Sunday, August 7, 2011

#7: Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

Michael Kohlhaas
by Heinrich von Kleist
-born in Germany, 1777
-144 Pages
-more about Kleist (via Goodreads)

Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Heinrich von Kleist was born into a Prussian military family, and fought against the French at age 15. (He resigned at 21.)
- He was hospitalized for several mysterious illnesses (physical and mental) while travelling a Europe engulfed in the Napoleonic wars.
- He wrote revolutionary plays and stories, embracing realism and rejecting the ideals of dominant German humanists such as Goethe.
- As part of a suicide pact, Kleist shot dead a terminally-ill friend, then himself, in 1811.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Based on historical events, this thrilling saga of violence and retribution bridges the gap between Medieval and modern literature, and speaks so profoundly to the contemporary spirit that it has been the basis of numerous plays, movies, and novels.

It has become, in fact, a classic tale: that of the honorable man forced to take the law into his own hands. In this incendiary prototype, a minor tax dispute intensifies explosively, until the eponymous hero finds the forces of an entire kingdom, and even the great Martin Luther, gathered against him. But soon even Luther comes to echo the growing army of peasants asking, "Isn’t Kohlhaas right?"

Widely acknowledged as one of the masterworks of German literature, Michael Kohlaas is also one of the most stirring tales ever written of the quest for justice.

My Impressions:
When I decided to read the novellas in chronological order (according to the authors' birth dates) I had some reservations about the times when I'd be reading the same author back-to-back.  There are 6 or so authors that have 2 books in the collection--what if I don't enjoy the first one? how do I make myself jump into the next with enthusiasm?  I typically put a good chunk of time in between books by the same author, so it was somewhat of an unknown.  Heinrich Von Kleist was the first of these authors (next will be Herman Melville) and I was pleasantly surprised by the experience...although it may have helped that I enjoyed the stories in general. :)

Michael Kohlhaas began as a gripping story of life and justice in the mid-16th century.  The story is told rather simply, without a lot of dialogue (something I didn't even really notice until the book was almost over,) but it still imparts the feeling and motivation behind the characters.  Somewhere around midway the story did slow down a bit for me, and occasionally the character's names got a tad confusing...though some of that is my own fault for having other things on my brain.  Even so, the story is thought-provoking and well told.

It would be easy to read this book and think that it's old hat--the honest man's quest for justice is the basis for nearly every Denzel Washington film out there, right?--but keep in mind that the tale has become classic for a reason: the issues of innocence, justice, protection and punishment are still quite relevant to our lives today.  It's always fun to have read one of the firsts.  One question however, if you've read this, what's the deal with the identity of the gypsy lady at the end?  Is it just one of those weird God-is-on-my-side mysteries put in there for intrigue?
I will not go on living in a country where they won't protect me in my rights.  I'd rather be a dog, if people are going to kick me, than a man!

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