Heinrich von Kleist: The Duel – Der Zweikampf (1811)

Today is the bicentennial of Kleist’s death. I had a few different ideas for this post but finally, after having read The Duel – Der Zweikampf, one of the very few of his novellas I hadn’t read before, I decided on focusing on that. The initial idea was to write about his death. Since his death and the novella The Duel have elements in common, it’s only fair, to at least mention it.

Kleist shot himself on November 21 1811, near the Kleiner Wannsee, after having shot his friend Henriette Vogel. This suicide was premeditated and even announced. He wrote letters to different people mentioning it and so did Henriette. It has been argued that one of the reasons why his grave is hard to find and almost hidden isn’t that he was a suicide but that he was also a murderer. I don’t think we can call him that, what he did was assisted suicide. Henriette wanted to die with him and, as was found out later, had reasons. The autopsy showed that she suffered from terminal cancer. In any case, what is striking, is the violence of their deaths which leads me back to The Duel. One of the most striking features of Kleist’s prose, apart from being very unique, and at times challenging to read, is the omnipresence of violence. Rape, abuse, murder, fights, duels, you name, it’s there. The novella The Duel is no exception. The story that is set in the 14th century starts with a murder. From the beginning there is a suspect only he seems to have an alibi. He indicates to have spent the night with a noble woman, a widow. In order to save himself, he reveals her name which has severe consequences. Upon hearing what their sister has done, her brothers beat her up and chase her from their home. She seeks refuge at the castle of another noble man, one who had asked her to marry him before. Convinced of her innocence he wants to duel with the man who has brought shame upon her and in doing so prove that she is not guilty. Since he is convinced she is innoncent, he is convinced the other one will die.

For those who will still read this novella I’m not going to reveal the outcome of the fight. What struck me is that it is believed that a duel equals a judgment of God and that the outcome isn’t only a means to get satisfaction but will show the irrevocable truth. The duel should help clarify who is lying. It’s aim is not a payback for an inflicted injustice or a libel but it will, through God, reveal the truth.

The story felt very archaic, and as I already said, I was, as always with Kleist, amazed how violent the story is. I’m far less familiar with his plays. I think some of them are even comedies. Kleist is a fascinating writer because there is something mysterious in what he writes. His characters react in a very intense way and one of the predominant themes is always sexuality which is linked to violence. The aggression between men is intense but it’s far more intense between men and women.

The Duel is one of Kleist’s shorter novellas and not a bad starting point if you have never read him. My favourite is The Marquise of O. An incredible story of a woman who doesn’t know how she got pregnant and is looking for the father of her child.

The Duel is part of The Art of the Novella series by Melvillehouse Publishing and in this series part of The Duel set of five novellas with the same title from different authors.

Have you read any of them and which one did you like? How do you think Kleist’s book compares to other duel stories?

For those who read German, I attached this link where you can find his letters. Alle Briefe

The review is part of German Literature Month – Week 4 Kleist and other Classics