“Michael Kohlhaas,” the Book That Made the Novel Modern

Dustin Illingworth at The New Yorker:

“Michael Kohlhaas,” which was recently reissued by New Directions in a sparkling new translation from Michael Hofmann, makes for a fine entry point into Kleist’s passionate, grotesque, hysterical, and deeply strange body of work. It begins, as it ends, in bureaucratic entanglement. Kohlhaas, en route to a Leipzig marketplace, is stopped by a castellan in the employ of the knight Wenzel von Tronka, who demands to see a travel permit. Lacking the necessary visa, Kohlhaas is coerced into leaving two of his finest horses as collateral, along with his trusty groom to watch over them. While passing through Dresden, he learns from a government notary that the permit is in fact a fairy tale. As so often occurs in “Michael Kohlhaas,” the law is invoked only to be disfigured by human cupidity. The castellan is merely an avatar, the first of several figures whose knowledge of the law allows them to shape or pervert it for private aims. Kleist introduces the self-serving technocratic interpreter to modern literature.

more here.