#7: Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist

Strangely, this novella turned up on a Halloween list of “Spooktacular” books by The American Scholar. Spooktacular? Not quite. Not at all. It is a tale of bloodthirsty revenge, but to me it reads almost like a fable, with the moral made explicit from page one:

Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man would have been thought the very model of a good citizen. In a village that still bears his name, he owned a farm on which he quietly earned a living by his trade; the children with whom his wife presented him were brought up in the fear of God to be industrious and honest; there was not one of his neighbors who had not benefited from his benevolence or his fair-mindedness—the world, in short, would have had every reason to bless his memory, if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer. 

So this is a tale of a search for justice taken too far; or, as the blurb describes it, “that of the honourable man forced to take the law into his own hands […] one of the most stirring tales ever written of the quest for justice”.

It’s a long quest. This translation by Martin Greenberg must be close to 40,000 words. I read a much shorter novella by Heinrich von Kleist—The Duel—for the third post on this site. Michael Kohlhaas is similarly plot-driven to The Duel, but in this case the plot seems to wind on and on through the various political and legal machinations for much too long.

There is some humour in the book, such as when the narrator provides Kohlhaas’s response on being asked for a pass to take his horses across the border:

So far as he knew, he had none, was his answer, but if somebody would only tell him what in the name of God the thing was, he might just happen to have one in his pocket.

Although this is ostensibly the narrator factually retelling Kohlhaas’s reply, it’s delivered not in dialogue but in a style that seems a prelude to modernist free indirect discourse. We’re not technically in the protagonists consciousness here, but it does feel close. There are also, as in The Duel, some wonderfully descriptive passages:

Nevertheless, the horse dealer was shocked when instead of the two sleek, well-fed blacks he saw a pair of scrawny, worn-out nags: ribs like rails on which objects could have been hung, manes and coats matted from lack of care and attention—the very image of misery in the animal kingdom!

More’s the pity that there isn’t more of this to help ease the relentless series of events that soon ensues. The problems with Kohlhaas’s intransigent idealism (“he cared nothing about the horses themselves—his pain would have been just as great if it had been a question of a pair of dogs”) are made apparent early on, and it’s not long before it turns to bloodthirsty rage. Perhaps the editors at The American Scholar had this in mind when adding this novella to their halloween list:

Kohlhaas, entering the hall, grabbed hold of a Junker Hans von Tronka as the latter came at him and flung him into a corner of the room with such force that his brains splattered over the stone floor […]

Yet this descent into maniacal vengeance is over soon enough, barely halfway into the novella, and we’re left with the various political intrigues and twist and turns that slowly grind the story towards its end. It’s not an unsatisfying ending, and the moral of the story remains clear, but the journey becomes a drawn-out blur as the various political figures play out their hands. The “much-criticised” (Koelb 1990) sub-plot involving an old gypsy woman and her prophecy also comes with an infuriating coincidence that leads her back to Kohlhaas in the final few pages, but it’s an ending that is worth sticking around for, if you’ve already come this far.

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