#3: The Duel, by Heinrich von Kleist

This is one of five novellas titled The Duel in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and possibly the shortest of all of the novellas, regardless of title. Yes, that’s why I chose it! It comes in at a slim fifty pages, which I’ve estimated to fall just shy of 10,000 words.


I’ve never read any work by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), best known as a playwright, poet and writer of short narratives—collected along with The Duel in his Gesammelte Erzählungen (Collected Short Stories). This could be considered a long short story, or perhaps a “noveltini”, as per the Tiny Owl Workshop’s recent call for submissions. It definitely can (and should) be read in a single sitting.

This new translation by Annie Janusch is a joy to read with simple yet richly descriptive prose. At over 90 words, the opening sentence is digressive and packed full of character names, drawing us in with terms like “enmity” and “clandestine marriage”. It’s sheer density is enticing, but it’s somewhat difficult to follow and I was glad that things settled down from there on in.

Set in the late 1300s, this is a courtly tale of murder, intrigue, adultery, chivalry and a knightly duel, wherein God’s judgement is delivered through battle. At this length, things have to get moving quickly and the plot rollicks along without digression; we immediately witness the murder of Duke Wilhelm von Breysach and suspicion falling upon his half-brother Count Jakob Rotbart, who lives an “openly debaucherous life” and besmirches the honour of Lady Littegarde von Auerstein as an alibi, an act that is received with some ambivalence:

After all, divulging a good woman’s name in an unscrupulous love affair was considered contemptible. However, in light of the extraordinary circumstances in which Rothbart’s own life and honour were at stake, it was now widely recognised that he had had little alternative but to reveal in full his indecent alibi from the night of St Remigus.

On top of the language translation, there’s a double time warp at play when we read classics such as this: firstly, reaching back to Kleist’s early 19th century; and then again as Kleist himself writes about the late 14th. There are similarities to modern life, when Littegarde asks the knight Friedrich von Trota to “recommend a lawyer”, but the code of chivalry (and a hefty dose of misogyny) soon kicks in and it’s equally fascinating and disturbing to witness this archaic religious justice system play out.

Friedrich offers to uphold Littegard’s honour through a duel with Rotbart, and Littegard proclaims:

No guilt inhabits my conscience—even if he were to go into battle without helmet and armour, God and all his angels would protect him!

Such faith. The battle is soon set and it rages like a storm:

The battle now oscillated between the two fighters like two storm fronts swirling around each other—hurling and deflecting lightning bolts, towering above and rearing below the crack of heavy thunder.

The narrative is a straightforward telling, ruled by plot, though punctuated with occasional moments of vivid figurative language like this. I won’t spoil the various twists and turns by which we find out the real truth behind the Duke’s death, but suffice to say that the outcome of the duel initially throws a veil of doubt over the justice of the verdict, bringing into question the very word of God.

Friedrich’s mother maintains that the laws of man “uphold divine authority”, and the twists at the heart of this story hint at the unknowability of truth, providing some opportunity to question this authority. Perhaps this was a step too far for Kleist, however, as the twists ultimately resolve in a such a way that maintains the sanctity of the duel.

The resolution comes with a fairly clumsy, pull-the-rug-from-under-us here’s-what-really-happened manoeuvre from the narrator, informing us that “It is important now to mention …”. While God’s will is ultimately shown to be right and valid, this does come with a cautious concession delivered in the final line:

Upon his return to Worms he had the statutes governing divine trial by duel amended to state that the revelation of guilt shall not be immediately presumed “…unless it be God’s will.”

Whatever that means.

Melville House have published this as a “HybridBook” with accompanying electronic readings accessible online. Drawing on a number of sources, these readings state that Kleist “deemed it impossible for man to conceive God and to comprehend his purpose” and that “he defined his own religion as the search for truth and knowledge”. The various twists certainly do highlight the incomprehensibility of divine purpose, but I’m not sure that the conclusion is satisfying through a modern lens. Having said that, this was a quick and enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward to observing how the literature of duelling has changed over time when I come to the other instalments by Casanova, Chekhov, Conrad and Kuprin.