Ah, Heinrich von Kleist*

I’m currently reading, among other things, Francine Prose’s book, Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.** So the book’s structure goes from smallest element to largest, starting with “Words” and moving on to “Sentences” and then “Paragraphs” and then to “Character” and “Point of View,” etc. . . .

In her chapter on Character, she references Heinrich von Kleist’s long story/novella, “The Marquise of O–.” She discusses him at length, especially his double suicide at the age of 34. Very interesting. Here is the first long sentence, and notice just how much you learn about the Marquise:

In M–, a large town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O–, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children, published the following notice in the newspapers: that, without her knowing how, she was in the family way; that she would like the father of the child she was going to bear to report himself; and that her mind was made up, out of consideration fro her people, to marry him.

Reading that was enough to make me go by the library the same day and check out a collection of his work that included that story. In a previous chapter, Prose quotes a different von Kleist story–“The Earthquake in Chile”–as an examplar of a long but comprehensible sentence that also establishes tone, among other things. Here is the sentence, which is also the first line of the story:

In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.

As you can tell by both of his sentences, they’re masterpieces of punctuation. As I read both stories, I marvelled at how long his sentences were and how fun they were to read. If I just paused at all the commas and semicolons, I could follow his train of thought for lines and lines. Very impressive. Charles Dickens had lots of long sentences, too, but not in the same style. I rather like von Kleist’s style more.

So I recommend a little von Kleist for anyone who enjoys a good sentence and likes plot twists and complicated characters.

*I like saying his name aloud. Try it.

**Yes, it’s a long title and yes, her name is almost too appropriate. A writer named Prose. How dare she.


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