He tried to be a soldier. Seven years he spent in the Guards, seven years he described as irredeemably lost. Then, one afternoon, this young lieutenant from a family that had already given Prussia at least eighteen generals, and who would rather study mathematics and logic, rode all the way from Potsdam to Frankfurt, the other Frankfurt, the one on the River Oder, which is now the Polish border, and a town whose modern history–of fire, war, division, Stalinist reconstruction, and demographic decline–reads like a series of catastrophes in a tale conceived by Kleist himself. The date, though, was April 4, 1799, and Kleist was riding. And as he did, fragments from his time in the army streamed through his mind like the torn clouds that blew overhead–the officers he regarded as so many drillmasters, the soldiers who were so many slaves, and this perpetual requirement to punish, when he would always pardon. And Kleist was riding, too, against the objections he heard on the lips of his family, especially his guardian, his Aunt Auguste:
‘How will you earn a crust?’
‘At twenty-one, aren’t you too old to study?’
‘Haven’t we always been generals?’
He tried to run away to Paris. He arrived with introductions to ‘entire packs of Parisian savants’ and even ‘attended a few lectures.’ He’d been there for a month, studying science and brooding, when one August morning he went to the post office to collect a letter. The postmaster demanded proof of identity. To his horror, Kleist realised he’d forgotten his passport. ‘Please make an exception,’ he said. ‘My hotel’s half a mile away, the letter is from my family, it would give me great joy to read it, I swear that I am Kleist.’
The postmaster was completely unmoved.
Kleist felt such contempt, or rather, such pity for him. Deceived a thousand times, the Frenchman no longer believed there was an honest man in Paris.
‘Well, that’s Paris,’ Kleist told himself as he jogged through the thronging city.
And it wasn’t so much the narrow, crooked streets, covered with mud and reeking of a thousand repulsive odours, as the pushing shoving citizens themselves. Cynical was not the word. They spoke with laughter about the serious, with seriousness about the trivial. And how they loved entertainment! Everywhere, it was obvious, the intention was to distract the people with empty pleasures heaped on ad nauseam. Kleist would far prefer a walk in the Silesian mountains to being here amongst the obelisks and triumphal arches, the light shows and the fireworks, the balloons, the bunting, the greased carnival poles, the merry-go-rounds, the portable stages, the jugglers, the tight-rope walkers. Rousseau would weep to see what he had wrought.
Kleist’s sister, Ulrike, was travelling with him. She suggested he might treat his gloom by drinking less beer. This purely physical explanation for his lack of cheerfulness only inflamed him. Yet, amid the unrest, the filth of Paris had left a new sediment in his soul. For like the Persian magi Kleist now wanted nothing more than to till a field, to plant a tree, to beget a child. In short, he wished, in the most literal sense, to become a peasant, even though Ulrike thought this a very bad idea. Kleist told her he was leaving Paris for Switzerland where he would purchase a farm.
Kleist in Thun
He tried to be a peasant. Next year in the spring we see him on an island in the Aar near Lake Thun in Switzerland. The farm never really happened. Instead Kleist confesses he is a writer. There had of course been signs. In Paris, for instance, he had written in a letter: ‘If I wished to write books, I could earn enough. But writing for money–speak not of it!’ And he added the extraordinary, almost prophetic assertion: ‘It may be true I am some sort of failed genius,’ and this before his literary career had even commenced.
If Kleist’s life were a string of small beads, then the island idyll at Thun would be one of the most well cut, finely polished stones. We know the facets; Kleist described them to his sister–the cottage he rented, rising with the sun to write, a landscape all enclosed by the Alps, his housekeeper, Madeli, ‘a sweet amiable girl,’ and Kleist buying her a beautiful Swiss costume; and on Sundays they row ashore together, she going to church and he climbing the foothills of the Schreckhorn; literary types now visit from Bern; Kleist, meanwhile, chews through his inheritance (‘You know how inept I am at saving’), but otherwise is quite without distress, except, as he writes to Ulrike, ‘It has always been my habit to invent some trouble for myself; now, for instance, I have a strange fear of dying before I finish my work.’ The work was his tragedy Robert Guiscard, which Kleist feels certain will be ‘a revelatory achievement in the field of art.’
It is entirely typical that Kleist’s first serious bid at literature should stall as the money runs out and his health breaks down. An alarming note was soon sent home–‘I beseech God for death, and my brother-in-law for money’ – and the ever-practical Ulrike (she liked to dress in trousers and Kleist called her the ‘amphibian’) comes riding in a diligence though war and siege to Bern and drags her hapless brother away. He turns up outside Weimar in the home of the poet Christoph Martin Wieland, still working on his Guiscard. By the fire one night, Kleist reads a passage to the elder writer. Wieland is ecstatic, and in time a letter follows, which Kleist will carry on his person as a sacred text: ‘Nothing is impossible,’ it reads, ‘for the genius of the Muse who inspires you. You must complete your Guiscard, though the entire Caucasus, and Mount Atlas too, were pressing down upon you.’ There is a second retreat to Switzerland, underwritten by a friend, Ernst von Pfuel, later Prime Minister of Prussia (‘I could have slept with you dear boy,’ Kleist writes to him, ‘so entirely did my soul embrace you!’), but by October 1803, Kleist is reporting to Ulrike–from whom he has repeatedly borrowed funds–that he cannot finish his drama. ‘It was hell that gave me this half-talent; heaven grants a whole or none at all.’ He destroys the manuscript; later, the opening is salvaged (‘this magnificent torso’ in the words of Rilke). Kleist, in despair, talks of levanting to Sydney, the furthest point imaginable, with his good friend Ernst. Instead, he heads off for France, intending to enlist and to get himself killed in the invasion of England. A kindly doctor intervenes outside Boulogne. He is sent back to Prussia. There is a family conference in Berlin.
The Midnight Factory
He tried to be a civil servant. At the Palace in Charlottenberg, an interview was arranged with Karl Leopold von Köckeritz, Adjutant-General to the King. It was a Friday morning and Köckeritz received Kleist with ‘a dark mien.’ A memorable exchange ensued:
KLEIST in the doorway: Do I have the privilege of being known to you, Herr Köckeritz?
KLEIST entering: Then I have come seeking your assistance, because, as you may be aware, I have of late displayed unmistakable signs of mental illness. I feel myself to be almost recovered now, and so able to serve my King, and am wondering whether I might hope for an official position, if I dared petition His Majesty?
There is a long pause.
KÖCKERITZ without obvious enthusiasm: Are you really recovered – I mean from the brainsickness and the false notions and the general giddiness?
KLEIST: I was ill, and, except perhaps for a certain weakness the waters might cure, I am fully restored to health.
The Adjutant-General pulls out his hankie and blows his nose.
KÖCKERITZ with an unpleasant face: If I were completely truthful with you, young man, I would tell you I cannot think favorably of you – leaving the military, running away, settling in Switzerland, dabbling with poetry, seeking to enlist with Napoleon. Really, I can do nothing for you.
KLEIST with tears in his eyes: There were explanations.
KÖCKERITZ vacillating: Well, then, write your petition to the King. [The old grimace returns.]
Kleist was granted a position. Nine months he spent working in the office of the Finance Minister (sometimes through the night), then he was transferred to the University at Königsberg to study economics and sit on the Commission on Crown Lands. He had forsworn literature. Nevertheless, he backslides. And now Kleist, the civil servant, in the deep factory of his soul, writes by night. Masterpieces begin to form under his hand – the Broken Jug (regarded as one of the funniest comedies in German), and the short stories the Marquise of O and The Earthquake in Chile. It is inevitable something will break. That something is his career. The upshot, after two years, is another resignation letter. But, being Kleist, this is not just any resignation letter. It is possibly the most extraordinary resignation letter ever composed in the Prussian Civil Service. Kleist writes to the Finance Minister, Karl Baron von Stein zum Altenstein, announcing that for several months he has been afflicted with ‘the most exceeding and stubborn constipation.’ As a result, not only is he unable to do any work requiring effort, he is hardly able even to turn the pages of a book. ‘Dear Sir, I sit as though over an abyss pulling myself up by the hair,’ he informs the Minister.
All winter, I have felt uncertain whenever my turn came to report. My mind went blank when confronted with the matter at hand: it always seemed as if I held an empty page. I would tremble to appear before the Council. It is a great disorder in my nature, I know it …
Kleist has now burnt his bridges–twice. There is nothing for it: he is a writer, and the ensuing years are the apogée.
Yet even now as his moment blossoms, Kleist displays his utter incapability of adapting to the rules. Returning to Berlin, he is arrested by the French occupying forces, who conclude the former Prussian officer must be a spy –what else could he be?–and he is packed off to France and imprisoned in a vault, where he works happily enough for months. Released, Kleist moves to Dresden and launches a literary periodical, Phobus, with the conservative intellectual Adam Müller. The pair rapidly manage to offend good taste–chiefly through Kleist’s published works–and the magazine folds within a year. Around this time, too, there is the celebrated spat with Goethe, already a living institution; Kleist goes out of his way to insult him publicly. And then there is this indelible moment: May 1809 and we see Kleist wandering about a battlefield, that of Aspern-Essling, because he has been in the neighbourhood and wishes to view the site of a French defeat. There he is discovered by Austrian troops. Under suspicion of espionage again, he is asked to identify himself. In all seriousness, Kleist offers as ID signed copies of poems he has written. He is arrested by his own side. Nevertheless, through all this, and the chronic problems (financial, physical, emotional), the works continue to flow (Penthesilea, Michael Kohlhaas). ‘I write,’ he tells a friend, ‘only because I can do nothing else.’
A Family Drama
Quite incredibly, he tried to be a soldier again. He offered his services to the Prussian King and received a response that was not exactly negative. It was enough: back to Frankfurt he went, seeking funds for a uniform. Ulrike answered the door. Her face told the story. ‘You took such fright at the sight of me, dear girl,’ Kleist wrote to her later that day, ‘that on my life, I swear, I was shaken to the depths.’ He added, ‘Can you give me luncheon, after all? I’ll be back in half an hour.’ When he returned, Ulrike was not alone. Auguste, another sister, whose husband was in charge of Kleist’s finances, had joined her. It was a true family bloodbath. Over lunch, Kleist announced the King had given an order for his military appointment and said he needed money for a uniform. The sisters expressed their scepticism. Kleist grew confused. They then demolished him, attacking their wayward brother for his entire sorry existence – his besmirching of the family name with a failed rag and a few scandalous books, his endless leeching of funds from poor Ulrike, his moral bankruptcy and all his worthless, worthless projects that never amounted to anything.
Kleist was shattered. To his cousin-in-law and lover (unconsummated), Marie von Kleist, he wrote:
I have always loved my sisters from the bottom of my heart. Though I seldom spoke of it, one of my deepest and sincerest wishes has always been to give them joy and pride through my work. And so to see myself as a completely useless member of society in their eyes, deserving of no sympathy, that is exceedingly painful to me….It robs me of the joys I have hoped for in the future, and poisons my entire past as well.
And so, when finally he decided to kill himself, having entered into an arrangement with Henriette Vogel, a young woman dying of cancer – consenting to shoot her first and then himself, under the pines trees, above the sandy banks of the Wannsee – Heinrich von Kleist, aged thirty-four and already the greatest of German dramatists, provided another illustration of how the writer might properly conduct a life.
At his lodgings in Berlin, on a street that no longer exists (the space is now occupied by the German Federal Commission for the Disabled), Kleist got together all his remaining papers–his literary notebooks, his unfinished works, his pieces of correspondence, a novel-in-progress, various odds and ends; and no doubt The Prince of Homburg, too, would also have been consigned to the flames if he hadn’t given the manuscript to his lover, Marie von Kleist, to read – and all this Kleist watched burn in the grill. He had no need for tracks in the sand. Everything he needed to say had already been said.
There were just a few last letters to compose–to his sister Ulrike, ‘I cannot die, serene and happy as I am, without first making peace with the whole world, and so too, above all others, my dearest Ulrike, with you …’; to Marie von Kleist, ‘My dear Marie, if you knew how death and love took turns crowning these last moments of my life with blossoms, surely you would be willing to let me die …’; to a senior bureaucrat whom Kleist requested come quickly to tie up the ends, ‘… I forgot to pay my barber for the month, and would ask you please to give him one Reichsthaler, which you will find wrapped up; the costs of the burial, as regards myself, will be covered by my sister …’
The deed itself was done with very great effectiveness. The Official Report notes that under the left breast of the female there was just a small bloodstain about the size of a thaler on her dress, with what seemed to be burn marks around; the male was bloodstained about the mouth, but only slightly. His jaws were tightly closed and later would have to be levered open with a crowbar. Otherwise, there were no signs of external violence on either body.
They lay slumped together in a ditch.
Konrad Muller served as an Australian diplomat in Cairo and Tel Aviv. He now lives in Hobart, where he works on the family vineyard and is finishing a novel about the Danish revolutionary and British spy, Jorgen Jorgensen, who ended his days as a convict-commander in Tasmania’s notorious Black War.