“The Marquise of O-,” Heinrich von Kleist
The day before I flew to Israel on a month’s holiday, I had a terrible dilemma: had I packed too many books, (not a common concern for me, but my bags were already sagging a little, and Easyjet are not the over-packer’s friend), or not enough, (an ever-present fear). There appeared before me in a charity shop a slim tome which seemed to answer my concerns: only 50p, under 100 pages and weighing practically nothing, but ringing some sort of bell as being an erotic masterpiece.
It was only when I was two-thirds of the way through these three short stories, with not even a nipple in sight, that I realised I was reading the opposite of an erotic novel: an early 19th-century tale of upper class society that doesn’t even dare use the word ‘sex.’ (I had, of course, somehow confused ‘The Marquise of O-‘ with ‘The Story of O,’ far less wholesome fare). However, within the confines of 19th century mores, the main story is amusingly risque: as the introduction puts it, it is “…a love story that has at its heart a rape.”
The novella begins with the announcement that the (supposedly real) Marquise of O-:
“…a lady of excellent reputation and mother of several well-bred children, had the following announcement published in the newspapers: that she had, without knowing the cause, come to find herself in an interesting condition…”
and wishes the father to make himself known. I found this a hilarious and cheeky opening, from the implicit upper-class criticism of the Marquise having an unspecified ‘several’ children, to the Virgin’esque euphemism, and I read on viewing the entire, bizarre story with an ironic eye. (Can eyes be ironic? I’m going to say yes, until proven otherwise). People are constantly fainting, banishing people, and swinging from noble sentiments to blind fury in response to the mysterious (and never explained) pregnancy. Not what I was expecting, but a chance to read something I would otherwise never have even picked up, probably, and an enjoyable hour’s read.
The two short stories which accompany it in this Hesperus Press edition, (a press dedicated to bringing “…unjustly neglected or simply little-known authors” to a wider readership, all in editions of around 100 pages), are far darker and reveal an equally Voltairian view of society, far from the best of all possible worlds.
The first, ‘The Earthquake in Chile,’ (reminiscent of the earlier Lisbon earthquake which, ironically, led to a lot of Voltaire‘s pessimistic leanings), is an initially sweet, simple tale of two lovers, separated by imprisonment and under the death penalty for continuing an affair in a convent. They are freed from captivity and fortuitously united thanks to the chaos wrought by Nature, but in a tense finale, after what seemed an idyllic new pastoral world being formed, the pair are unmasked by worshipers on Church grounds and clubbed to death for their sins, (along with their protector’s sister-in-law in a case of mistaken identity, and his infant son, mistaken for their bastard offspring, “…whirled…in the air…and dashed…against a pillar of the church).
As you can imagine, a group of Christians murdering all and sundry at a mass to celebrate survival from an earthquake seems to reflect a certain level of religious skepticism on von Kleist’s part, a theme presented subtly earlier in the tale when he says of the proposed capital punishment that:
“…the pious daughters of the city invited their girlfriends to witness this spectacle that was about to be offered to divine vengeance,”
a blood-thirsty condemnation which could just as easily be applied to more recent periods in history, and possibly even modern-day America, as 19th century Prussia.
To finish off this increasingly morbid compilation, Kleist presents us with ‘The Foundling,’ a disease-ridden tale of an altruistic man who adopts a contagious beggar boy through pity. Taken home with him, the boy proceeds to infect the man’s son, who dies, and eventually inherits his fortune and business before deceptively bedding his wife in a life driven by lust, deception and revenge. A far from fairy-tale ending culminates with the perfidious law-courts awarding the man’s fortune to the mischievous magpie, a day after his wife had died from the shame of her seduction, and so naturally he visited his ward and “…smashed his brains against the wall.” But only after the “double blow” of losing his empire, not the day before after losing his beloved second wife, it must be noted.
Social commentary, even when 200 years old, can be beautifully biting.