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Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke

December 29, 2018 8 comments

Two Stories of Prague: King Bohush and the Siblings by Rainer Maria Rilke (1899) My French edition is Histoires pragoises, suivi de Le Testament. Translated by Maurice Betz, Hélène Zylberberg, Louis Desportes and Philippe Jaccottet.

I have read Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke in French and my edition also includes a translation of another text, Le Testament. (Das Testament in German, I’m not sure that there’s an English translation; I suppose it’d be Legacy) Two Stories were published 1899, Rilke was 24 at the time. Legacy was written much later, abroad, in the winter 1920-1921.

Two Stories of Prague is composed of two related short stories, King Bohush and The Siblings. They are related to Rilke’s youth in Prague, his hometown. They were put together by Rilke himself with this quick introduction:

Ce livre n’est que passé. Son arrière-plan : le pays et l’enfance, tous deux lointains depuis longtemps. Aujourd’hui, je ne l’écrirais pas ainsi, mais je ne l’écrirais pas du tout. Cependant, à l’époque où je l’ai écrit, c’était pour moi une nécessité. Il m’a rendu cher ce que j’avais à demi oublié et il m’en a fait don. Car, de notre passé, nous ne possédons que ce que nous aimons. Et nous voulons posséder tout ce que nous avons vécu. This book is only about the past. Its background: my country and my childhood, both gone for a long time now. Today, I wouldn’t write it that way, but I wouldn’t write it at all. However, at the time I wrote, it was a necessity to me. It made dear to me things I had half forgotten and it made me a gift. Because from our past we only own what we love. And we want to own everything we’ve been through.

I like his introduction, his voice. He’s only 24 and he’s already aware that he’s moved on from his formative years in Prague but he still cherishes his early work. He knows these stories are clumsy but he doesn’t turn his back on them. He owns them as part of his past, a reminder of his younger self.

King Bohush describes how Rezek turned King Bohush, a pacific character of the Prague scene into a political activist who went into underground meetings to promote Czech nationalism. King Bohush opens with a scene at the Café National, actually the Café Slavia. Actors, journalists, students and Czech nationalists met there and discuss art and politics Founded in 1884, Rilke used to meet friends there and this café remained a place for political dissidents as it was also the one where Václav Havel used to spend time in. Poor Bohush is quite flattered to draw Rezek’s attention and he gets sucked into the Czech nationalist movement and forbidden political activities.

The Siblings is also set in Prague. We are with Zdenko and Louisa Wanka who just moved to the city from the country with their mother after their father died unexpectedly. They struggle to make ends meet and their mother works as a domestic in a German speaking household. Zdenko goes to medical school, at the Czech speaking university and Rilke explains that it’s less prestigious than the German speaking one. Zdenko also becomes one of Rezek’s followers and also gets involved in political activities.

The two stories have a lot in common. Set in Prague, the Czech activist Rezek appears in the two stories and both are focused on the division between the German speaking and Czech speaking inhabitants of Bohemia. Rilke explains that Czech-speaking are seen as second-class citizen, that everything German is supposedly better and that the elites of the country are looking west and tend to turn their back to Bohemian folk culture. The German speaking represent 10% of the people of Bohemia but seem to concentrate a lot of wealth and power and they clearly look down on the Czech speaking people. It is quite clear in the offhanded comment the German housewife makes about the Wanka. That part was interesting.

I like The Siblings better, probably because Louisa becomes a more prominent character as the story unfolds. She’s the symbol of the hope of reconciliation between German and Czech speaking Bohemians.

While the stories betray that their writer was a little green in his trade, they are still interesting for the descriptions of Prague and the glimpse of Rilke’s poetic eye and pen.

Les premiers soirs de printemps, l’air est d’une fraîcheur humide qui se pose doucement sur toutes les couleurs et les rend plus lumineuses et plus semblables les unes aux autres. Les claires maisons du quai ont presque toutes pris la teinte pâle du ciel, et seules les fenêtres tressaillent de temps en temps dans une luminosité chaude et, réconciliées, s’éteignent au crépuscule, lorsque le soleil ne les dérange plus. Seule, la tour de Saint-Vit reste encore debout dans son antique et éternelle grisaille.

In the first evenings of Spring, the air has a humid coolness which slowly settles on all the colors and make them brighter and more alike. The light houses on the embankment have almost all taken on the pale shade of the sky. Only the windows still quiver from time to time in a warm light and, reconciled, switch off at dusk when the sun doesn’t bother them anymore. Lonely, the Saint-Vit Tower stands still in its eternal dullness.

(my clumsy translation, sorry Mr Rilke)

Walking around Prague with Boshush and the Wanka siblings make you want to visit Prague and that’s already a success for Rilke’s stories. After all, it was about his hometown and his childhood.

A few words about Legacy. It’s a collection of short texts, drafts of letters written during the 1920-1921 winter. Rilke was staying at the Berg castle near Zurich. The foreword by Ernst Zinn was a riddle impossible to decipher for a non-Rilke specialist. When you need footnotes to a foreword, it’s like a Russian doll game for the reader. Legacy in itself will probably be of some interest for Rilke’s fans who know a lot about his life and wanderings. For philistine readers like me, it was almost impossible to follow because a lot of references were lost on me.

Good news for English speaking readers, it’s no big deal that your edition of Two Stories of Prague doesn’t include Legacy.

For other billets about Rilke’s work see: Au fil de la vieLetters to Lou Andrea SalomeThe Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Letters to a Young poet.

Rilke, again.

November 29, 2013 28 comments

Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.

German_lit_monthYEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.

This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in lovetortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.

The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.

I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.

I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.

Rilke_fil_de_la_vieThe stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.

More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.

This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.

If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

November 12, 2011 18 comments

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1897-1926

Your being has been the door that allowed me to reach fresh air for the first time.

Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1897. He was 22, she was 36. Their love story lasted until 1901 and turned into a friendship that only ended with Rilke’s death in 1926. The little book I’ve read is composed of letters coming from their correspondence. The first one dates back to 1897 and the last one was written a fortnight before he died.

The first letters are beautiful love letters. Once I wrote that I didn’t envy Albertine for being loved by the Narrator as he seemed complicated and difficult to live with. Nothing like that with Rilke. These letters are sunny despite the absence and how much he misses her. His love is a gift; it doesn’t claim anything else that what he already receives. These letters are full of acceptance, of loving Lou just the way she is. She loves him back, he’s happy. Their fierce passion isn’t a tortured one.

I think of you at any time of the day and my worried thoughts accompany all your steps. The slightest breathe on your forehead is a kiss from my lips and each dream speaks to you with my voice. My love is like a coat wrapped around you to protect and warm you up.

In 1897, Rilke stopped signing his letters René (his firstname) and became Rainer. His meeting with Lou was his rebirth.

The following letters are more about him and his creating process. One of them, written in 1903, describes his life and sufferings in Paris. I recognized the raw material he will use in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke suffers from acute sensitivity. He’s a sponge, he absorbs the outside world to such a point that it hurts him. He perceives the mood, the emotions of his environment. He has no filtering system and it hits him badly every time. He’s a disquiet man, disturbed by fears and anguish. What fascinates me is that despite his disquiet, he manages to describe his fears in a lucid way. He doesn’t complain although he somatizes a lot and has a poor health. In a way, he tries to tame his pain and at the same time cherishes it as he knows part of his work will come from it. For the reader, his fears sound real, painful but he doesn’t sound unbalanced.

When reading these letters, the reader witnesses his artistic quest. He admires Rodin for his work, his ability to materialize his inner mind into statues, into art. He chides himself for not being able to concentrate and work as much as he should. He gropes around, aware that he’s piling up ideas, sensations, characters, observations in his soul and in his mind. But he’s not able to reach them and turn them into art. Yet. It’s fascinating to read about his quest. It’s obviously painful but he doesn’t complain. He takes the pain, doesn’t wallow into it but probably sees it a step to creation. He’s also lucid about his failure as a husband and as a father. In French, we say être mal dans sa peau, literally, to be ill-at-ease in one’s skin to say to feel bad about oneself. Rilke was literally like that and his skin reacted to it.

In the last letters, he has found the inspiration and managed to let out the work he was sitting on. The joy when he writes the Elegies, the Sonnet to Orpheus is palpable. His health declines, he talks a lot more about physicians. He also thought about doing a psychoanalysis but preferred to keep his demons as part of his creating process. He’s a man who suffered from a poor health all his life and never rebelled against it, took it as the way life was for him and lived day by day.

All these years, Lou became his distant spine, his anchor in life. She immediately saw him as a gifted writer and he trusted her judgement. She believed in his talent, thought highly of his work and that gave him the strength and the confidence he needed. She was his confidant, his safe – she received a copy of his work –, his living diary. Would we have Rilke’s work without her? I’m not sure. These letters had the same effect on me than Letters to a Young Poet and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: a profound fondness for the man who wrote them, awe for his literary gift and sadness for him that it should come with so much pain. When I read Kakfa’s letters to Milena, I heard his pain but I never really sympathized with him. He sounded complicated and whimsical. I sympathized with Rilke, deeply. He was a man I would have loved to meet.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

August 9, 2011 25 comments

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I found a pdf version on line, translated by William Needham.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not a Beach and Public Transport book. However, I read it noisy environments, on the beach, at the laundromat or with children playing around. From the first page, Rilke wrapped me in the silken bubble of his words and the bubbling of the outside world vanished in a quiet puff. Here are the opening lines:

 

September 11th, rue Toullier

Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in. I’ve been out. I’ve seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: ‘Maison d’Accouchement’. Fine. They’ll deliver her child; they’re able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: ‘Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire’. I didn’t actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: ‘Asyle de nuit’. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn’t expensive there.

We are here, in Paris wandering in the city streets with Malte Laurids Brigge. He’s a Danish citizen who lives poorly in Paris. To conjure up his anguish, he wanders restlessly in the streets and writes endlessly in his cheap room. He calls back childhood memories. There is no linear construction here, the memories come at random, in small scenes, images from the past intertwined with tales from the city. He goes to the library, mostly to read poetry and to feel in communion with other readers.

I am sitting here reading a poet. There are a great number of people in the room but one doesn’t notice them. They’re inside the books. Sometimes they move about in the pages like people turning over in their sleep between two dreams.

Malte’s childhood memories are phantasmagorical. They are set in old and strange castles filled with bizarre relatives. His mother was probably a little unbalanced and his rememberance is full of ghostly appearances and eccentric diners. As a reader, I couldn’t know if it was due to the perception of a child whose imagination was wild or who built his own explanation of situations he couldn’t grasp or if the memories were blurred. The castles are daunting with many rooms and corridors and remains of the past. It reminded me the atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes.

Malte suffers from over-sensitivity. He perceives more than the common man. Where we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, each perception pigeon-holed in its own category, he can mix sensations. I thought he could taste sounds, smell landscapes and taste the air around him. (The smell of the flowers was an unintelligible medley like a lot of different voices all at the same time.) With his extra perception, he feels the traces of the past in Paris, the remains of the people who lived there and especially their suffering.

The existence of the horrible in every atom of air. You breathe it in without being able to see it, but it condenses inside you, becomes hard, assumes pointed geometrical forms among your organs; for all the torments and horrors that happened at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating rooms, under the arches of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tenacious permanence which endures for its own self and depends, jealous of everything else that exists, on its own terrible reality.

I can understand that, it happens to me sometimes when I visit places full of history or just old buildings. Every time I go to the Musée Jacquemart André, I almost expect to see Marcel Proust step out of a room. I’m not sure I could visit a concentration camp without being overwhelmed by what happened there. I’d feel like the people who died there are still lingering in the buildings claiming not to be forgotten.

Malte is disquieted by many things. He fears death and fights against this particular fear by reading the tales of famous death or of the death of relatives.

This excellent hotel [the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris] is very old. In the days of King Clovis people were already dying here in what few beds there were. Now there are 559 beds to die in. It’s natural mass-production. With such a high number as that a single death doesn’t get the same attention; however, that isn’t what matters. Quantity is what matters. Who today still cares whether or not a death has been well put together? Nobody. Even the rich who, after all, can afford to attend to the details of dying are starting to grow slipshod and apathetic; the desire to have a death all of one’s own is becoming more and more infrequent. Only a while and it’ll become as rare as a life of one’s own.

He thinks people don’t take their death seriously when it is in them, lying from the beginning, waiting for its time to come. He seeks loneliness, he refuses to take part in the affairs of the world. Objects seem aggressive to him from time to time when his imagination takes the power.

It struck me that Rilke (1875-1926), Proust (1871-1922) and Kakfa (1883-1924) were contemporaries. I found Proust in Rilke when he describes Malte’s anguish. This passage reminded me the first night of the Narrator in his hotel room in Balbec (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)

This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window.

Malte’s thoughts about Time, tickling, rich and yet easily spent also brought me back to Proust. I enjoyed the story of Nicolaï Kousmitch, Malte’s former neighbour. Nicolaï once calculated how many seconds he would still live on a 50 years basis. The number was such that he felt really rich. But doing a weekly accounts of time expenses, he soon realises that time goes by very quickly, that he’s not sure to make the best of it. Nicolaï becomes acutely aware of the time passing by, sensing the seconds fading away in a cold draft and the Earth rotating. The notion of Time is very present in Proust too.

I found Proust in a specific passage when the young Malte is feverish. It reminded me of the Narrator’s constant illness, his need to rest in afternoons, his thoughts wandering. Malte also encounters sleepless nights, just like the Narrator. I’m currently reading Proust, so the images are fresh in my mind and this one also sounded very Proustian to me:

It must have been one of those early mornings that July brings—hours when things are rested and there’s something joyful and spontaneous happening everywhere. Millions of small irrepressible movements collect in the most convincing mosaic of Being; things leap and merge into one another and soar high in the sky, and their coolness makes the shadows distinct and gives the sun a light spiritual appearance. In the garden there is nothing that stands out from the rest, the effect is overall and you need to be in everything and to not miss any of it.

My memories of Kafka are more distant. But I couldn’t help thinking about him when I read about fears, frightening objects and of course the castles.

The three of them are really cerebral. Many things happen in their minds and they look into themselves to understand the mystery of life, to cope with their disquiet and their panic attacks. They have a rich inner world and it’s the source of their art. They differ on one point: religion. Rilke often refers to God, the love of God humans can feel. It’s absent in Proust – I don’t think he was religious and mysticism wasn’t appealing to him. I don’t remember it as being essential in Kafka.

I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league. I felt like I only scratched its surface, without understanding its deep meaning. I didn’t fully understand the last 50 pages, I got lost. I’m not very good at abstract thinking when it doesn’t involve figures. I grasped something about love and that being loved was being imprisoned and loving someone was putting them in a prison too. But that’s it. There are also a lot of literary references. I caught some of them (Verlaine, Baudelaire, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun) but I missed the others. Who is Bettina? Brentano’s wife? I’m not well-read in German literature and it prevented me from diving further in Rilke’s thinking.

I’m glad I found an English translation online, I have dozens of quotes and I would have felt really frustrated not to give a glimpse of Rilke’s incredible style. I’m not a great reader of poetry but here, it’s everywhere, filling the text with wonderful images, adding an extra dimension to his thoughts. He managed to pass on some of his extra-vision, the gift artists have to look at reality with different eyes.

Wisdom from an Older Poet

September 13, 2010 7 comments

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Read by Denis Podalydes.

 In 1903, Franz Kappus is a cadet in a military school. He writes poetry and wonders whether his poems are good and if he is meant to be a poet. When he learns form one of his teacher that  Rainer Maria Rilke is an alumnus of the same school, he decides to write to him and ask for an opinion on his poems. A long correspondence will follow, and Franz Kapuss had Rilke’s letters published years later, leaving his own in the shadow.

 I have borrowed the audio book of Letters to a Young Poet at the library. The voice of Denis Podalydes was sometimes musing, sometimes firm, and always warm, soft and convincing. Rainer Maria Rilke has a calm wisdom which applies a soothing balm on one’s mind.

In the first letter, Rilke answers to Franz’s interrogations. He gives his vision of being an artist. How do you know if you are meant to be a writer ? The answer is simple: if you can imagine your life going on without writing, then you are not a writer. He advises Franz to turn his attention to himself to find in his inner life the roots and the raw material for his art. Critics from journalists, magazine owners and readers are not relevant to evaluate the worth of his poems. He shall find this answer in himself. No one can teach him how to write, something I agree with. (I’ve always wondered what Americans teach in writing classes). He needs to find his voice as a writer, and this voice comes from deep inside.

The other letters are more guidelines for life than writing counsels. The experience of the artist is solitary and to bear its loneliness with forbearance is a way to strengthen and reveal one’s personality. Rilke thinks a period of solitude is a mandatory step to discover who we are and that if we throw ourselves in the world without caution, we shall never know ourselves deeply. Solitude is a mean to shut out the futilities of life and concentrate on the essentials. It will give us solid roots to face the tempests of our existence.

His vision of women suits me and is insightful for the time. He points out that men and women are more similar than it seems (Remember, we are in 1903 and women have the rights of children). The greatest worldwide innovation will occur when men and women will not consider themselves as opposites but as human beings. Women should no be individuals defined in comparison to men but as themselves, a feminine human being. Rilke perceives that love relationships will be affected by this transformation and men will be surprised. Love will consist “in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”.

To Franz who seems to have lived some hard times, he says sorrows should pass through him. The sadness which crosses someone nourishes them but when it stagnates, it putrefies and pollutes their soul. Fate is not external to men but within. The future is immobile, we are moving and imagining that events fall on us. But we just fail to listen to our inner minds and detect the coming events. It is that way that the future penetrates in us.

On courage, Rilke writes that the only true audacity is to welcome the unusual, the new, the strange as a benefit. “…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”  Perhaps the ability to adapt to changes and new events is indeed the route to happiness, if happiness can be defined as a state of “non-suffering”

Rilke’s personal telescope is pointed on life from an fresh corner. These peaceful letters are the sort of book you want on your bedside table. They are a kind comfort for bad days, a silent shelter from the tumultuous outside world.

For another review, read Caroline’s fascinating take on these letters.

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