Unlike their English contemporaries (William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron) and German rivals (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller), the German Romantics have not, on the whole, received much attention outside the borders of their own country. Their impact on humane letters in the English-speaking world has been negligible. Many of their principal works remain either untranslated or available only in archaic and generally out-of-print versions; only occasionally do they merit inclusion (and then only in brief snippets) in standard anthologies of Romantic literature. Nowhere is the general neglect of the German Romantics more strikingly illustrated than in the case of Kleist’s well-nigh canonical essay, “Über das Marionettentheater.” Enthusiastically received by E. T. A. Hoffmann at the time of its original publication in the Berlin Abendblätter, the essay has provoked widespread admiration and occasioned some famous borrowings (notably by Rainer Maria Rilke in the fourth of the Duineser Elegien, 1923; Duino Elegies, 1930) among the great figures of German letters. Despite the text’s considerable reputation in the literary and cultural history of central Europe, the only adequate English translation extant at the moment of writing was published some years ago in the Times Literary Supplement—an odd place for the enshrinement of a classic text, to be sure.
It is with some pleasure, therefore, that one contemplates the translation into English of a full-scale biography of Kleist. Originally published in 1957, revised and reissued in 1977, Joachim Maass’s Kleist covers the ground of Kleist’s brief and troubled life in copious detail. Would that the energy and excitement of its subject’s life were matched by the narrative of this biography. It may be that the plodding, tedious quality of Maass’s book is unnecessarily accentuated in the translation—although Ralph Manheim is highly regarded as a translator—but for whatever reason, this book has taken an important, neglected, and potentially lively subject and turned it into an extremely tiresome read. Readers with only limited German but diligently devoted to the study of German culture and interested in the Romantics will find the book a useful source of new information, but for those whose command of German is good, reading Kleist’s own letters would be preferable to plowing through this biography.
Nevertheless, the record, such as it can with confidence be established—as Erich Heller has remarked, “Kleist’s life, more than that of any other celebrated figure in the literary history of his epoch, abounds in unsolved puzzles, both factual and emotional, and biographies of him, therefore, often engage in purely speculative constructions”—is all there in Maass’s account. He draws liberally upon Kleist’s correspondence and on legal and political documents, and his knowledge of the day-to-day details of Kleist’s dealings with friends and associates is considerable. Most valuable, perhaps, is the knowledge one gains of the history of composition and publication of Kleist’s major works. Maass has obviously done his bibliographic homework with some care.
Setting aside the somewhat lugubrious incidents of Kleist’s personal life, including his suicide à deux with Henriette Vogel (which Maass draws out with all the excessive sentiment and morbid fascination for details that Kleist himself, a...
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