Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
As the book opens, Lucio is sailing toward Capri from Naples. On the island he intends to complete a translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlaas (1810) and work on a story of his own in which the hero, like Kleist, commits suicide. By disposing of his character in this way, Lucio hopes to “stabilize” his own despair and so avoid killing himself. Among his fellow passengers on the boat is a German couple. The woman captures his interest, for in her eyes he reads a mood similar to his own. Without exchanging a word, they seem to carry on a conversation; by the time the boat docks, Lucio is in love.
He wonders how he will be able to continue this romance, since he knows neither the woman’s name nor her destination. Fate favors him when the husband tells him that they are staying at the Pensione Damecuta on Anacapri. Lucio follows them and continues his silent wooing at dinner by showing the woman two lines from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: “But every pleasure wants eternity—/—wants deep, deep eternity.” Shortly afterward she replies silently with another book, Kleist’s letters, with a bookmark indicating Henriette Vogel’s last communication to Ernest Friedrich Peguilhen, dated November 21, 1811: “The loyal friendship you have always shown me till now awaits a wonderful test, for the two of us, namely Kleist, whom you know, and I, find ourselves here at Stimmung, on the Potsdam road... shot,” the victims of a double suicide.
Lucio believes that Beate Muller, whose name he learns from the concierge, intends for the two of them to make love and then kill themselves just as Kleist and his mistress did. In the course of their one brief conversation, she virtually confirms these suspicions when she promises to come to his room after midnight, if he in turn will do something for her, something she has already told him with the Kleist book. Although he does not want to die, he resigns himself to carrying out Beate’s plan. In the end, though, she never appears and he thus survives.
Beate has told Lucio that she is returning immediately to Germany but that her twin sister, Trude, will soon take her place on the island. That very evening Trude appears at the hotel with her supposed mother. While she looks exactly like Beate, they are otherwise total opposites. Beate, who grew up in Germany, is an ascetic: She hardly eats, and she shuns Lucio’s advances.Trude, who was reared in Italy, is an aesthete, gorging herself and practically throwing herself at Lucio. She seems unable to get enough of life and frequently repeats pleasurable experiences. Soon she, like Beate, promises to come to Lucio’s room, following a late-night radio speech by Adolf Hitler that she wants to hear.
Like Beate, however, Trude disappoints her would-be lover and does not come to his room. Instead, Paula, who has merely pretended to be Trude’s mother, tells him that Beate and Trude are one person and that the Mullers contrived with her to play a joke on Lucio as a way of teaching Italian men that they are not as irresistible to women as they believe.
Lucio leaves the island the following day. A month later Lucio learns that the joke played on him had its serious side. On the night of Hitler’s speech, Alois Muller was killed by the Nazis. Beate/Trude and Paula learned of his death the next day and left the hotel together. A peasant found them on a beach overlooking the sea, victims of a Kleistian double suicide.
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