In his 1913 story ‘Kleist in Thun’, the Swiss writer Robert Walser depicts Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811) living and writing alone in a villa in the Bernese Oberland. ‘Weeks pass,’ Walser writes, ‘Kleist has destroyed one work, two, three works. He wants the highest mastery, good, good. What’s that? Not sure? Tear it up. Something new, wilder, more beautiful.’ In his own lifetime, Kleist’s painstakingly wrought fiction appeared largely without notice; his work was denounced by Goethe as being ‘tainted with an incurable disease’. But it was precisely this wild and even slightly unhinged quality in Kleist’s prose that drew modernists like Walser and Franz Kafka towards his work. When studying Michael Kohlhaas, Kafka wrote that he read it ‘with true fear of God’, following the relentless march of events ‘on waves of wonder’.
In Michael Hofmann’s electric new translation of Kleist’s 1810 novella, it’s not hard to see why Kafka saw its author as one of his spiritual ancestors. The narrative begins with an apparent paradox: ‘In the middle of the 16th century there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, son of a schoolmaster, at once one of the most righteous and appalling individuals of his time.’ Whereas previous translations have rendered the end of this sentence more literally, Hofmann’s succinct opposition of ‘righteous’ and ‘appalling’ distils Kleist’s meaning and places the moral contradiction of Kohlhaas’s character front and centre. How can Kohlhaas have been both ‘righteous and appalling’?
Michael Kohlhaas is Kleist’s longest published work of fiction and it forcefully combines his abiding concerns of religion, politics and metaphysics. The narrative relates the story of how Kohlhaas becomes the leader of a violent peasant rebellion against the Elector of Saxony and his counsellors. But the essence of the tale lies in the event that leads Kohlhaas to take up arms against the state originally.
The novella begins with Kohlhaas bringing his horses to market in Dresden. On the road he passes an unfamiliar toll house next to a castle. In addition to having to pay the toll, he is asked by the castellan to produce a ‘pass’ to sell his horses. Kohlhaas suspects that this ‘pass’ is an illegal ruse on behalf of the local lord, Wenzel von Tronka, but nevertheless he reluctantly leaves two black mares as a guarantee at the castle’s stables. When he arrives in Dresden he quickly realises that ‘the story of a pass was a fairytale’. On his way home, he returns to the castle to confront Tronka’s men but finds his horses ruined and discovers that his groom has been beaten for refusing to let the horses bring in the harvest. When the castellan threatens him, Kohlhaas struggles to control his ‘urge to dump the fat-bellied ne’er-do-well in the filth’ but constrains himself because ‘his sense of justice, which was as finely equilibrated as a pair of jeweler’s scales, was still trembling in the balance’.
Initially Kohlhaas seeks compensation for the ruin of his horses through the courts, but his case is dismissed as a result of the corrupt intervention of Tronka’s relatives, who are in the retinue of the Elector of Saxony. Further attempts to attain justice through legitimate channels lead to his wife’s death and Kohlhaas resorts to violence. He arms his servants and attacks Tronka’s castle, before burning it to the ground when he finds that Tronka has already fled. Kohlhaas’s band of outlaws rapidly grows as discontented peasants join him and he is soon sacking entire villages and towns.
Throughout all this, Kohlhaas’s demands remain the same: the return of his horses in their original condition by Tronka and compensation for his groom’s injuries. This doesn’t, however, prevent him from framing his campaign in religious terms. He issues a proclamation asking ‘every good Christian, for a wage and other advantages of war to take up his cause against the Junker von Tronka, the enemy of all Christians’ and later declares himself ‘a vice-regent of the Archangel Michael, come to punish with fire and sword all those who took the side of the Junker’. This mix of dispassionate reason and fierce religiosity in Kohlhaas’s character serves as a way to explore questions of a metaphysical kind.
Kleist’s relentless focus on Kohlhaas’s ‘sense of justice’ as the motivation for his bloody actions was born out of his own philosophical preoccupations. In his early years, Kleist adopted a rational life plan (Lebensplan) drawn from Rousseau’s Emile, but his exposure in 1801 to Kantian philosophy upended his faith in human reason. While others saw Kant’s work as providing new foundations for rationality, Kleist interpreted it as showing that the world was essentially without any objective order. When he began writing Michael Kohlhaas in 1805, Kleist, still bound up in these philosophical problems, placed the irresolvable conflict between individual reason and objective reality at the story’s centre. Despite the ‘righteousness’ of Kohlhaas’s cause, it is never really in doubt that he will be punished for the violence he has perpetrated.
It is this critical combination of fiction and philosophy that accounts for Kleist’s enduring originality and Michael Kohlhaas’s appeal to writers like Walser and Kafka. Despite the novella being set amid the tumult of the German Reformation, Kleist’s portrait of a man ‘in the Hell of unsatisfied vengeance’, beset on all sides by bureaucratic obstacles and governmental corruption, possesses a stubborn timelessness. In Hofmann’s wonderful quickstep translation, Kohlhaas’s descent into violence attains a bewitching velocity, like a rock careering down a mountainside. ‘The thing’, as Kohlhaas remarks, ‘has its own momentum.’