No theory, but lots of character

Heinrich von Kleist
May 28, 1999

Kleist has been well served of late by English-speaking commentators. Two major monographs on the German writer (1777-1811) appeared within two years of each other - by Anthony Stephens (1994) and Sean Allan (1996); a volume of translations with an impressive introduction was recently published by David Constantine; and now we have a major interpretative study from Hilda Meldrum Brown.

The essential case Brown is making is as follows: "Kleist's pessimistic insights regarding the impenetrable nature of the universe virtually coincided with his constructive grasp of the opportunity this provided for making a virtue of necessity. By capitalising on the principle of epistemological imprecision and relativity at the heart of all human perception ... he could show that at least part of that world of illusory perception could be captured and controlled through the medium of art and form."

This is well argued; and time and time again, Brown's readings of individual texts are persuasive in their precision and good sense. She has a fine eye for the configuration and interplay of characters. Indeed, character analysis is very much at the centre of her approach to Kleist's oeuvre.

The following passage is typical: "Toni herself is the most complex as well as the most important character in this story ( Die Verlobung in St Domingo ) and already, in the tautly constructed and masterly scene in which the three characters first meet and interact, the powerful inner change from a commissioned decoy to a brave and selfless spirit is starting to get under way."

Her discussion of character is admirably scrupulous and differentiated; but just occasionally I could have wished that she had ventured into theoretically more sophisticated territory.

Characters can, of course, be treated as substantial human entities; but they are also a property of the (narrative, generic) discourse of the text, of a particular rhetoric of character - and more attention could, I feel, have been paid to this dimension.

On a number of occasions Brown makes no secret of her impatience with many of the grandiose - even extreme - theoretical constructs of previous Kleist interpreters. One knows what she means, of course. But I wonder if she does not in the process run the risk of muffling the drama of the Kleistian text. After all, his characters tend to go to extremes; they commit themselves headlong to grandiose interpretative structures; and the text itself both shares in and interrogates this propensity, as literal statements and metaphorical conjecture jostle alarmingly with one another. In consequence, Kleist makes for stressful reading. And I miss this sense of stress-and-strain, of pressurised hither-and-yon in Brown's study.

It would not, however, be appropriate to end on a negative note - not least because there is much to enjoy in Brown's monograph. She has, for example, telling observations to make on Kleist's letters, above all on the ways in which descriptive passages acquire a sense of dynamic, and perspectival, movement. She refers at one point to "that technique of Inszenierung in which the static Stadtbild - viewed through a series of the familiar, appropriate Rahmenschau perspectives - is transformed into a chain of dynamic actions", and she relates that technique revealingly to the shifting perspectives that are so much a feature of the creative work.

Furthermore, time and time again she has marvellous, and marvellously detailed, observations to make on the particularity of individual texts. Generations of Kleist readers will be in her debt.

Martin Swales is professor of German, University College London.

Heinrich von Kleist: The Ambiguity of Art and the Necessity of Form

Author - Hilda Meldrum Brown
ISBN - 0 19 815895 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £50.00
Pages - 409

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