Tag Archives: murder

The Duel by Heinrich von Kleist

Melville House came up with the brilliant idea of publishing 5 different novels–all called The Duel, and in spite of the fact they share the same title, they are vastly different in tone. There’s Casanova’s The Duel, Kuprin’s The Duel, Chekhov’s The Duel, and Conrad’s The Duel. Casanova’s duel is a Duel of Honour. Kuprin’s The Duel shows a society in disintegration. Chekhov’s The Duel shows the duel as farce–whereas Conrad’s The Duel shows two men pitted against each other for a lifetime while the original insult is mostly forgotten. This brings me to Heinrich von Kleist’s The Duel, a selection for German literature month cohosted by Caroline and Lizzy. Von Kleist (1777-1811) came from a Slav/Prussian family which produced 18 generals, and while Kleist was, at one point, a second lieutenant fighting the French in the Rhine campaigns, he ultimately rejected a military career. His short life came to an abrupt end when he shot his mistress, who was dying of cancer, and then he subsequently committed suicide.

Kleist’s The Duel is completely different from the other 4 novels in the Melville House series. In this novella, we see the Judicial Duel, and essentially it’s a duel which is supposed to establish guilt/innocence depending on who wins the ‘trial by battle,’ and it’s an extension of the ‘judgement of god.’ Of course to us it’s all nonsense, but we can see the same sort of thinking or reliance on ‘divine intervention’  in medieval times in a process to identify witches. Suspected witches were thrown into rivers. If they sank & drowned, well they were innocent, but if they floated, they were guilty and the fun continued with burning at the stake.

It’s more-or-less this sort of thinking afoot in The Duel, and what a tawdry tale of lust, deceit, and greed this is. Kleist’s The Duel is my least favourite of the five as it’s short on character and heavy on fainting, chest beating and threats of penance, but that said, it was a must-read for me.

So here’s the plot:

Duke Wilhelm von Breysach is murdered by an unknown assassin when he returns home late one night. The timing of the murder is significant as the Emperor had just agreed to make his illegitimate son, Count Philip, his heir. Duke Wilhelm fathered the child before he married Katherine, so now she will act as regent until her son, Philip comes of age. Now here’s where it begins to get sticky…. The Duke’s half-brother, the dastardly Jakob Rotbart (great name) really has a claim to his late brother’s estate, but to everyone’s surprise, and somewhat against his nature, Rotbart acts graciously and endorses his nephew as the legitimate heir.

All seems well, but then Katherine begins to investigate her husband’s murder. The only evidence she has is the rather unique arrow that was pulled from his chest, and that arrow is traced back to Rotbart.

Since this is the 14th century, Katherine can’t have her brother-in-law arrested, so instead she appeals to the Emperor for help, but in the meantime, Rotbart begins to circulate some juicy rumours about his relationship with the widow, Littegarde, and he claims he has an alibi as he was in Littegarde’s boudoir when the Duke was murdered. The rumours spread like wildfire and Littegarde is widely held up to be a liar when she denies a sexual relationship with the Duke. The scene shifts from who killed the Duke to whether or not Littegarde is a floozy, and the Emperor sends word to Littegarde’s father that his daughter must “answer the charge brought against her by Count Jakob Rotbart.” Note that Littegarde is already supposed to “answer the charge” rather than provide an alibi for Rotbart. Littegarde’s father keels over dead at the news, and she’s kicked out of her home by her brothers and sent out penniless. But one man who’s always loved her, the chamberlain Friedrich von Trota believes her and fights a duel against Rotbart to prove Littegarde’s innocence.

Now if Friedrich loses the match, it’s assumed that Littegarde is guilty and is the secret mistress of Rotbart. But worse than that Littegarde and Friedrich will both be burned at the stake, and with options like that, you’re going to find out who your real friends are.  There will be no further recourse to law–the duel decides the guilt or innocence of the accused. Here’s Lady Helena, Friedrich’s mother:

“Fool,” his mother cried. “Do you not know there is a law by which a combat once, in the opinion of the judges, finished, may not, to dispute the same affair, be taken up again in the holy court of law?”

“What of it?” the chamberlain replied impatiently. “What are these arbitrary human laws to me? Can a combat not fought to the death of one of the combatants be on any rational appraisal of the matter considered finished? And might I, if I were permitted to resume it, not hope to undo the accident that befell me and achieve with my sword a divine verdict wholly other than what at present narrow-minded and shortsighted people take for it?”

“All the same,” his mother insisted, “these laws you say you do not care about are what governs and rules; reasonably or not, they enforce god’s ordinances and will deliver up you and her, as a criminal pair, an abomination, to the full severity of the judicial process.” (quote from Kleist, Selected Writings. Ed & translated by David Constantine)

Naturally any duel is a serious business–after all the participants have the potential to kill one another. But in this judicial duel, the outcome of combat will determine a third party’s innocence or guilt. On an entirely different note, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how both sides in a battle expect god to bless their endeavors. That’s always struck me as a bit odd–after all, both sides can’t win, and yet they send their appeal to win to the same source. In the judicial duel, we see this same sort of thinking, the victor being given the power of the righteous.  

For Caroline’s review go here

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A Posthumous Confession by Marcellus Emants

Whenever I look in the mirror–still a habit of mine–I am astounded that such a pale, delicate insignificant little man with dull gaze and weak, slack mouth ( a nasty piece of work, some people would say) should have been capable of murdering his wife, a wife whom, after all, in his own way, he had loved.”

I bought a copy of A Posthumous Confession (1894) by Marcellus Emants for 3 reasons:

1) It’s from New York Review Books Classics (and I’ve had great luck with this publisher)

2) The blurb on the back cover (more of that later)

3) The writer was Dutch and I can’t remember ever reading anything Dutch before.

Good enough reasons, right?

The blurb on the back cover sealed the deal:

Marcellus Emants’s grueling and gripping novel–a late-nineteeth-century tour de force of psychological penetration-is a lacerating exposition of the logic of identity that looks backward to Dostoevsky, forward to Simenon, and beyond to the confessional literature whether fiction or fact, of our own day.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a fanatic when it comes to Simenon and I’m intrigued by Dostoevsky, so I began the book with high expectations.

Termeer, the thirty-five-year-old narrator begins the story with the confession that he’s murdered his wife. While he is “free again,” at the same time he ponders what to do with that freedom as all the joy seems to have leaked out of his life:

To feel no interest–no interest in any person, any work, even any book–to roam without aim or will through any empty house in which only the indifferent guarded whispering of two maids drifts about like the far-off warders around the cell of a sequestered madman, to be able to think, with the last snatch of desire in an extinct nervous life, about one thing, and to tremble before that one thing like a squirrel in the hypnotic gaze of a snake–how can I persevere to the end, day in, day out, in such an abominable existence?

At the point of this early passage, it’s easy to imagine that Termeer feels guilt or perhaps regret for his act, but Termeer is much more complex than that. That shouldn’t be too surprising as this is, after all, a psychological novel. Basically Termeer spends almost two hundred pages explaining why he’s the victim.

As the narrative continues, Termeer takes us back to his childhood and his friendless adolescence. While he loathes his father, Termeer is much more like him than he realises–we make the connection but Termeer–who spends most of time “inwards” thinking of himself, misses the similarities.  His parents die while he is young, and his fortune is managed by a guardian.

Termeer thinks he’s always been “different” from other people, and he’s probably right–but for all the wrong reasons. Gradually as Termeer narrates the story of his life, a portrait of an egoist is revealed. He has a number of adventures–a failed romance with a woman he meets in an Interlaken hotel, a stint as a petty civil servant, a failed attempt at a literary career (his rejected work is returned “on the grounds of triviality” ), and then a period as a roué in Amsterdam. In his desire to fit into society, he makes the sudden decision, after turning 30, that it would be an excellent idea to get married. In spite of the fact that he admires big women, he proposes to Anna, his guardian’s daughter.

Things go sour on the honeymoon, and then Termeer meets the avaricious Caroline….

Termeer is a repulsive character. Because he’s so ineffectual, at times he’s darkly comic, but as it turns out, he’s also dangerously toxic.

After concluding the book, I’ll return to the blurb on the back cover. For its depiction of a male in bourgeois society, yes, the novel reminds me of Simenon, but not nearly as good. For Termeer’s unhealthy and feeble introspection, I can see the Dostoevsky connection. The blurb also states that the book is “grueling and gripping.” For this reader, A Posthumous Confession was not gripping at all–grueling yes as it is a slow build up to the events that concern the murder.

My copy is translated by J.M. Coetzee (a hidden talent). In his introduction, Coetzee notes that Emants endured a “singularly wretched” marriage, and he argues that Emants belongs more to the School of Realism than Naturalism. I’d agree with that. Coetzee also terms Emants as a “lesser thinker, a lesser artist” than Dostoevsky, and again I’d agree.

In spite of the fact that I wasn’t awed by the novel, I’m glad I read A Posthumous Confession. After all I can now claim I’ve read one Dutch book, but beyond that, Termeer’s self-gnawing plea for understanding from his reader most certainly slips alongside other novels I’ve read very nicely indeed.

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Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs

I shrugged my shoulders. “You know, whips are understandable. Leather, chains, all that stuff. But I can’t comprehend bananas.”

Illness and an inability to concentrate forced me to set aside heavier reads, and I reached instead for a book that required very little of me: Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs. If you’re wondering about my choice, the book was made into a rather funny 1985 film starring Susan Sarandon.

Compromising Positions is set in the snobby set of Long Island– a community in which a prestigious address is as important as membership at the local country club, and housebound wives are involved in a smattering of ‘good works,’ and child-rearing while keeping their homes immaculate for their commuting professional husbands. The protagonist is Judith Singer, a bored thirty-something wife and mother of two with too much time on her hands. When local periodontist, and as it turns out playboy, Dr. Bruce Fleckstein is murdered by single stab to the base of the skull, Judith’s curiosity leads to a few innocent questions. The innocent questions lead to a full-blown amateur investigation or relentless nosiness, depending on your point of view.

When news of Dr Fleckstein’s murder is announced it rocks the quiet, dull little community. On one level, everyone has a difficult time accepting that a wealthy professional was murdered in broad daylight in his office. But even more than that it seems that naughty Bruce couldn’t keep his hands off his patients. Rumours of a pornography ring, secret photographs and even a mafia connection begin to emerge.

Just why Judith is so curious about Dr. Fleckstein’s murder is every bit as interesting as the crime itself. It seems that the libidinous Bruce propositioned everyone except Judith, and part of her curiosity about the murder lurks in her ego and the fact she feels personally insulted that she was not propositioned:

Men like Fleckstein, who wear gold chains around their necks and have manicures, tend to ignore me. I seem to attract hypercerebral types, chubby astrophysicists in wire-rimmed glasses who tell me I have a first-rate mind while staring at my breasts.

Judith finds it difficult to credit the sheer numbers that the late Long Island Don Juan racked up, and soon it becomes easier to keep track of who he didn’t have an affair with. Judith discovers that Dr. Fleckstein had a very definite M.O.–hitting on the wives of wealthy men, often at parties but sometimes while they sat in the dental chair. He followed up with a phone call, a string of ridiculous compliments, lunch and then a quick trip to the Tudor Rose Motor Inn for assignations. Oddly enough, Fleckstein passed over a few of the community’s gorgeous women and instead preyed on many unattractive, downright boring wives–the type you’d never suspect of a little afternoon hanky-panky.

Obviously with that many affairs under his jockstrap, just who would have wanted to kill Fleckstein cannot be easily narrowed down. There’s Bruce’s long-term squeeze–his jealous nurse Lorna Lewis and his icy wife, Norma. Then add to the list of possible suspects dozens of pissed off husbands and sobbing discarded mistresses.

Judith is pulled into the murder case when one of her neighbours asks for her help, but this is just the excuse she was waiting for. While Judith spies and noses around, a main focus here becomes Judith’s marriage to Bob. Bob’s ever-increasing late nights at work allow Judith freedom for sleuthing, but since Bob doesn’t approve of Judith expressing even mild curiosity in the scandal, she finds herself hiding her actions from Bob and confiding, instead, in a couple of female friends–including married writer Nancy. Nancy maintains a string of lovers, and one of her more recent  conquests, a local cop,  feeds them information about the case.

Compromising Positions is entertaining, but that’s not to say that it didn’t annoy me at many junctures. It’s written in a very definite style–something along the lines of a wise-cracking newspaper column but extended for about 250 pages. Some of the dialogue is unrealistic, and most of it is constant banter edged with sarcasm. In one passage, Judith speculates about penis size, and I thought this was very juvenile.  Here’s an example of one of the annoying passages which takes place between Nancy and Judith:

“What’s her name?”

“I forget. Some Jewish name.”

“Great. That’s really terrific. I marvel at your powers of recollection. If it was Belinda Jo Slattery, Jr., you’d remember it.”

“Women can’t be juniors. Anyway, it was Naomi Goldberg.”

“Really?”

“No. But if you think I’m going to sit here and take shit from you, you’re whistling Dixie.”

“I would never whistle Dixie,” I vowed.

So why did I keep reading? Judith was easy company and I wanted to find out who killed Bruce Fleckstein.  The R word creeps in here or perhaps it’s just sex wrapped up in Romance.

Some of the best parts of the book concern the snobby women in the community who are now forced to face the fallout from their fornication. These are high-maintenance women who wear designer labels, get regular massages at the local spa, and eat at Quelle Crepe. Most of them are really irritating, so the fact that they’ve been memorialized in cheap Polaroid photos flagrante delicito wearing naughty leather outfits and sporting whips and chains is nastily funny. An underlying current is womens’ liberation and the idea that women who function as housewives may be inherently unhappy. Unhappiness leads to boredom, and boredom led to Bruce. Judith, for example, has permanently shelved her dissertation in order to sink elbow deep into domesticity.

Published in 1978. Compromising Positions was a best-seller and it’s still in print. Not really my taste but the sales figures indicate this book hits a mainstream current of taste.

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To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

 The Dangers of Communication….

As part of my decision to read more New York Review Classics, I picked up To Each His Own written by Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia. To Each His Own begins with the delivery of an anonymous letter to Manno, a mild-mannered, married pharmacist who lives in a small Sicilian town. The letter’s delivery is caught with delightfully precise perfection in the book’s introduction:

“The letter arrived in the afternoon delivery. As usual, the postman laid the parti-colored sheaf of advertising circulars on the counter first; then carefully, almost as if there were some danger of its exploding, the letter. It was a yellow envelope; a small white rectangle bearing the printed address had been pasted on it.”

The anonymous letter, eventually opened by Manno in the presence of the curious postman is a death threat, and as the news of the letter spreads around town, no one–least of all its recipient–can imagine what Manno has done to provoke such behaviour. Sciascia efficiently creates a portrait of Manno, a man who is the embodiment of inoffensive: he’s mild enough to tolerate the postman loitering in his shop and ogling his letter, he’s spent a lifetime avoiding politics, and even a mention of Manno’s wife “the unbeautiful, slightly faded, slightly slovenly woman” hints at Manno’s ability to absorb domestic unpleasantness for the sake of peace and quiet.

Everyone who hears of the letter is convinced it’s a joke, and this collective reaction again endorses Manno as an inoffensive man; what could he possibly have done, what offense could he have committed that would provoke such a violent threat? It seemed impossible, and Manno finally settles, a little uncomfortably, on the idea that whoever sent the letter must be jealous of his prowess as a hunter.

The news that Manno has been murdered–along with his long-time hunting companion, Dr Roscio stuns the townspeople, but gradually a fiction is created that Manno was a secret adulterer and that Dr Roscio, an innocent man “caught in the middle”  was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the fiction builds,  rumours spread throughout town. Manno is gradually blamed for Roscio’s death, and a few other townspeople become necessary victims to the fiction and unsavoury tales that circulate–all unsubstantiated. Judgement is silently passed and everyone agrees that Manno received an anonymous death threat because he deserved it.

There’s a general mood of complacency in town towards the murders, and there’s also a great deal of speculation concerning the beautiful, ripe widow Roscio. Surely she won’t go to waste now that her husband is dead? The future amorous adventures of the widow occupy the minds of the townspeople while the murders, so unusual in this town fade from interest. Only Professor Laurana feels uneasy about the crime, but then he catches a clue about the letter’s origin. The clue is so obvious, and yet no one else seems interested. Laurana decides to take matters into his own hands….

To Each His Own starts out as a murder mystery (and an intriguing one) with Laurana as the amateur detective, but it very quickly becomes apparent that Sciascia is much more interested in the town’s reaction to the crime than its solution. After Laurana discovers the first clue, he cannot conceive that it’s been ‘missed’ by the police, and “out of vanity” he begins a very simple, informal investigation–just asking a few questions here and there. As Laurana rather ploddingly picks his way from one clue to another, the solution is right in front of his nose (and ours), but Laurana seems to not want that solution, and so he continues with his clumsy sleuthing. And it’s through Laurana’s refusal to at first believe the evidence right in front of his eyes that it becomes clear that his quest for the truth is more than a matter of crime solving. Laurana investigates not just the crime but his entire belief system. Laurana discovers that no one is what they seem, left and right politics no longer have any meaning, and instead all political positions have congealed into a rotting stew of self-serving corruption. Laurana is sucked into solving the crime; he cannot resist:

“But however he revolved the affair, turning it this way or that, it possessed some equivocal, ambiguous element, even though the relationships of cause and effect were still unclear, as were those of the protagonists among themselves and those details in the mechanism of the crime that he knew to be facts. And in that equivocation, that ambiguity, he felt himself morally and sensually involved.”

As the novel’s meta meaning moves beyond the entertaining plot into social commentary, To Each His Own becomes a powerful examination of Italian society, its passivity towards power and corruption, and the danger of asking too many questions, yes “it’s dangerous to nose about.” Indeed communication plays an important role in the novel–beginning with the anonymous letter, and continuing through Laurana’s questions.

Here’s one of my favourite passages from the book. It’s a scene in which Laurana meets a character called Benito, and the scene takes place in Benito’s impressive library. Benito admits to Laurana that he never leaves the house:

“Haven’t for some years. At one point in my life, I made a few quite precise calculations: if I leave the house in search of the company of one intelligent person, one honest person, I run the risk of meeting en route a dozen thieves and half as many idiots who stand poised to communicate to me their views on mankind, the national government, the city administration, Morovia…Does it seem to you worth the trouble?”

“No actually not.”

“And then I am very comfortable at home, especially here.” He pointed to the books and gestured as if to gather them all to him.

“A fine library,” Laurana said.

“Not that I can always avoid stumbling into thieves and idiots even here. I’m speaking of writers, obviously, not their characters. But I easily get rid of them. I return them to the bookshop or I present them to the first fool who comes to call on me.”

Benito choses to communicate with the world rarely. In his library “everything that happens in town … is pure theatre.”  Isolated from society, Benito maintains his integrity and avoids corruption. Laurana’s journey towards the truth is so difficult because he encounters corruption on every level. This corruption is a mental stumbling block more than anything else, and then again, the bachelor Laurana who’s shielded from the world by his mother, falls under the spell of a woman. Society is infused with poison; love is both corrupted and corrosive, and gossip taints with innuendo. Truth is the ultimate victim.

The introduction by W.S. DI Piero outlines Sciascia’s life and argues that he “used storytelling as an instrument for investigating and attacking the ethos of a culture–the insular, mafia-saturated culture of Sicily–which he believed to be a metaphor of the world.” I wouldn’t presume to understand the intricacies of the Italian political/criminal scene; it’s vast and complex and probably best understood by the Italians. The introduction mentions that Sciascia was  a great movie fan, and that’s interesting as the book’s very first paragraphs made me think of Le Corbeau.

Translated by Adrienne Foulke.

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