Kleist in Thun Summary
The narrator imagines to himself how the Prussian writer Heinrich von Kleist, then twenty-five, might have lived during the spring and summer of 1802 in a villa on a small island in the Aar River near the town of Thun. Kleist’s arrival was probably unspectacular: He walked over a short bridge, rang the bell, and someone lazily answered. It was the charming Bernese girl who would become his housekeeper. He is satisfied with the rooms she shows him, but he feels a little sick and wonders why, especially in the midst of such beautiful natural surroundings.
He writes—it is the beginning of his writing career—and occasionally reads from his work to friends in nearby Bern. However, he is dissatisfied with what he produces, among other things, his comedy Der Zerbrochene Krug (1808; The Broken Jug, 1930). The lazy spring weather is maddeningly distracting: “It is as if radiant red stupefying waves rise up in his head whenever he sits at his table and tries to write.” He had intended to become a farmer after arriving in Switzerland.
He often sits at the window and muses on the stunning yet unsettling landscape of the lake, fragrant fields, and bewitching mountains. Lonely, he longs for a nearby voice, hand, or body. By gazing intently on the beauty around him, he tries to forget himself, but memories of home and his mother disturb him. He runs out into the garden, rows a boat onto the open, sunny lake, swims, and hears the laughter of women on the shore. Nature, he thinks, is “like one vast embrace.”
His enjoyment of the scene is never without pain and longing. Sometimes it feels like the end of the world here, and the Alps seem like the unreachable gates to a high, distant paradise. The light at dusk is spellbinding, yet its beauty is tinged with sickness. Kleist deems himself superfluous and longs for a heroic life. Pursued by a vague uneasiness, he climbs up the castle hill, then races back to his room, resolute on writing, which unfolds once he at last forgets where he is.
Rainy days are intolerably empty, dark, and confining. Sunny Sundays and market days, on the other hand, he likes, for they are full of life, movement, sounds, and aromas. He feels almost as if he were in Italy. Normal workdays, though, seem still and lifeless. On a fragrant summer evening he looks down on the lake, whose fiery, sparkling surface conjures up the image of jewels on the body of a vast, sleeping, unknown woman. He wants to drown in the image of the alluringly beautiful depths, and soon the thought of shimmering breasts and lips chases him down the mountain and into the water, where he laughs and cries.
Insisting on perfection in his work, he tears up several manuscripts, but keeps on writing, only to be defeated again: “The good fortune to be a sensibly balanced man with simple feelings he sees burst into fragments, like crashing and thundering boulders rolling down the landslide of his life.” He resolves to accept his self-destructive nature, “to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet.”
In the fall he becomes ill, and his sister comes to bring him home. His inner suffering is reflected in his haggard face and matted hair. She asks what is wrong, but he is unable to tell her. His manuscripts lie strewn over the floor, and he gives her his hand to stare at.
They leave Thun behind on a bright autumn morning. Dejected, Kleist sees nothing of the landscape passing by the coach. He dreams instead of clouds and images and caressing hands. His undefined pain seems to ease. His sister urges him to take up a practical activity, and he agrees.
“But finally one has to let it go, this stagecoach,” the narrator concludes. Last of all, he wishes to mention the marble plaque on the villa indicating that Kleist lived and worked there. Time and interest permitting, anyone can read it. The narrator says he knows the area around Thun a little, for he once worked there as a clerk in a brewery. There was a trade fair there a little while back; he is not exactly sure, but he thinks it was four years ago.