November 20, 2014

The Art of the Novella Challenge 4: The Duel (Kleist)


duel kleistTitle: The Duel

Author: Heinrich von Kleist

First published: 1810, in book form, seemingly collected with other stories in Erzählungen

Page count: 51

First line: Toward the end of the fourteenth century, as night was falling on the feastday of St. Remigius, Duke Wilheim von Breysach – who had been living in enmity with his half-brother, Count Jakob Rotbart, ever since the Duke’s clandestine marriage to a countess reputedly below his social rank, Katharina von Heersbruck of the family Alt-Hüningen – returned from a meeting with the German Kaiser in Worms, at which the Duke had persuaded his Kaiser to legitimize as his one natural son, Count Philip von Hüningen, who had been conceived before the marriage, the Duke’s other children born in wedlock having died.

Firstly, what a first line, what an opener! Ninety-nine words, two date indicators, five named characters, one place called Worms! Practically a novella in itself, it does the sly job of dragging the reader so deep into its expository convolutions that, having read it, the thought of putting the story aside seems perverse – you’ve read this far, you might as well finish the damn thing.

In fact length is of the essence here. With a big old pile of other books to read this week I’ve gone from the longer end of the Art of the Novella series (Dostoevsky) to the shorter, with the 51-page Kleist. Kleist is an odd one. He made his name as a dramatist, but his plays seem to have dropped out of the contemporary repertoire completely (in the UK at least), and now we know him through a handful of essays and fewer than ten stories – another of which, Michael Kohlhaas, also makes it into this series. It seems rather little to hang a reputation on, two centuries on.

It is hard to say exactly what appeals about these stories – which is perhaps precisely their appeal. We read back across two hundred years both for difference and identity, to find traces of modernity (where perhaps none existed), as well as  markers of antiquity and otherness. The Duel is an excellent example of this weird ambivalence, as if what it represents is a bridge between us and something we would otherwise find beyond our reach.

The Duel, like the more famous The Marquise von O, is a riddle, or a paradox narrative. The expository opening quoted above is swiftly followed by the assassination of Duke Wilheim, shot by an arrow belonging to his half-brother – who proclaims his innocence, and declines to press his claim for the dukedom, saying the newly naturalised Count Philip is the rightful heir. When the half-brother, Rotbart, is brought to trial, he offers up the alibi that the night of the murder he was – ahem – in bed with the beautiful Lady Littegarde von Auerstein, who, paragon of virtue as she is and is known to be, vehemently denies it.

So, two riddles: who killed the Duke, if not the Count? And who’s telling the truth, the Count, or the Lady? It should be pointed out that there is no use expecting Kleist to give us clues as to the truth behind these paradoxes. They are riddles, not mysteries – and the mode of narration gives nothing away. The characters are entirely opaque; everyone seems honest; no one is singled out in their description to tip us the wink. You can’t read it like you’d read an Agatha Christie.

I can’t help linking this to the form of the narrative, as given in the original. The Duel is an Erzählung – a telling, or perhaps a recounting, in that Zahl is the German for number. It’s a lovely term, and makes the English use of ‘story’ seem plodding and prosaic. (In narratological terms, the ‘story’ is what is told, the Geschichte; but what we get, as readers, is the telling of it, the Erzählung.)

The deep links between narrative and number are, I’m sure, something that others have explored. I don’t have time to do it here. Suffice it to say, Erzählung as a term shares something of the sense of the French récit, that I’ve discussed before, except that the récit focuses on a small number of characters, whereas in Duel the narrative is dispersed among more of them – especially when the third main player steps up. This is the friend and admirer of the Lady Littegarde, Sir Friedrich von Trotta, who – rather than simply defending her in the Kaiser’s court of law, as he offers to do, takes it upon himself, right there and then, in front of everyone, to challenge Rotbart to a duel – “a trial by combat to settle once and for all the question of Littegarde’s innocence before the eyes of God and the world.”

Which is, frankly, enough to make a modern reader throw up their hands in despair, no matter that we must have known it was coming, what with it being the title and all. Kleist spends 20 pages setting up two seemingly insoluble riddles – with the implied narrative promise that, reading on, we will have the truth of them reasonably explained, only to throw into the mix this von Trotta, this agent of chaos! A duel to the death, assuming you even  you buy into the theological gambit it posits, can only ever demonstrate the truth of the matter at hand; it can’t explain it. It’s as if Poirot walks into the drawing room in the final chapter of that Agatha Christie mystery, with all the surviving characters gathered in breathless expectation, only to draw a pistol, shoot one of them dead, and say: “There’s your murderer” before walking out again.

Now, much as I would love to, I’m not going to take you through how Kleist (re)solves these riddles, nor tell you what happens in the duel, except to say that one of the narrative knots is untied so perfunctorily, with such provocative offhandedness, that it almost makes you laugh. And I’ll add this: that the apparent narrative anomaly of the duel itself is also addressed at the end of the story. In the final lines we are informed that the Kaiser, that guardian of rationality, “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.’”

This is perhaps partly what I mean by the idea of the novella as a bridge from antiquity to modernity, just as The Oresteia is generally seen as an explanation of the reallocation of justice from Heaven’s domain to humanity’s. If there’s a wink tipped anywhere in the book, it’s here. The Kaiser, like Kleist himself, unties the link between God and justice on earth – “We’ll take care of this, from here on, thank you, Lord,” he seems be saying. “Unless, of course, You know, You really feel deeply about something in particular. Just let us know, eh?”

The Duel is a little gem.


Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels