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This article is taken from PN Review 34, Volume 10 Number 2, November - December 1983.

The Ragged Edge Idris Parry

HEINRICH von Kleist describes a minor character in his story 'The Beggarwoman of Locarno' as 'a Florentine nobleman'. That's all we know about him. An academic person once told me this description is ridiculous. Why 'Florentine'? Florence plays no part in the story, so the word Florentine is irrelevant, the man could have come from anywhere. But 'anywhere' is not a place known to humanity. Kleist is of course making the point that his character comes from a particular and nameable place, as we all do. Our surroundings are exact. Kleist gives his man life by giving him a place to live.

In another story, the longest of his stories, 'Michael Kohlhaas', about a sixteenth-century horse-dealer who suffers injustices, Kleist describes how a man steps over a pile of horse manure in a yard. I haven't yet found any philosophical significance in that pile of horse manure. It's superfluous to the horse, and my academic friend would no doubt argue it's superfluous to the story too. But it stays with me. It has nothing to do with the story, if we want to be logical. It has everything to do with the story, if what we are looking for is life.

Our logic has a habit of falling short. We like things to be tidy, and we make them tidy as far as we can in our minds, in our concepts. But life as we experience it isn't quite like that. We come across absurdities ...

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