I was given this book as a gift, and after letting it sit around for a month or so opened it up and was hooked from the first line. Kleist's first lines are some of the best in literature. Some are almost cinematic, a view from outer space, zooming in on a continent, a country, a city, a building, a room, a human drama, all in a single sentence. For example, "The Earthquake in Chile" begins like this:
"In Santiago, the capital of the Kingdom of Chili, at the very moment when the great earth tremors of the year 1647 struck, in the wake of which many thousands found their doom, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, accused of a crime, stood beside a pillar in the prison where he'd been incarcerated and intended to hang himself."
Even though these stories and essays were written 200 years ago, they seem quite timely today--not just because of the recent earthquake in Chili, and not just because "Saint Cecilia" is echoed in the apparent transformation of Walton Goggin's character in the first two episodes of the TV series "Justified" as well as in that of the Stasi agent in the 2007 German movie "The Lives of Others"--but also in the general existential starkness of all his stories and essays. Sartre must have read him, and it's a known fact that Kafka did and was extremely moved by him. Writing during the time of Beethoven and like the composer a true believer in the Enlightenment, Kleist read Kant, lost his faith in the power of reason to reveal the meaning and purpose of life, and at the age of 34 shot himself and his terminally ill lover.
Even if we didn't have Kafka's testimony, Kleist's influence on him would be obvious. "Michael Kohlhass," with its tortuous and irrational labyrinth of bureaucratic corruption, misunderstanding and blundering, has got to be Kafka's template for The Trial. This is probably the best story in the book-- Thomas Mann said it was "perhaps the strongest of all German stories"-- but unfortunately it is also the most poorly edited. It's like somewhere in the middle the proofreader threw up his hands in despair and quit his job. Apparently they couldn't find a replacement. Admittedly this is dense prose for English readers, outdoing Proust and Saramago for long sentences of nested subordinate clauses and quoted dialog, hitched together by commas or semicolons, unrelieved by paragraph indentations, but for this very reason the editors should have been on the lookout for mistakes. There are unclosed quotes, followed by a new quote; sometimes there are no quotation marks at all when the first-person kicks in in the middle of a third-person paragraph; sometimes double quotes are used inside a quoted passage, other times single quotes are used, etc.
However, I think the translation is great, and Kleist's writing is so well constructed--almost mathematically so (I think he was fascinated by mathematics)--that you have no trouble following the narrative, but it's just annoying that publishing has become so sloppy. Otherwise it's a beautifully designed volume.