A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Saturday Shorts Week 10
Welcome to our weekend series for 2014. Every Saturday this year one of our staff will suggest a favorite short story from the library’s collection, all of them a great choice for quick weekend reading.
“Secretly he considers happy alone the man who is inconsolable: naturally and powerfully inconsolable. With him the position is one small faint shade worse. He is too sensitive to be happy.”
It’s not necessary, but might help a little, if you know a tiny bit about Heinrich von Kleist before starting Robert Walser’s wonderful bit of historical fiction about him. Kleist is thought of as one of the great writers of the German Romantic movement. His comedic play The Broken Jug and his tragic short stories “The Duel” and “Michael Kohlhaas” are oft-read German language classics. Historically, Kleist is also known as a fiery anti-Napoleonic political writer. He was even arrested and imprisoned as a spy during an 1807 visit to France. In his personal life, he’s probably most famous for the suicide pact he made with his friend (and possibly lover), the terminally ill Henriette Vogel. In 1811, at a scenic lakeside near Potsdam, Kleist shot Vogel, who could not go through with the act herself, and then took his own life as well.
In “Kleist in Thun,” Walser is riffing on the stereotype of the romantic imagination that Kleist seems to embody. A lot of readers tend to think of the story as a beautiful portrayal of his tragic mindset. I happen to think calling it a beautiful, somewhat sympathetic satire is probably closer to the mark.
Kleist is living and writing in Thun. It’s delightful Swiss countryside which Kleist experiences with great poetic fervor; yet, it seems only to goad him into more self-loathing. The juxtaposition between the gorgeous descriptive passages and Kleist’s petty obsessively bitter thoughts is not subtle. I think it’s meant to be darkly humorous. Lines like “Swans swimming to and fro among the rushes seem caught in the spell of beauty and of the light of dusk” are quickly followed with “Kleist wants a brutal war, to fight in battle; to himself he seems a miserable and superfluous sort of person.”
Over the story’s ten pages we’re treated to these glorious landscapes and poetic passages and then plunged back into the troubled mind of Kleist over and over. It’s wonderful, hypnotic, dreamlike writing. In the end Kleist leaves Thun more unnerved than ever, but Thun carries on into Walser’s time, an idyllic little town just barely marked by the sad writer’s stay.
“Kleist in Thun” might be Walser’s best story, but it’s hard to say. Each piece in his Selected Stories is strange and funny and highly readable, many of them little miniatures barely a page long. Stop by and check them out next time you’re in the mood for something a little different.
Review by Matthew