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.