An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist with a Selection of Essays and Anecdotes
edited and translated by Philip B Miller
Dutton, 297 pp., $16.95
by Heinrich von Kleist, edited by Walter Hinderer
Continuum, 341 pp., $17.50; $8.95 (paper)
For over a hundred and fifty years, Heinrich von Kleist has been thought of not only as one of the most individual of the great Romantic writers, but as a force who will make you feel stronger and surer about yourself. His letters—now available in English for the first time, in An Abyss Deep Enough—have that awakening force. Written between 1793, when he was fifteen and still in the army, and November 21, 1811, the day of his death, they are about a boy’s, and then a young man’s, desire to see himself in relation to eternity. Well over half of them were written between 1800 and the spring of 1802, when Kleist was in his early twenties, to Wilhelmine von Zenge, his fiancée. He is proud to sign off many of the letters with “your lover,” and he often talks about their upcoming marriage and the children they will have. But these aren’t love letters. Heroic and uncertain in almost the same breath, he always wants to pose, and answer if he can, the biggest questions of life and experience.
Some of his pronouncements are surprising. They make you stop and think about whether you agree with him—as when he tells Wilhelmine that “all ceremony stifles the emotions. It preoccupies the mind, while the heart remains dead.” But most of his insights have a settled rightness to them. When you read his thoughts on, say, how people begin to have more charity toward others when they fall in love, you want to mark the passage, because he is clearly coming on this perception as he writes, and he makes you feel as if you are hearing it for the first time. You keep seeing yourself in him, the way you see yourself in Anne Frank when you read her Diary. Kleist may remind you of yourself at your best, as she does.
Yet while you don’t lose your admiration for him, and you don’t grow impatient with his determination to report continually on the state of his soul, you are left a little etherealized by his purity. Not that he writes only about his frustrations and expectations. Especially in the hundred-odd pages of his correspondence with Wilhelmine, there are lovely, snapshot-like glimpses of everyday life in the Napoleonic era. Within a few months of his engagement, he is off traveling through Germany and, later, France, in search of adventure and in the hopes of finding the right occupation for himself. He meets young German intellectuals, looks at art in the great galleries of Dresden and Paris, and wanders through Paris’s muddy streets. He stands in the Louvre, admiring the works of classical and Italian Renaissance art, and is asked by a Frenchman, “Was all this painted here in Paris?” He reports home on the latest fashions (“Tie the ribbons of your bonnet from your ears along the edge of your cheeks so that the bow adorns the exact middle of …