Heinrich von Kleist
Heinrich von Kleist’s famous story “The Earthquake in Chile” is set in Santiago in 1647. A young Carmelite nun named Josephe, condemned to death for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, is about to be beheaded. Across town, her lover, Jeronimo Rugera, is preparing to hang himself in the prison where he has been incarcerated. Just as the bells announcing Josephe’s imminent execution begin to toll, a gigantic earthquake strikes: We now know that it measured around 8.5 on the Richter scale, just a little less than the recent 8.8 quake.
'He is barometrically interesting." This was Irving Howe's judgment of a professor of literature whose prominence we were mischievously discussing. We were praising the guilelessness of barometers. They come right out and say it. The same candor about the weather is gained when a writer unexpectedly expresses himself in a way that requires no interpretation, and thereby exposes the Geist in the Zeit. It is always satisfying to see the errors of one's time clearly stated. I am grateful to The New Yorker for this satisfaction.
The Assistant By Robert Walser Translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 301 pp., $16.95) I. By now the snapshot of the dead Robert Walser has become one of German literature's most often reprinted and commented-upon photographs, its unstaged, accidental existence only reinforcing the image's iconic charge: the last moments of an almost-forgotten great author in an age of mechanical reproduction. Not surprisingly, descriptions of the photograph all bear a striking resemblance to one another.