HEINRICH VON KLEIST (1777-1811) was one of those artistic geniuses who fluster the public and die in eclipse, only a few decades later to hold a secure place in the pantheon. Nietzsche drew inspiration from him, Kafka read him aloud to friends, Mann considered his work a turning point in German literature. In the 1950s a French production of his play The Prince of Homburg anointed him as a proto-existentialist. Recently Eric Rohmer filmed his splendid story "The Marquise of O," and E.L. Doctorow borrowed the plot for the Coalhouse Walker episode of Ragtime from Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas. Today no other writer of Kleist's era seems so kindred to our anxious selves.

All the same, he has been little-known in this country, his work hard to come by. Supplemented by the Penguin or Ungar edition of his stories, the publication of three Kleistian books now makes him readily and almost completely available to American readers: a collection of his four greatest verse plays--part of a projected 100-volume German Library in English; a selection from his letters and occasional writings by Philip B. Miller of New York's City College; and a sensible, if uninspired, biography by the German critic and novelist Joachim Maass. The new books comprise the work of six different translators, of which Jon Swan's (The Broken Pitcher among the plays) and Ralph Manheim's (the biography) are the colorful standouts. My complaint about the volume of plays is that it wouldn't have hurt the editor to include the highly-praised 500-word fragment which is all that survives of Kleist's unfinished tragedy Robert Guiscard.

Kleist liked to frame a story so that it cries out for a happy ending and then smother the cries: "The Earthquake in Chile" and "The Betrothal in Santo Domingo" are cases in point. Indeed, appearances seldom pan out in the world of Kleist, and confounding expectations was his specialty. The Prince of Homburg met with a tepid reception because its protagonist betrays the Prussian military ethos in begging for his life. Kleist's mythological tragedy Penthesilea was called a monstrosity. (He replied, "By God, I only made the verses. Believe me, I took the world as it is.") Goethe acknowledged his talent but deplored a "confusion of the emotions" in his work. Kleist's suicide at the age of 34 was his ultimate departure from what is expected.

He was born into a noble Prussian family that had thrown up generals by the dozen, as well as the minor poet Ewald von Kleist. Even as a child he entered into a suicide pact (with a male cousin), and later he regularly propositioned friends to go to death with him. There seems to be no explaining this almost natal self-destructiveness--Maass simply characterizes him as a man who "made an inseparable companion of death." One might add that he was haunted by the arbitrariness of his own existence. Of human life he wrote:

"This mysterious something that was given to us, we know not by whom, that leads us we know not where--it belongs to us but we do not know whether we have the right to dispose of it; it is a worthless possession though it has worth for us, something that is all contradiction, shallow and deep, barren and luxuriant, precious and contemptible, rich in meaning yet unfathomable."

Following the family program, he joined the army at age 15. Through he stuck it out for seven years, he hated the "tyranny" of military life. (Later, however, he was given to outbursts of anti-Napoleonic patriotism, and one of his lesser plays celebrate the prowess of the Germanic hero Hermann.) He obtained a discharge, studied and traveled desultorily, and became engaged. He complained of having no idea how to realize his high but unspecified ideals. In his studies he read Kant and fell into an emotional tailspin from which he never really recovered. Kant had stressed the limitations of knowledge acquired through the senses in order to glory in the contrasting certitude of metaphysics, but Kleist couldn't get past the first part of the exercise. He wrote about the crisis in a letter to his fianc,ee: "Since coming to the realization in my soul that Truth is nowhere to be known here on earth, I have not touched another book."

But he did come around enough to touch books again and launch a career as a writer. (His engagement had fallen by the wayside.) He wrote seven complete plays, none of which he saw publicly staged. He helped found and edit two short-lived journals, where he published most of his stories, a scintillating essay on puppets (included in An Abyss Deep Enough), and numerous "anecdotes" or ironic vignettes. He hungered for fame but collected little of it. He was always in financial straits, and his incessant pleas for support eventually alienated even his longsuffering sister.

The wonder is that Kleist wrote as much as he did in the face of indifference and hostility. But then his own emotions were riotously confused. For all his depression and rebelliousness, he was fitfully charming, attractive to women (though Maass suspects he never consummated any of his love affairs), and seldom lacking for friends. Nor is his writing uniformly cheerless. The stories and some of the plays may be horrific, but The Broken Pitcher, widely regarded as the greatest comic drama in the German language, is a bumptious courtroom farce. There is also exuberance to be found in Kleist's headlong prose style, whose stemwinding sentences made Kafka take deep breaths.

But Kleist's good spells grew fewer and weaker. By the fall of 1811, impoverished, drained of literary and most other forms of energy, he was only going through the motions of living. In Berlin he found his friend Henriette Vogel, the bluestocking wife of an accountant, to be incurably ill with cancer. The two of them resolved to die together by the Wannsee, a lake near suburban Potsdam, where 10 years earlier Kleist and other friends had discussed suicidal techniques.

On the evening of November 20, they checked into an inn above the lake and wrote several ghoulishly sly letters. Kleist to a female friend:

"Heaven only knows, my dear and excellent friend, what strange feelings, half sad, half joyful, move us in this hour, as our souls rise above the world like two joyous balloonists, to write to you once more. . ."

Henriette to Ernst Peguilhen, a wealthy patron of the arts:

"A great test is in store for the faithful friendship you have always shown me. Kleist and I are . . . in a state of utter helplessness, or, more specifically, shot dead, and we are counting on the kindness of a friend to confide our mortal remains to the secure fortress of the earth."

Later, employes of the inn described them as an amiable couple who tipped well, and their last hours were by all accounts rather frolicsome. Henriette must have been eager for delivery from pain, Kleist euphoric over the prospect of finally embracing his inseparable companion. The day after arriving, they insisted on taking their afternoon coffee by the lake. Shortly after a maid removed the tray, a shot rang out, then another. Kleist's aim was unerring: he killed Henriette and then himself instantly. They were the least morbid of suicides.