The Duel by Heinrich von Kleist

There are a number of titles in the Art of the Novella series that I expect to enjoy, that are by authors I like, that I’m sure I will be happy to have read. But there are a few I’ve been specifically looking forward to, and Heinrich von Kleist’s The Duel was one of these. Really, I look forward to reading anything by Kleist (good thing his Michael Kohlhaas is in this set too!); ever since I first encountered him I knew I would probably want to read all his work someday. The desire, of course, to do so in German has done nothing but make me procrastinate, so I sucked it up and read The Duel in Annie Janusch’s able translation.

The Duel was originally published in 1810 and fits well among Kleist’s other strange, dark, cold Romantic fairy tales, at least the ones that I’ve read. I always find Kleist a little bit eerie. That’s not quite the right adjective, but I’ve been having an awful time in the days since I read this pinpointing the right one. I think it’s something about the violence and almost blank darkness I find in his stories, but I think it’s wonderful.

Here, Kleist has a very nice Kunstmärchen for us. He sets the scene in one very long sentence that I may as well repeat; paraphrasing things would not help much:

Toward the end of the fourteenth century, as night was falling on the feastday of St. Remigius, Duke Wilhelm von Breysach—who had been living in enmity with his half-brother, Count Jakob Rotbart, ever since the Duke’s clandestine marriage to a countess reputedly below his social rank, Katharina von Heersbruck of the family Alt-Hüningen—returned from a meeting with the German Kaiser in Worms, at which the Duke had persuaded the Kaiser to legitimize as his one natural son, Count Philip von Hüningen, who had been conceived before marriage, the Duke’s other children born in wedlock having died.

Phew. It’s mostly not this unwieldy! Anyway, on his way home, the Duke is shot with an arrow and killed, and his half-brother the Count is naturally suspected. But rather than contest his nephew’s right to the dukedom, Rotbart freely lets Katharina rule as regent and the newly legitimized son assume his father’s title. Everyone’s a bit confused, and they only become more so when they discover evidence that the arrows used to kill the duke definitely belonged to Rotbart.

Rotbart alibis himself by claiming that he’d spent the night with a lady friend, thereby dishonoring her and getting her kicked out of her own castle by her brothers. The duel of the novella’s title is fought on her behalf by another of her admirers, Sir Friedrich von Trota. Because the infallible God decides the outcome of duels, the point is that the duel will actually tell everyone whether Littegarde really did sleep with Rotbart and, therefore, whether Rotbart is likely to have killed the duke.

This is the key to the whole story: the outcome of the duel, which is supposed to indicate Littegarde’s guilt, because it is taken as proof of her guilt, ultimately means that the outcome of the duel determines her guilt. But then what happens when neither party is killed, but both are wounded? How long must the sons of men wait to decide what God has already decided but left shrouded in mystery?

That part, the creepy fairy tale part, is excellent. Unfortunately, the story also appears to be almost a traditional mystery story at times, but it very much is not. When I explained the mystery of the king’s death to the consumption partner, and who had done it and the resolution of the story, he noted that “[i]f this were Nero Wolfe, that would have been proof that he wasn’t the killer!” Kleist was doing something else, and that incongruity can seem strange (and I do think, in fact, that it’s a bit of a hole in the story), but it’s not really the point.

The Duel is also one of the first of Melville House’s “HybridBooks,” which include a QR code/link to extra online content. It’s a great concept and the “illuminations” range from the fun to the genuinely valuable.

12 comments to The Duel by Heinrich von Kleist

  • This sounds pretty great! I like the opening sentence. May as well get all that pesky exposition out of the way before the first full stop.

  • This was my intro to Kleist, and I really enjoyed it. I know what you’re saying about his writing having a sort of dark, eerie feeling. (Also agree that it seems like there should be a better word to describe it, I can’t find think of it though!) I also enjoyed Michael Kohlhaas, but The Duel was more fairytale like…made me want to hug it. :)

  • I adore Kleist, and am anticipating this story eagerly. How about sinister, rather than eerie: it contains more menace, less supernatural?

  • I think Anthony wins for coming up with “sinister,” which sounds about right to me. Feel like I should have thought of it myself, especially being left-handed!

    I can’t wait to get to Michael Kohlhaas now that my Kleist appetite has been whetted, but I’m forcing myself to go through the all the Russians first. More Kleist will be my reward.

  • Michael Kohlhaas is an incredible story, Kleist’s masterpiece.

  • I never thought of Kleist as having a fairy tale quality, interesting.
    His opening sentences are often unwieldy to the extreme. Even in German (meaning for me as a native speaker) or – even more so in German. Since he read the German philosophers almost excessively, there might be an influence. They never strive for much clarity in the way they construct their sentences. At least Kant certainly didn’t and he was a major influence in Kleist’s work.
    The violence strikes me every time and in all of his stories
    Sinister is a good word but I also like “mysterious” to describe him.
    In German I would call him “düster” which would be gloomy.

  • Oh, I missed this. Gabriel Josipovici has a great essay on the Grimm Brothers where he talks about Kleist as a deviant path from the fairy tale, one not taken. I agree with Anthony that Michael Kohlhaas is one of the great masterpieces, but Betrothal in Santo Domingo is very nearly as great, and even crazier, with an unexpected colonial setting.

  • Caroline—I like düster, that’s good. Clearly we just need more than one adjective for someone like Kleist—hardly a bad thing. Your comments about German philosophers are cracking me up.

    David—I love “Betrothal in Santo Domingo,” and totally agree about the setting. In fact, the first Kleist I read was that and “The Earthquake in Chile,” so I got bizarrely used to the colonial setting for his work…though it’s quite different in each of those.

    Where’s the Josipovici essay? I haven’t read anything by him at all, which is continually appearing to be a more and more dreadful omission.

  • A Kleist sketch actually is one of Grimm’s fairy tales. It’s in the first edition of Grimm, only, because they expunged it when they discovered their mistake.

    The sketch is about children playing a “butcher” game, and it is among the most horrifying, repellent things I have ever read. A madman could find it in the Jack Zipes collection of every scrap of the Grimm Brothers.

  • You know what that sounds like? Something I am not going to rush out and read…

  • This post made me want to read my first Kleist a while back, Nicole, but I just realized I never commented on it before–probably because I’d hoped I’d read the novella before now. Anyway, loved this story for its unpredictability, its pacing, and the way it touches on primal emotions without attempting to explain them away for good or bad. Must read more Kleist soon–esp. since he keeps coming up in Bernhard (can’t remember the title mentioned) and Mann (his essay on marionettes gets a lot of play in Doctor Fautus) in addition to the blog world.

  • Jake

    It’s not a fairytale and it’s certainly not a Kunstmärchen. Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen ends in a Kunstmärchen. Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten ends in a Kunstmärchen.