Kleist: Eine Biographie

Schulz-kleist Alexander Kosenina reviews Gerhard Schulz's Kleist: Eine Biographie and Jens Bisky's Kleist: Eine Biographie in The Modern Language Review:

Heinrich von Kleist, the most modern of all classic authors, has had hardly any attention from biographers in recent decades. The opposite might have been expected given his uninterrupted popularity among theatregoers and readers. To a far greater extent than Lessing, Goethe, or Schiller, Kleist was on an existential quest. He did not write to live, but lived to write, 'weil ich es nicht lassen kann'. Not until Kafka would any other author sound so possessed again. Puzzles about the inexpressible 'I' and the innermost core of being are his bread and butter. His works do not permit clear answers or distance from the text. His complex, difficult life, a marked contrast with his disciplined oeuvre, reads like a modern novel. A Kleistbiography is a considerable challenge; Jens Bisky and Gerhard Schulz have now taken it up at the same time.

Both books are beautifully written, and they have more in common than their identical titles. The wealth of information they present and their attention to lesser-known details are further similarities. Both authors have resisted the temptation, prevalent in research on Kleist, to dress conjecture as fact for want of sources. Life is harder here with Kleist than with other German Klassiker. The body of source material is comparatively sparse and patchy: his correspondence, for example, spans nineteen years (1793-1811) with only two hundred and forty letters and twenty replies, and by and large it is addressed only to family members and a handful of friends. There are no extent diaries or Ideenmagazine. Cryptic allusions and quotations turn the biographer into a literary detective. Kleist's letters, a fascinating read in themselves, are also the key to his life and works. They reveal intimate facts, their language is intoxicating, and they are an education in visual observation. They contain almost all the basic motifs of the literary works. Schulz, indeed, asks whether these letters are a work of fiction with Kleist as its sole hero–a question as pertinent as it is shrewd.