The Marquise of O- by Heinrich von Kleist
Translated by Nicholas Jacobs

What is in effect my last post of the month is on a book which is pretty much in complete contrast to the ones that have gone before it – and is not without plenty of provoking issues! I’ve focused on quite a number of women writers this month, to tie in with Women in Translation Month and All Virago/All August (as well as redressing the balance slightly in favour of those woman authors). However, a slim arrival from Pushkin Press sounded – well, unusual, so I decided to pick it up between weightier tomes and see what it was all about.

Author Heinrich von Kleist, who’s a new name to me, seems to have had something of a troubled life. His lifestyle was a bit peripatetic, he seemed unable to settle to any one occupation and wrote a number of works in differing genres with varying success before finally committing suicide in 1811. “The Marquise of O-” is descriped as a “dizzyling comic tale” and seems to be one of his most famous novellas. It’s a short work that certainly throws up any number of issues!

The book opens with the titular Marquise placing an advert in a newspaper; she finds herself unaccountably pregnant and wishes the father of the child to make himself known. Julietta is a widowed mother of impeccable character; and as the story takes us back over events to find out how this can have happened, we meet her parents, her brother and one Count F, all of whom get quite worked up about the situation… The Marquise encountered Count F when he saved her from a fate worse than death at the hands of a bunch of Russian soldiers, and she then passed out. The text then states “Then-” and we are left to fill in the gap. What follows is a frantic series of misunderstandings and errors, as her parents support her, then don’t support her, then do support her; her brother has a walk on part, popping in now and then to offer comment and advice; and the Marquise herself is aggrieved when her protestations of innocence are not believed. Count F spends much of his time throwing himself at her feet and begging for her hand in marriage – presumably as a way to assuage his guilty conscience. The prose reflects the manic action, and although eventually resolution is reached, it’s not without much breathless action along the way.

“The Marquise…” is therefore superficially an entertaining and indeed comic novella, a kind of comedy of manners and perhaps comment on the mores of the day. However, it has to be acknowledged that there *are* some quite disturbing undercurrents. It’s fairly obvious to anyone with half a brain that the Count basically raped the Marquise while she had passed out, and yet this is almost swept under the carpet (and even regarded by her parents as something of a relief when they find out she hasn’t actually chosen to have sex with someone). There’s a whole thing called ‘Forced Seduction’ (which is designed to make me angry) and this kind of reflects that; as the Count has done what he did, he thinks that by marrying the Marquise that makes things right. It doesn’t but I guess we’re dealing with attitudes of a couple of centuries ago so that has to be acknowledged. What’s equally disturbing is a sequence when the Marquise and her father have been reconciled and she’s portrayed as sitting on his lap and basically snogging him. Euuuuuh…..

So I’m frankly still thinking about this one! Apparently there can be multiple interpretations and the context of the wars going on at the time are relevant and symbolic. The Marquise is certainly a reasonably feisty character and gives the Count a very hard time when the truth outs. The blurb describes the story as “ambiguous” and I think it really is; I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it and I’ll continue to mull it over!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.