Taking The Law Into Your Own Hands

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Heinrich von Kleist, one of the most famous writers in the German language, and this week Caroline and Lizzy have invited us to pay tribute by reading one of Kleist’s works.  I must confess that I probably already have a couple of unread Kleist works somewhere at home in England, as I’m sure they were set texts, either for my A-Levels or the first year of university.  Ones which I conveniently ignored…

This means that the time for giving Kleist a go is long overdue, and today’s post will deal with a novella which many of you will have heard of, Michael Kohlhaas.  This interesting little tale is set in sixteenth-century Germany, where the eponymous hero is a horse trader in the east of the country.  On crossing the border from Brandenburg to Saxony one day in the course of his work, a cunning nobleman demands papers (which he has no right to demand).  Kohlhaas is forced to leave two horses behind as surety for his promise to obtain the papers, and when he returns, having been assured that there is no need to obtain any papers, he finds his groom banished from the castle and his horses run-down and skeletal.

Kohlhaas’ legal efforts to obtain justice for this treatment are thwarted by nepotism – the nobleman is very well connected -, and his wife’s attempts to take the case to a higher source of power comes to a tragic conclusion.  So, the horse trader does what any justice-minded citizen would do in his case: he liquidates his assets, hires some mercenaries and lays waste to the surrounding countryside…

Which is where the reader sits up and says, “Erm, sorry, did I miss something there?”.  No, you heard right the first time.  While Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, Kohlhaas burned everyone’s houses down because they wouldn’t tell him where his enemy was hiding.  I must admit, it wasn’t a plot turn I had been expecting, but the arson and ambushing is fun while it lasts.

That’s not all though.  While in Wittenberg, after having been severely rebuked by a certain cleric in a public message, our Michael decides to pay a personal visit to the peeved churchman to straighten out their differences.  Fairly run-of-the-mill, no?  Well, yes, were it not for the fact that not many people drop in unannounced on Martin Luther…

You could be forgiven for wondering how this all holds together, and I would have to say that as entertaining as it is, I don’t really think it does.  There were large parts of Michael Kohlhaas where I really wasn’t sure if I was enjoying myself, for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, I wasn’t a big fan of the writing.  There was an abundance of names and titles, all flung at the reader without pause, making it difficult to hold information in the mind long enough for it to make sense.  I also found the text to be slightly over-punctuated, with an abundance of commas which detracted from my ability to read smoothly (yes, pots and kettles do come to mind somewhat here!).

However, it is the plotting, rather than the language, which is the biggest hurdle with this book.  Kleist wrote his Erzählungen quickly, primarily for financial gain, and at times it feels like it.  The novella just seems to be a collection of ideas flung together in the hope that they will stick and form a coherent story.  The late twist in the plot, a rather Gothic turn of events, seems contrived, and I do wonder if the idea was actually present at the commencement of writing…

There is, of course, more to the story than this.  There are philosophical elements present, especially concerning the right of the individual to take justice into their own hands when the state has failed them.  Also, the late plot twist, while difficult to swallow, does have the effect of maintaining the reader’s attention until the final pages (which, let’s face it, can only be a good thing).

All in all though (and I apologise in advance to all those who love Kleist), this wasn’t one of my more successful forays into G-Lit, and it made me feel that perhaps my late-teens self had the right idea after all.  Michael Kohlhaas is entertaining, but I’ve read a lot of better books, even over the past few weeks.  Perhaps my next attempt will bring a more pleasing result…

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8 thoughts on “Taking The Law Into Your Own Hands

  1. I posted on The Duel today. I didn't write it but was thinking it while reading and reviewing The Duel – He cannot really write all that well… Some sentences are super clumsy. (The Marquise of O being an exception) What amazes me every time I read him is the violence. This aspect linked with sexuality (not much of it in this one, I gather?) in all of his stories is strangely fascinating.

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  2. Gary – I do try to be nice generally, but I also think it's important to be fair – and as I really struggled with this one, it's only right that I slate it (in the politest possible manner!).

    Caroline – No, not really any sexuality in this one; lots of violence though! I'm glad you agree with the writing part. I'm always a bit hesitant to blame it on the writer when I'm reading in German as it's much more likely to be my fault 🙂

    Emma – No, good idea 🙂 I'd recommend 'Die Marquise von O…' as a good start. I'll be posting on that later this week (but read the story first!).

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  3. I just read Kleist's The Duel and loved it, Tony, so I'll be reading more of him at some point despite your lukewarm appraisal of Michael Kolhaas. Given your concerns with the plotting and the language in this work, though, I'm curious if you have any guesses as to why Kleist is considered such a major writer by parts of the public at large and later writers like Thomas Mann. Any ideas? Very nice blog you have here, by the way!

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  4. Well, his very unusual and dramatic end may have had something to do with it!

    Caroline has suggested that he benefits from translation (and there are writers who seem to come across better outside their native language…). I also suspect that while I, and many others, have concentrated on his prose, it's his plays which are what make him so well known.

    Although maybe I'll like his later novellas if I decide to give them a try 😉

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  5. Nice review, Tony! Sorry to know that you didn't like this book much. I read this today and liked it. I agree with you though that there are dozens of characters and that is a bit distracting.

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