Michael Kohlhaas has been wronged. First his finest horses were unfairly confiscated and mistreated. His servants have been beaten, his wife killed, and the lawsuits he pursues are stymied―but Kohlhaas, determined to find justice at all costs, tirelessly persists. Magnificent in its weirdness, this short novel— published in German in 1810 — is now available in award-winning Michael Hofmann’s new English translation.
Kleist’s prose is nested with clauses that move swiftly from action to action, simultaneously suggesting logic and a lack of reason; time and situations are condensed; coincidences proliferate, and events pile up like accidents. He almost never wastes time with description of a landscape or a face. There are no metaphors in the first paragraph of Michael Kohlhaas, no figures of speech—just the dispassionate accounting of existential suspense ... I have heard the good advice that if you dress in boring clothes, you can get away with bad behavior. But it is not correct to say that Kleist’s prose style is merely plain or reportorial, that it measures the distance between wild interior life and repressive social forms; rather, it takes the reportorial to the extreme, showing it as a form of grotesquerie ... No translation could ruin Michael Kohlhaas, whose interest is so much in the dramatic piling on of ever more outrageous events. But Hofmann makes many choices that, in the aggregate, give us a sharper and more stylish book. His improvements begin with the first sentence.
Kleist’s two abiding concerns, politics and metaphysics, come together powerfully in Michael Kohlhaas, his longest and best-known narrative, which now appears in a lively new translation by Michael Hofmann ... Kleist follows the proceedings from a wry, unobtrusive third person, without overt comment or explanation, simply recounting one folly after another, so that the story develops an awful narrative velocity, a snowballing inevitability that the reader resists in vain. (The effect is not dissimilar to a Thomas Bernhard monologue.) For the translator, the challenge is to find a language that is pitched at the right distance, conveying an emotional closeness to Kohlhaas while underscoring his otherworldly messianism. Hofmann catches this balance brilliantly. Where earlier translators have tended to overexplain, he uses a colloquial, flexible diction and remains calm in the face of violence ... Yet it would be rash to read Michael Kohlhaas simply as a cautionary tale. While the mature Kleist might have grown distrustful of all systems, he never lost his youthful desire for reason, clarity, and order. This unresolved tension remains alive in the novella, which is pitched at a tenor—breathlessly urgent, absolutely bereft of irony—that seems to affirm Kohlhaas’s dignity, if not his tragic grandeur.
Kohlhaas’s monomaniacal quest for justice, which entangles many of the region’s feuding noblemen, Martin Luther and a mysterious fortune-teller, is at once a savage indictment of a corrupt legal system and an object lesson in the ways that all-out combat can ignite from the most picayune personal slights. The remarkably distilled narrative is presented as a straight-faced historical chronicle, whose formal language is pushed toward incoherence by the insanities it relates. In Michael Hofmann, whose own writing style is frenetic and steeply erudite, the novella may have found the perfect translator.