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

47 thoughts on “Heinrich von Kleist: The Duel – Der Zweikampf (1811)

  1. I’ll be reading this one later this week. I was unaware of the manner of Kleist’s death.

    I’ve read all 4 of the other Duel stories you mention, and it’s difficult to compare as they are so different. Conrad’s The Duel shows how dueling dictates the lives of two men whereas it all seems to be about posturing in Casanova’s version. Of the 4 so far, my favourites are Kuprin and Chekhov, so I land on the Russians. In fact there’s a passage in Kuprin’s The Duel in which Russian officers discuss how they are the only ones who duel properly. When you consider the duel in Maupassant’s Bel Ami, well, they have a point.

    • I haven’t read Bel Ami yet.
      I bought the Conrad after you reviewed it as I found it such an unusual choice of topic for him.
      But is the duel always consdered to be a judgement of God? It’s not, is it?
      In this case it reads like something that developped out of other forms of ordeals.
      I read a few of his last letters on Sunday and he was so crystlaclear and unflinching in his decision. If you get a chance to read Tournier’s Le Vol du Vampire – Notice de lecture… It contains the whole Kleist dossier including the reports of the police, his letters etc. In French but it’s worth reading. Only 30 pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to loads of other books, the Elective Affinities among others.
      I’ll read the Conrad soon and then those Russian ones. That would be a nice research topic. The duels in European literature.

    • Yes, it sounds off putting but it has something very special. Psychoanalysts love his work. It’s all about repressed sexuality that explodes sooner or later. The Marquise of O. is violent as well, btw.

  2. I remember that bibliographing NIcole was also struck by the way the duel in this book is supposed to indicate the truth of the situation – as you say, a very archaic and now foreign-seeming idea. Between Nicole, Anthony, and now you, I’m becoming very intrigued by Kleist. I like what people say about the kind of coldness and mystery of his work.

    • Interesting that she did comment on this as well. I’ll need to read what they wrote.
      His stories are very mysterious, there are forces running through his work, I’m not even sure he was aware of. It makes him seem very modern. I can see how someone like that must have clashed with his times. The Duel is short, barely 45 pages but one could write longer posts than about many a novel.
      I hope you get to read him, I’d like to know what you think.

  3. Oh I love Kleist – The Earthquake in Chile (not usually my kind of thing, but I did think it extraordinary) and of course The Marquise von O. were both amazing stories. I am longing to read my Christa Wolf novel and think I might have to move poor Musil aside for a week while I do so. I’m sure he won’t mind, really! 🙂

    • I think the Wolf would be very apt indeed. It would have been interesting to read about Musil. I have pushed the stories I wanted to read aside as well but because I didn’t get along with his description of the women. I’ll try again when I have more time.
      Kleist is extraordinary, I’m not so sure he is a very good writer, a least in this book he has some very clumsy sentences and is extremely hard to read even in German but the themes are so stunning. The Marquise of O is an unbelievable story considering it has been written in the early 19th century.

  4. Pingback: Heinrich von Kleist – The Indiscernable Truth « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  5. Kleist’s stories often seem to deal with the subject of God’s truth being revealed by events. It occurs in The Duel, St Cecilia, The Earthquake in Chile, and of course Michael Kohlhaas. But what’s strange is that all these stories seem to be saying different things.

    • I will have to do some re-reading. The only ones I read a few times are Die Marquise von O und Die Verlobung in St. Domingo therefore I’m not sure what you refer to when you write he is saying different things.

  6. 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.

    This is what struck me most, too, reading this novella a couple months ago. That kind of completely foreign view of morality and justice is always fascinating–how deep it really goes. The duel genuinely means something different than we would expect.

    Great post and glad to see so many people reading Kleist for German Lit month. He’s great!

    • Thanks Nicole. I hope there will be quite a few Kleist reviews. I’ll need to read yours as well.
      It is striking, to see a duel in this context. I wonder if this was like that in the 14th century or if Kleist chose to set it in the past to be able to give the duel this twist.
      The reaction of the accused woman, Littegarde, is very interesting. She accepts God’s verdict despite being the only one – apart from the accuser – who knows the truth.

  7. ‘Die Marquise von O…’ is definitely better (as I will post on Thursday!), but I’m not a huge fan of Kleist. I definitely enjoyed Meyer, Gotthelf and Fontane more 🙂

    • They make for smoother reading, that’s for sure. But he is very interesting. The Duel reads like something written by a writer used to write for the stage. Hardly any descriptions and a lot of emphasis on body language.

  8. Fascinating – I have never heard of Kleist so this review fills a big gap in my knowledge. The violence of his writing was perhaps unusual for his time, but I have learned not to expect German books of that era to be anything like English books.

    • You are quite right, I wouldn’t know of an English or French writer like him during that period. But also in German literature this is quite unique and he wasn’t very well understood. I think Goethe had a problem with him which influenced people. When he decided to end his life, he had lost all hope in himself and the society he was living in.
      I could imagine his novellas made people feel very uncomfortable.
      Considering that we still find he violent nowadays, imagine what it must have been like for readers of his time.
      You will find most of his work online for free for the kindle.

  9. I’ve not yet read von Kleist but he was recommended to me and I bought the book that has The Marquise of O in it. I had hoped to read one of his short stories this month and hope I can still squeeze it in. I knew nothing of his life-very interesting about his death, and very sad, too.

    • Kleist’s life and work is very dramatic. I think The Duel is the shortest novella but The Marquise is better. His introductory sentences are long and unwieldy but after that it gets better. He is highly fascinating but not lovely, he is far too violent.

  10. Honestly, I am more interested with how he died. That must had been a big scandal back in 1811. I always wonder why people commit suicide.

    Now, about the novella. It does sound like a lot of violence involved but it also sounds intriguing. I want to try reading more classic…you know, so that I can get used to reading old stories.

    • It was scandal. Especially since he shot her first. The letters showed that she had asked him to do it, still, a double suicide was a scandal.
      What is good with classics is that many are available online for free.
      I gree, it needs some getting used to when you only read very modern books.

    • Thanks a lot for the link. Yes, he is fascinating, not exactly an eesy read but so different from anything else which makes it worth reading him.
      I think you should be able to find his work online at project gutenberg but I didn’t look.
      Manybooks usually has them on both languages. Too bad they don’t in this case.

  11. I loved Kleist’s The Duel, Caroline, and I hadn’t even intended to read it for German Lit Month! Was probably equally impressed by the story and its implications AND the pacing of the novella (like some of Poe’s best short stories, it felt like there were no wasted words or extraneous additions–just what was needed to tell the story at its most basic and primal level). On the medieval conception of the duel as a trial by combat revealing God’s will, you can find parallels in the crusade chronicles; both Christians and Muslims agonized over losing those battles given their belief that God was on their respective sides. It’s quite fascinating to read their attempts to come to grips with why God let the enemy win the various battles. In any event, I look forward to reading more Kleist and am excited about what Obooki says about Kleist’s varying messages and what you say about the “mysterious” current running through his works. I love that he is unpredictable!

    • He is very complex and very interesting but as you may see in other comments he isn’t always on top of his game. The beginning of the Duel is unwieldy in German, maybe the translation took care of it. The problem I have is purely the construction of the sentences. The words are used econimocally and to the point. Tony felt the same and also read him in German.
      At the same time he is very modern, very perceptive.
      I can see that the outcome of battles may be interpreted as a sign form God but I’ve not heard of it in the fight between two men only. As a means to right a wrong, yes, but to find the truth.
      As always with Kleist one would have to dig deeper and I will have to pay attention when I read him again to what obooki wrote.
      He is unpredictable and I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt as to his skills, maybe he wanted unwieldy. One could say the words spurt out like blood from a wound, first they gush, then they slow down and drip.

  12. I’ve been struggling with my thoughts on Michael Koolhaas which Emma has kindly agreed to post, so I’m relieved to read your comment “I’m not so sure he’s a very good writer”.

    There’s a danger that his remarkable life and death overshadows his work.

    • I was going to point out Tony’s review. I don’t think I had the same problem with The Marquise of O, a bit, but not that much but when you read someone like Mörike right after or Goethe, or anyone, you wonder whether they way he wrote was always wanted.
      I commented on Nicole’s post too who also emphasized that his writing was unwieldy. I think it comes form reading too many philosophers. You can’t learn hw to write fluid prose from someone like Kant.
      I think he is a fascinating writer, powerful but not as skillful as other and very much rooted in theater.
      I’m very curious to read your review, although I haven’t read Michael Kohlhaas.

  13. Pingback: German Literature Month – Week 4 : Part 1 – The Duel by Heinrich von Kleist « Vishy’s Blog

  14. Wonderful review, Caroline! I am late in commenting and am going back in time to catch up with your posts 🙂 I liked your description of Kleist’s stories – that they start with a violent incident and how the characters react in intense ways. I finished reading ‘The Duel’ and loved it. I think it has the ‘Kleist signature’ all over it 🙂 I also liked the ending very much. I want to read ‘The Marquise of O’ too. It is sad that Kleist died the way he did – he seems to have been a tortured soul. I read somewhere that when Kleist and Henriette Vogel first met each other, they were so delighted because both of them were tortured souls and felt like otusiders in the world and were so happy to discover a similar tortured soul in each other.

    Of the different novellas with the title ‘The Duel’, I have read the one by Casanova. It was okay and I think it was a excerpt from his longer memoir. I want to read the others sometime. Thre is also a duel in Mikhail Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’ – I think they should excerpt it into a novella too.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I was just commenting over at your blog.
      I think the way he died gives a special meaning to his novellas. Wasn’t there a suicide at the of The Earthquake in Chili?
      I have read the whole “Kleist dossier” it’s in a French book by Tornier that I have, the letters and the police reports. He seemed very clear.
      The beginning of this novella is a bit of a bumpy read in German. I saw on nicole’s blog the English version, they rearranged the sentences which is a good thing. I think I’d like to read more about him, maybe a good biography would be interesting as well. I got The Duel by Conrad and will read it soon. A Hero of Our Time is also on my pile.

      • There is a suicide planned at the beginning of ‘The Earthquake in Chile’. But I am not going to tell you what happens next, if you haven’t read the story yet 🙂

        Interesting to know about the French book by Tornier which is about Kleist. How many languages do you know? 🙂 I am amazed and envy you for being able to read in so many languages. I loved your observations on how Kleist’s prose at the beginning of ‘The Duel’ has many long clunky sentences.

        I will look forward to hearing your thoughts whenever you get to read Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’. Lermontov’s prose is nice and the description of the Caucasus in the book was one of the most beautiful that I have read – it took me there and made me want to go there some day.

        • I haven’t read it yet, no. but will get to it sooner or later.
          I read and speak some 7 or 8 languages, depending on where you draw the line. I don’t speak “Latin” of course but can manage reading some not too old texts. Then I would consider Swiss and Grman to be different languages and I speak both. French/German and Italian are my native languages. That was already an advantage. Still I want to learn more and have not enough time. I started Russian and Swedish.
          German isn’t a easy language but one can abuse of certain liberties reagrding the structure of sentences. Depending on how readable they want to be, contemporary readers will try to not break them up too much. This was not Kleist’s concern. 🙂
          I’m looking forward to read Lermontov now.

          • Wow! That is amazing, Caroline! If I want to know of how a book is in its original language, I know one expert to whom I can ask now 🙂 Best of luck with Russian and Swedish! I learnt Russian for a while, and I found it quite tough becauses of the cases and the endings. Hope you get to read Lermontov’s book in Russian. It is not very big 🙂

  15. Pingback: German Literature Month 2011: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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