Reading Kleist is an exhilarating experience that can be very unpleasant. I don’t think any stories have ever moved me the way Kleist’s do, but I’m having a hard time describing this effect in words. I’d like to say that his sentences manage to capture the beauty and anxiety of a single moment, but that makes absolutely no sense. Maybe I can get to it by thinking about something else.
Do expectations ruin our experience of the future, or do they help us tolerate it? The answer is both. Moreover, expectations themselves become a sort of experience that can be both positive and negative. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels more alive when they’re striving to achieve a goal than when they actually achieve it. Nor am I the first person who has become stressed over something that turned out to not be very bad at all.
Kleist’s style thrives on the managing of expectation. The chain of events he describes follow a natural progression so that you can guess how a story will end after reading the first page. At the same time, however, you’re afraid that it really will end that way. Reading his stories, expectations neither ruin the experience of the ending nor help you tolerate it. Every sentence carries a finality outside of the plot of the story. In the Earthquake in Chile, for example, there are no distractions. Every line shapes the story in the same way that the things you do shape the person you become which shapes the things you do in the future. Every action leads to a thought that leads to an action and so on. Every need to act leads to a need to think and after every thought there is a need to act. This is all very obscure.
Ultimately, it’s unpleasant to read Kleist stories because you want to be able to tell his characters to not get their hopes up, or to have faith, or to not go to the church, or that you support them, but you can’t because they’re not real. It’s unpleasant because it reminds you of the times you’ve wanted, in hindsight, to tell yourself to not believe something or to not do something, producing the same anxiety that comes anytime you realize you cannot change the past. It’s unpleasant because his plot, and the speed with which he writes it (and all of the transitions), mimic the thing responsible for your bad decisions. Time moves, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, so you’re forced to act. And when we’re afraid of acting we think, and that’s the most tragic part because thinking doesn’t help anything. Doing the thing that will result in the most positive outcome is the only thing that matters.
When we’re looking at things in hindsight we accept a fatalism that makes any thought, any attempt at trying to control our destinies, to be a tragic setup for disappointment and failure.
The anxiety from Kleists’s stories comes from feeling that the character’s stories is already written, but they’re so alive (why do they feel so alive? I think it has to do with their totally believable sense of expected surprise ) that when they think they can control their future, you feel pity for them.
This is a long way of saying that Kleist is an uncomfortable, but masterful writer who everyone should at least give a try.