Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist review – a good man turned murderer

This is an influential book, loved best of all by early 20th-century European writers, including Rilke, Mann and Kafka, who in 1913 wrote to Felice Bauer: “Have you read it? If not, don’t! io shall read it to you!" Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, based on a true story and first published in full in 1810, has now been freshly translated into English by Michael Hofmann – the closest we have to a celebrity translator. It deserves to attract a new generation of obsessives.

The story, set in the mid-16th century, is simple, then increasingly complex. It tells how Michael Kohlhaas, a horse dealer from what is now northeastern Germany, became “one of the most righteous and appalling individuals of his time” when “he followed one of his virtues to excess” and “his sense of justice led him to robbery and murder”.

Taking his horses to market one day, he is stopped and asked to show a pass and pay a new toll to the local Junker (nobleman), Wenzel von Tronka. Kohlhaas demurs, and two of his horses are held as security when he leaves. But they are mistreated in his absence, and Kohlhaas is determined to have the wrong righted: first by others, then by himself; first under the law, finally by any means.

The wonder of this story is its relentless, vertiginous escalation: soon, Kohlhaas has determined to “demolish” the Junker’s town “so that there be not two stones upon one another for him to hide behind”, and causes such chaos that Martin Luther gets involved as arbitrator.

Graham Greene in The Quiet American wrote of how “we all get involved in a moment of emotion, and then we cannot get out”. Kohlhaas is stuck, rather, in a moment of reason, believing that the world needs to be just, and he is prepared to die – but mainly to kill – to pursue his belief. In other words, Michael Kohlhaas è, as Roberto Bolaño (another fan) mettilo, “a story about bravery and its twin, stupidity”.

Kohlhaas’s violence of baroque intensity brings him a following by tapping into people’s sense of injustice, but he learns that stoked-up followers are hard to control: a lesson whose relevance today needs no highlighting.

Hofmann, sometimes over-colloquial in his translations, here adopts a formal tone. This can seem fussy – words such as “whereto” and “arrogation” abound, and I had to consult David Luke and Nigel Reeves’s 1978 translation to see what Hofmann meant by a “speaking look” (a translation should not need a translation: he means an expression that shows one’s feelings) – but it does give a sense of fidelity to the age, and the thickets, of Kleist’s story.

Michael Kohlhaas’s influence continues: it inspired Doctorow’s Ragtime (Kohlhaas became Coalhouse) and Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K. Kleist himself had a life no less tortured than his hero’s. Nel 1799, invecchiato 21, he wrote to his half-sister of his horror at the thought of living “without any firm purpose”. Twelve years later, having written numerous stories and plays that live on today, he died by his own hand in a suicide pact.

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