‘The First Man on Earth’

Kleist: A Biography

by Joachim Maass, translated by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 313 pp., $22.50

One day in June 1940 after reading in the London Times a lyrical account of the invasion of France by beautiful Nazi soldiers—their blue eyes smiling under steel helmets wreathed with wild-flowers, while their tanks were roaring across the green fields—I turned on the radio. The BBC was playing Schubert’s great Ninth Symphony in C major with its marching rhythms entwined with ravishing melodies relentlessly moving forward as though across a vast plain, irresistibly. Suddenly I saw terrifying connections between German Romantic music and German military might.

Heinrich von Kleist may be likened to some great German Romantic composer who, in prose and verse stories and poetic dramas, uses words where the composer of music would use notes in symphonies, operas, and chamber music. He was descended from a famous family of the nobility, from the eastern part of Germany, which had already produced eighteen generals by the time he was born, on October 18, 1777. (This makes him seven years younger than Beethoven.) Kleist, who—Mr. Maass tells us—liked to relate music to literature, had what he later called “musical hallucinations” during childhood. “He seems to have composed, to have played the clarinet, and to have been able to sing or play back any melody he heard.”

One of his minor, but surely revealing works is a story based on a sixteenth-century Dutch legend called “Saint Cecilia, or The Power of Music.” It is about four young men who break into a convent at Aachen. But when the nun who is St. Cecilia plays old music on the church organ not only is their will to profane a ceremony paralyzed, they become religious maniacs. They spend the remainder of their lives shut up in a madhouse in a state of enforced beatitude, caring nothing for sleep, food, or any other comfort, but ecstatically pray and sing hymns, blissful.

Readers are struck by the forward-moving rhythms of Kleist’s great works, his assimilation of the material in them within what might be called the melodic line, the opening sentences of stories or poems which make them like statements of themes developed with great consistency and economy. His famous novella Michael Kohlhaas starts with a bare statement consisting of a few sentences, on which all the ensuing situations, each complete in itself, are variations.

About the middle of the sixteenth century there lived on the bank of the Havel River a horse dealer named Michael Kohlhaas. The son of a schoolmaster, he was one of the most upright and yet most terrible men of his time. Until the age of thirty this extraordinary man might have been taken for the very model of a good citizen. In the village that still bears his name he owned a farm, from which he made a peaceful living by his trade. The children that his wife bore him were raised in the fear of the Lord and taught industry and loyalty. There was not a man among his neighbors who had not profited from…

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