ausgewirkt hatte. "

  5. I am not denying the unwieldiness, but defending it. The sentences of Froissart, Kleist's source for the story, can also be unwieldy. Kleist is imitating Froissart.

  6. Tom, that is another story, it sounded as if you didn't think it was unwieldy. My problem is that I'm never sure he knew entirely what he did. He could have written the intro closer to what we read in the English translation. I didn't think he modeled on Froissart's style but more on the topic or theme since Froissart wrote in French.

  7. "The Marquise of O." was one of those works I discovered by chance while in high school (no doubt mistaking it for that racy novel with a similar title I'd heard whispered about here and there). I was bowled over by it, and read everything by Kleist I could find. But that was a long time ago; all of these great commentaries for German Literature Month suggest that I'm way overdue for a re-read.

  8. Nicole, Anthony & Caroline got me curious about this, and now here you are adding to the fire. "Primal ambiguities" - if ever there was a phrase guaranteed to intrigue me, that's it. And I like the chutzpah of an author who's able to question the validity of God's judgments. In other words that's what *I* want outta my goddamn historical fiction! ;-)

  9. Really? Noel Gallagher wrote 'The Duel'? ;)

  10. *Caroline: No, the intro didn't bother me at all; in fact, I tried to replicate it in one of the sentences in my post! And it's not like the rest of the story is conveyed in that manner anyway (well, in English, at least--that appears to be quite a mouthful in the original German). I have a library date upcoming with Kleist's Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, which includes the novella you mention and the essay on marionettes that Tom and Thomas Mann mention, and I'm really looking forward to exploring more of his oeuvre.

    *Tom: You're the first to let me know that Kleist was influenced by Froissart, but that makes sense given the feel of The Duel. Felt that both the presentation of the story and its psychology were equally bracing, so I'll be interested in seeing if his other prose and plays deliver the goods with the same sort of elemental passion/energy.

    *Emily Jane: Ha, glad you got a kick out of that! After I went to bed last night, though, I started thinking that maybe I should update my musical references in the future so that more readers know who the hell I'm talking about every once in a while (mid-'80s, wha???). Cheers!

    *Scott: I'm not sure I even really heard of Kleist before this past year, so it's been interesting to see how many longtime fans he has and how many readers got turned onto to him relatively early. Of course, my familiarity with German literature is nothing to brag about in general alas...

    *Emily: I feel like such a latecomer to the party, but this was def. such a great intro to Kleist for me. "Historical fiction for people who hate historical fiction." Given your own well-known Oregonian chutzpah, would love to hear what you think of the title as well!

    *Tony: LOL! Noel Gallagher is probably a better Kleist lookalike than the '80s peeps I mentioned, but the only problem with that is that I then would have to own up to knowing who Oasis were. "Weren't they the guys who beat up Blur?" Cheers!

  11. Possible rock star potential but my 5th grader walking quickly by thought it was Mr. Bean. And while I have no qualms about stating an occasional preference for challenges to God's judgements voiced by those in pretty costumes, you do make quite a temptation out of the "primal ambiguities" here. Ooo, just love that phrasing. As I also love that synopsis sentence that left me breathless. Really. Read it aloud. But this goes on the short list. As you know, I happen to have a copy. Now if I could just find my brain on my work desk...

  12. I love Kleist and I really want to read more of his writing. This sounds splendid, and beautifully twisted. Another wonderful account from you, too. How do you pack so much into such a short long paragraph? Anyway, I am an admirer. And I would love to read this, so must locate a copy.

    Oh and your last sentence made me laugh out loud. I think in sentiment he was probably closer to Morrissey, but there is undeniable Goth DNA there.

  13. Emily--I think you would be into this as well, yes.

    beautyisasleepingcat--Wow, that first sentence--wow. I believed when you said it was unwieldy, but darn does it take a long time to get to that "ausgewirkt hatte." I could follow it about 1/3 of the way but that's it!

  14. *Frances: Thanks, but you're much too kind, my friend--and thanks, too, for sharing your little person's comment about Mr. Bean. Too funny! Am quite confident you will like this story, though, since those Kleistian ambiguities are presented with such a deft, assured touch. Cheers!

    *Litlove: You are too kind as well, but thanks all the same! I look forward to reading more Kleist myself, but I agree that "beautifully twisted" would be a fair description of his prose here. And while I hadn't really thought of him as a proto-Morrissey previously, I love how his portrait is bringing out all sorts of rocker personas for him to assume during his comeback tour. Cheers!

    *Nicole: Agreed--except that I can't follow any German! Cheers!