Two Shots in the Wansee

by    /  August 19, 2009  / No comments

Since the first time I read Heinrich von Kleist, I’ve been impressed by the way he handled his death or, to be precise, by how he committed suicide.

It was on November 21, 1811. He was with his lover, the talented musician Henriette Vogel, in an inn at Lake Wannsee, between Berlin and Potsdam. He was 34 years old; she was 31. They had lunch and perhaps enjoyed their last love afternoon. Then they dressed up and went outside, to be on the lakeside and under the sky. They had agreed to a plan: a suicide pact.

He prepared the gun. He shot her in the heart and then shot himself in the head. He knew just how much powder and ammunition to use so that he wouldn’t even affect his hairdo.

A lieutenant of the Prussian Army, Kleist quit the military and became one of the most important German writers, the head of the Romantic revolt. However, very few contemporaries recognized his genius. In a decade he produced brilliant plays, poems, short stories and political pamphlets; but he faced failure after failure. At the end he couldn’t even find a job. He was desperate.

Whenever I travel, I like to go to the gravesites where writers that I admire have been buried. I think that Kleist is the real inventor of the modern short story as we know it, not Edgar Allen Poe, as is commonly believed.

The first time I went to Berlin in 2005, I looked for the place where Kleist committed suicide. It was not easy for me to get information about it. Finally, I met a Mexican who had been there and gave me directions. I took the S-Bahn train to Potsdam. It was the morning of a sunny day in early July. I got off in Wannsee station. There were hundreds of people around the area, visiting the spas and the tourist attractions of the lake. None of them, of course, was looking for Kleist’s trail.

I followed the directions the Mexican gave me. I walked a block, crossed a highway and then moved into a neighborhood of luxurious old houses. There were no signs to follow until I got in front of the lot. And there it was: the stone tablet in the middle of a small wood. Under Kleist’s name appeared the sentence: “Nun. O- Unsterblichkeit bist du ganz mein” (“Now, oh immortality, you are completely mine”).

I was the only person around. The silence was broken by the blowing of the wind through the trees. How interesting it was that both great writers who created the modern short story—Kleist and Poe, a German and an American—were defeated by life, not recognized by their contemporaries, and died in a terrible way.

I said some personal things to Kleist. Then I walked down the lot, in the middle of the small wood, towards the shore. I sat on a bench in front of the lake. I remembered that I was born on November 21.

The day was bright; some yachts were sailing deep into the lake.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist

Heinrich von Kleist

On the Theater of Marionettes

Heinrich von Kleist
translated by Peter Wortsman

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