Study the Panther! - John Banville on R. M. Rilke

For Rainer Maria Rilke the year 1903 did not begin auspiciously. He and his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, were living in Paris, where the poet had come in order to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin. The Rilkes were not exactly dazzled by the City of Light. In a letter to his friend the artist Otto Modersohn, dated New Year’s Eve 1902, the poet spoke of Paris as a “difficult, difficult, anxious city” whose beauty could not compensate “for what one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people and things.” A few lines later he compares the French capital to those cities “of which the Bible tells that the wrath of God rose up behind them to overwhelm them and to shatter them.”

As one may gather, Rilke did not tend toward understatement, particularly when speaking of his physical and emotional health. In Paris he suffered a more or less serious nervous collapse, which no doubt clouded his view of the city. Writing from Germany in the summer of 1903 to his friend and sometime lover Lou Andreas-Salomé, he compared his sojourn in Paris the previous year to his time at the junior military academy at St. Pölten, where his parents had sent him as a boy in need of toughening up: “For just as then a great fearful astonishment had seized me, so now I was gripped by terror at everything that, as if in some unspeakable confusion, is called life.”

His description, especially in the long, extraordinary letter to Lou dated July 18, of the horrors he witnessed and suffered, was later transferred, in expanded form, into the Paris sections of his 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The people he encountered in the streets, he told Lou, seemed to him “ruins of caryatids upon which an entire suffering still rested, an entire edifice of suffering, beneath which they lived slowly like tortoises.” Baudelaire himself could not have written with more disgust, fearfulness, and desperation.

From his earliest days Rilke had been of a nervous disposition, to say the least:
Long ago in my childhood, during the great fevers of my illnesses, huge indescribable fears arose, fears as of something too big, too hard, too close, deep unspeakable fears that I can still remember….
His troubles began at home. Writing in confessional mode in 1903 to the Swedish writer and pedagogue Ellen Key, he told of his early boyhood spent in “a cramped rented apartment in Prague” with parents—German-speaking, Catholic—whose marriage “was already faded when I was born” and who separated finally when he was nine. His mother had wanted a girl, and christened her son and only child René Maria. “I had to wear very beautiful clothes and went about until school years like a little girl; I believe my mother played with me as with a big doll.” No wonder he could write to Lou in 1903, when he was in his late twenties, “I am still in the kindergarten of life and find it difficult,” and confess that “I am, after all, a child in your presence, and I…talk to you as children talk in the night: my face pressed up against you and my eyes closed, feeling your nearness, your safety, your presence.” As to his actual mother, “I see her only occasionally, but—as you know well—every encounter is a sort of relapse.”

Throughout his life he provided himself with a series of mother-substitutes, beginning with the redoubtable Lou and, if he had been able to have his way, ending with her, too. In 1925, when he was already dying, he wrote to her in desperation—“Now I send you this shabby bank note of distress: give me a gold coin of concern in exchange for it!”—but her response was as briskly indifferent as that of Proust’s Mme de Guermantes to poor Swann when he tried to convince her that he was fatally ill.1 Yet perhaps we should not blame Lou for missing the mortal note in Rilke’s pleas, since he had cried wolf so often in the past. Exalted whining was the prevailing mode when he was writing to his many lovers, confidantes, and patronesses. Indeed, it is a tribute to the compelling force and, one must add, the sweetness of his personality that so many of them continued throughout his life to indulge his solipsism and lavish self-pity.

Rilke’s letters are not letters in the usually accepted sense.2 There is none of the chat, the gossip, the backbiting that add spice to the correspondence between even the loftiest of souls. The voice here is a rhapsodic drone, and there is much introversion—me, me, me, and more me—and windy expatiation on the joys and sorrows of composition. He lives in superlatives, in the grand Germanic tradition, so that one seizes on the occasional humble fact with the eagerness of a pig lighting on a truffle.3 On the other hand, one cannot but be impressed by the passionate dedication with which Rilke addressed the task of living—living as a poet, that is. He craved solitude—“I am my own circle, and a movement inward”—and was prepared to sacrifice much to secure it. Having dithered for a long time he finally married Clara Westhoff in 1901, but almost immediately realized that domesticity held little bliss for him, and quietly detached himself from wife and baby daughter.4 As he remarked to Lou, with devastating candor, “What are those close to me other than a guest who doesn’t want to leave?” Nor did he think he should be expected to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow: “The very feeling that there is a connection between my writing and the needs of the day is enough to make work [that is, writing] impossible for me.”

This, then, is the neurasthenic young poet who in the late autumn of 1902 received a letter from a nineteen-year-old military cadet named Franz Kappus, himself an aspiring writer, enclosing some of his poems and requesting guidance and advice on the literary life he was embarking upon. Conceive of his surprise and pleasure when a few months later, in February 1903, he received a long, earnest, and thoughtful reply, the first of a series of ten epistles—the Pauline echo is not inapt—that Rilke would send to the young man over the next five years. Letters to a Young Poet is one of Rilke’s most popular books—if we may call it his book, since it was assembled by Kappus after the poet’s death—well known to poets in their youth and an ideal handbook for beginning writers. Mark Harman’s burnished, elegant new translation is the fifth English version, and likely to become the standard one.

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