Kleist, neglected genius: Tomorrow in the Deutsche Romantik season at the South Bank, John Banville will speak on Heinrich von Kleist, to him the most pertinent and tragic German writer of all

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Heinrich von Kleist is one of the great neglected figures of European literature. If he is known at all outside his native Germany, it is chiefly for the short story, The Marquise of O, which suffered the apotheosis of being made into a film.

His plays are rarely performed and that essential short text, On the marionette theatre, is largely forgotten. Yet many critics would set Kleist above Goethe and Schiller as a dramatist, and some would set him above them as an artist.

His work is at once tragic, grotesque, hectic, tender, hilarious and heartbroken, a powerful current in that underground of European literature that includes Holderlin, Buchner, Diderot, Kafka, Rilke, Witold Gombrowiez, Thomas Bernhard, Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, upon many of whom Kleist had a direct influence. His work is peculiarly apt for our fractured times, and speaks in a voice which, despite the occasional High Romantic inflection, sounds startlingly modern.

Kleist's brief, busy life had a remarkable dramatic shape: he might have been one of his own characters, dashing hither and thither across Europe, unable to rest, pursued by inner demons, falling in and out of love, striking poses, and writing, writing, writing.

From his earliest days he was obsessed with the idea of a suicide pact, and repeatedly begged friends and lovers to join him in death. In the end he was successful. Towards the end of November, 1811, Kleist went to the Wannsee, near Potsdam, with his friend, the misfortunate Henriette Vogel, who was dying of breast cancer, and with her agreement he put a pistol to Henriette's breast and shot her through the heart, then took a second pistol and fired it into his mouth.

The life that ended on that lakeshore had begun 34 years earlier in Frankfurt on the Oder. The Kleists were a noble family which by Heinrich's time had produced no fewer than 18 generals for the Prussian army. Kleist, after - or in the midst of - what he described as a 'joyless' childhood, enlisted at the age of 15 and fought in the war between the European powers and the forces of the French Revolution.

At 22 he left the army for university, where he studied mathematics, philosophy and physics; he also had a keen love for music, as is evident from his dramatic verse, with its strong yet supple rhythms, its plangent melodiousness. In his reading - or one might better say, his misreading - of Kant, Kleist arrived at the horrified conviction that the human intellect is incapable of apprehending truth, and that even if we were to apprehend it, we could not know it for what it is. This discovery was a great blow to his equilibrium: 'My soul and highest goal has vanished,' he wrote: 'now I have none.'

He spent his most artistically productive years in Dresden, where he unsuccessfully published a literary magazine. For a long time he wrestled with The Tragedy of Robert Guiscard, a drama about a Norman soldier hero, which in the end he abandoned. He did complete The Broken Jug, one of the greatest comedies in world theatre. This play, and the exquisite Amphitryon, a comedy after Moliere, and the luminous tragedy Penthesilea are his three greatest masterpieces. In Germany, The Prince of Homburg is known to every schoolboy (a circumstance guaranteed to destroy any work of art), while his short stories are revered as classics of the form, yet I believe it is the three plays I have mentioned that best display Kleist's greatness.

The essence of Kleist's dramatic world is its ambiguity, one of the chief reasons that his work speaks so directly to our own confused and uncertain times.

In The Broken Jug the reprobate Judge Adam is at once judge and judged; in The Prince of Homburg the prince is a hero and a coward, in Penthesilea the savage love that the amazing queen conceives for Achilles can only end in the death of the hero and of herself.

Kleist turned the world upside-down, and in the process shook out of it precious and secret things: in doing so, however, he left himself no place to stand.

Just before the end, he said: 'There is no help for me upon this earth.'