Rilke’s one and only novel is a mysterious, beautifully written, baffling modernist stew. Reading it for the third time, I was struck again by its yearning and incompleteness, its meditative and incantatory qualities, and the sense it gives us of loneliness and despair, without removing hope and the potential for redemption.
The protagonist is a struggling young poet, living in Paris, poverty stricken, seemingly quite alone. He is neither successful at his craft, nor completely defeated. Rilke presents Malte in the present, lets him take us back in time into his childhood, and also much further back, into the Middle Ages. This is done in a seemingly random fashion, but works. Fits. Amplifies what comes before and after. The voice of Malte is erudite, extremely knowledgeable about obscure historical figures and, like Rilke, interested in the vagaries of love. Both Malte and his author see women as loving better, more passionately, more selflessly than men. Both Malte and his author see loving itself as superior to being loved. For them, being loved means being consumed by fire. Loving creates that fire. This is extended to their idea of God. Mysteriously, that god does not love back. It is the Beloved, but never the Lover. Though it is not explicit in Malte’s meditations on the theme, I have always gotten the sense that he sees God as the exception to the rule. Humans who are beloved are consumed by the fire of love. God can never be.
Rilke worked on the novel from 1904 until 1910, when it was published. He struggled with it, with its form, content, meaning. He put a tremendous amount of time in research for the novel, mastering many periods of art history, learning about famous and not so famous men and women from ancient to modern times. The book is filled with names that have been lost to us for the most part, but who might bring interest if investigated. Especially the once famous lovers he talks about. Gaspara Stampa, Goethe’s Bettina, the Portuguese Nun (Marianna Alcoforado), the Blessed Rose of Lima (Isabel Flores de Oliva) and Louis Labbé. Malte talks about nobles, kings and queens, popes and saints, and layers the book with richness and romanticism, leavened by his present day penury. Leavened by his longing for his childhood in Denmark, for the ecccentric characters of his youth, his relatives and friends.
The book shows the influence of Nietzsche and Doystoevsky (especially where Malte talks about his neighbor hoarding minutes like money). Baudelaire, Cezanne and Rodin. Descriptions of Paris remind me of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, and the frequent mention of art and images link back to Cezanne and Rilke’s teacher Rodin, in their constructive qualities, in their juxtapositions and formations. The Notebooks inspired writers like Sartre, especially his novel La Nauseé.
Burton Pike’s new translation is wonderful. My first two readings were of the translation done by M.D. Herter Norton. Pike’s seems richer, more vibrant. His introduction is also excellent. But having both books is helpful, in that the Norton Library addition has very good notes at the end. A reader in 2009 needs those notes to follow Malte a bit more closely.
Jill Magi’s author’s page over at Shearsman Books can be found here. Jill’s homepage can be found here.
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The topic of poetic space on the page is an interesting one. How it looks alters our reception and perception. We read it differently to ourselves depending upon topography.
Poetry is both spatial and aural. Traditionally, poetry was heard, not seen, passed down to us from bard to bard, from shaman to shaman, registering across the centuries in the ear, as we imagined the words and their referents with our inner eye. With the advent books, of the printing press, and much later, the multimedia revolution, things changed radically. Kept changing. Back and forth we go now, different schools of thought tout different authenticities and purities, and we choose.
Is the best poetry that which reads well and sounds glorious in the internal ear? Or is it solely a matter of externalities? What we hear, not what we see? For me the answer is obvious, mostly. It’s both. And the most successful poems lead us off the page and far away from our own space and time, so we can return to ourselves recreated in some small way. Or more than that, if we’re lucky. A merger of art, linguistics, music, science, collective, mysterious memories. Haunting us. The architecture of the poem on the page reminding us of the architecture already there in our mind. Consciously or subconsciously.
I have just started rereading one of my favorite novels, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This time, however, I’m relying on a different, brand new translation by Burton Pike. Here is one of Rilke’s best expressions (through the voice of Malte) of what it takes to make poetry happen.
(Slightly abridged with ellipses. Worth reading in full):
But alas, with poems one accomplishes so little when one writes them early. One should hold off and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long, a long life if possible, and then, right at the end, one could write perhaps ten lines that are good. For poems are not, as people think, feelings (those one has early enough) — they are experiences. For the sake of a line of poetry one must see many cities, people, and things, one must know animals, must feel how the birds fly, and know the gestures with which small flowers open in the morning . . . But it is still not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them, if they are many, and have the great patience to wait for them to come again. For it is not the memories themselves. Only when they become blood in us, glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves, only then can it happen that in a very rare hour the first word of a line arises in their midst and strides out of them.
I didn’t make it to all the way to the Falls. Was within half a mile or so before time ran out. Someone turned out the lights on the great painting in the sky.
I still found some green and blue peace and more. I found a vision and learned how certain cameras can not handle what comes out of that great painting in the sky. One has to prepare for such things and I didn’t. Next time.
How strange that Nature does not knock, and yet does not intrude! — Emily Dickinson, letter to Mrs. J.S. Cooper, 1880
I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. — John Muir, 1913.
Walking, climbing, gazing at groups of trees, rocks, hillsides and mountain peaks. Parsing them. Separating them and putting them back together again, so they existed alone and together. As one and as many. Stopping to take a picture broke that flow, that chain. But with the great painting surrounding me, it was easy to find again. Finding no one, I was selfish. I wanted no one there with me. I wanted to be one with the painting. Alone. No one to interrupt the flow. No one to inject noise, commotion, angst.
And how should a beautiful, ignorant stream of water know it heads for an early release – out across the desert, running toward the Gulf, below sea level, to murmur its lullaby, and see the Imperial Valley rise out of burning sand with cotton blossoms, wheat, watermelons, roses, how should it know? — Carl Sandburg, Good Morning America, 1928.
Before the leaves peak, before the leaves fall, I’ll be back. The sun will be higher, my camera will be steadier, and no filters will be needed. Climb up with more certainty. I’ll climb up with more time or negate time altogether. No rush, no worries, and more sights and sounds to match my memory, to match my hope and create something new.
A tree has arisen. O pure transcendence! O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear And all is still. Yet in the stillness New beginnings, sacred calls spring change
Rereading Paternak’s epic at the moment. Makes me think about the movie, of course. David Lean’s film shares its epic sweep and grandeur, along with the emotional weight of actual tragedy. But, this reread (so far) brings surprises. I had forgotten how much of the story had been left out of the movie, how many characters never appear, how most of the back-story is missing in the film.
It would, of course, have been impossible to include much more. Pasternak fills the book to the brim with hundreds of characters, events, philosophical asides, and the national tragedy of millions. He makes Russia and its people live. I’ve only gotten through a bit less than a quarter of the book, and already I can see it would be impossible to fit it all into even a very long film. Though much of the early going is just not as dramatic, visually, as the rest of the novel, and is better read than seen, it has the source material for a long miniseries. Longer than the recent version starring Keira Knightley and Hans Matheson. I’ve just now gotten to the point where Pasha Antipov, Lara’s husband, has left her and their child to go to the front during WWI. She is searching for him, and knows little of his transformation from a shy lad who worshiped her to a soon-to-be megalomaniac.
Yuri (Doctor Zhivago) is now married to his quasi-step-sister, Tonia. He is on the cusp of meeting Lara again under circumstances that will change both lives forever. The best of the book is ahead of me.
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Boris Pasternak was born into a highly cultured Jewish family in 1890. His father, Leonid, was a famous artist and professor, and his mother, Rosa, a famous concert pianist. Boris was blessed with a family life that included visits from important artists, writers and intellectuals such as the composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, the poets Rilke and Blok, and the novelist Andrei Bely. Rilke, especially, would be a great influence on his poetry.
Scriabin (along with his mother) may have been the inspiration behind his early attempt to become a composer. He studied composition for some six years before dropping out in 1910 to pursue Law. He shifted yet again to philosophy, studying briefly in Germany at Marburg until returning to Mother Russia in 1913. Poetry was his next love . . .
I’ll continue the rest of his story, along with more on Doctor Zhivago . . . in my next blog post.
Still another writing table: Hemingway and Big Game
It’s quite possible I couldn’t pick two writers further apart from one another to deal with back to back.
Temperamentally, artistically, biographically. Rilke and Hemingway. Yet both men were profoundly influenced by their days in Paris, and both men learned much about their art at the knee of an older woman. Perhaps it’s less than dime-store psychology to also suggest that both men had “issues” with their relationship to female sexuality. Issues that led to very different attempts to resolve that conflict — internally and externally. But, issues nonetheless. People really are complex.
Finished Humphrey Carpenter’s book about Americans in Paris, and was reminded that the core material for The Sun Also Rises was a rather banal little trip taken by Hemingway and a few friends to see the bulls in Pamplona. Years later, many of those friends looked back at that trip, having read the book, and saw it as an end of an era. For Hemingway, the success of the book was a beginning of sorts. His first title for the novel was Fiesta, which Carpenter thought fit better. Hemingway took the eventual title from Ecclesiastes.
In many ways, Hemingway is the poster boy for the negative effects of success. His best writing was early on, before it became formulaic, too Hemingwayish. There are metaphors within metaphors involved, as he took the idea of repetition from Gertrude Stein, shaped it to suit his own purposes, added a bit of tough-guy journalism to the mix, and kept on repeating himself. A rose is a rose is a rose became a novel is a novel is a novel.
Of course, it was more complicated than that. It’s also more complicated when judging the short stories and the novels. Perhaps repetition works better in the short form. Perhaps it’s more effective to use any literary device sparingly, or for sprints rather than marathons. In short, he wrote great short stories pretty much all the way through.
My favorite Hemingway novel is A Farewell to Arms. I think that’s where he put it all together, matched the artistry with the subject matter. Matched interesting subject matter with artistry. Not an easy task, which is why so many writers try to live like it’s their last hour when young, and then spend their later years, if they’re lucky to have them, trying to recapture their high-wire act on the page. They want to be able to draw upon actual experience, lived to the fullest, and hope that experience and their rendition of that experience capture the fancy of a multitude of readers.
But Papa Hemingway was different. He actually seemed to increase the high-wire act stuff as he got older, taking more and more chances, crashing planes, testing himself against the myths of his heroics, trying to kill those myths with reality. Big game as that myth. He killed a lot of big game. In some ways, strangely enough, when he was young and living in Paris, he was older in spirit, more cautious, more worried about appearances than he grew to be much later in life. One would think this would lead to better novels, not a decline. More risk taking for his art. One would think.
So what novelist, musician or artist got better as he or she lived life to even greater extremes as they aged? Was there ever such an eternally youthful beast? Something to ponder for the next installment of ” I haven’t wrestled a bear in years!”
The Absence of a Writing Table and Other Bogus Complaints
No, this post won’t be about old Vsevolod. He’s already had more than enough great press lately, I imagine. Just thought his visage captured a certain weariness, bafflement and astonishment at the task of reading and writing, and that this was apropos of other things. The artist Repin was apparently good at that, too–good at painting moments like this, having tackled Tolstoy as well as the composer Rimsky-Korsakov in other portraits. And, of course, old Vsevolod looks like a 19th century Spiderman, lost in a Bohemian funk. But that’s another story altogether.
Wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post about Rilke, and elaborate a bit on my translation of The Panther, on what went into it, and how it came to be. In short, I did it in less than a half-hour, at the end of a long, long day, so it was hardly a work of endless preparation and seasoned depth. It was a translation born out of the medium at hand, and the way blogging is done. Blogging about the arts on a near-daily basis prevents extravagantly detailed, sculpted, indepth writing. Though there have been some writers in the past who could churn out works with amazing alacrity, like Georges Simenon. I think it was Hitchcock who famously called his home and got Simenon’s wife instead:
“Georges is in the middle of writing a novel,” his wife said, hinting with her tone that Alfred should probably call back.
“I’ll wait,” Hitchcock said, remembering how fast his friend typed . . . .
Simenon would probably make a great blogger.
Anyway, back to Rilke. He wrote the Duino Elegies and TheSonnets to Orpheus in a white heat of inspiration, incarnation–possessed. He took dictation, he told us. Much like Kafka when filled to the breaking point with the story “The Judgment,” Rilke couldn’t help himself. Much like Picasso, he couldn’t stop making art until it was released. Two surges in time. First one in 1912. Second in 1922. Primarily concerning the Elegies, and the overflow gave us the Sonnets.
Again, not speaking a word of German, I sought out the best translations in English . . . A. Poulin, Stephen Mitchell and Galway Kinnell, to name three of the books I have in my possession now. More than twenty years ago my own Rilke period began. As in, I really became enthralled with his poetry at that time, and attempted to understand more than could be gleaned through single readings and intros. Prefaces. I know that poetry is virtually untranslatable. Still, I can’t deny the world.
Sonnets to Orpheus, Second Series, Number 13
To be ahead of all parting, as if it were behind
Us, like passing white winters on a train.
For within those winters is the supreme
Winter that only the strongest hearts can overcome.
Be forever dead with Eurydice–, sing and move back,
Celebrate and move back into pure connection.
Here, among the disappeared, in this fading realm,
Be a ringing sheet of glass that shatters in its own noise.
Be–but encompass the sense of non-being,
And vibrate with infinity, with your own eternal
Essence flowing toward completion.
Then, facing the extinguished, the dull and silent
Reservoirs of all nature, those countless sums,
Add us, exult and cancel the last debt.
— Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by Douglas Pinson, after Galway Kinnell.
Rainer Maria Rilke was a sublime poet, one of the greatest lyric poets of the 20th century, and quite possibly a lousy human being. His Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus rank among the finest works of art in any language, taking us softly, profoundly to the nexus between life and death, pain and redemption, mourning and new hope. Through his poetry and other writings, he conveyed a level of empathy and understanding toward women that may surpass any poet in the last 100 years. Though it seemed he rarely showed that insight and understanding in real life, at least if we are to believe several recent accounts about Rilke’s life and loves.
If those portraits of the real Rilke are accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time such an apparent contradiction occurred. Not the first time a great artist, poet, novelist, musician, or philosopher led a less than exemplary life. Perhaps there is a dynamic that rears up as a near-impossible obstacle to overcome, in the case of artistic genius. Perhaps in order to make great art, one has to be selfish in ways that all too often hurt loved ones and friends, shock them, abuse and exploit them–at times. Perhaps another part of the drama and dynamic is the abuse and exploitation the artist suffers, especially when young. Though there can never be any hard and fast rule regarding this, it seems a common strain among the best artists that their own family drama was sordid, sickly and filled with pain.
In Rilke’s case, his childhood was turned upside down by the fact that his mother, Sophie, so mourned the loss of a week-old daughter that she dressed little Rene in girls’ clothes and tried to replace her with him. To make the impact even more violent on his psyche, his father, Josef, later tried to reverse course by sending him to a very harsh military school. I’m guessing it didn’t help his anxiety levels much when he, six years later, fell in love with Lou Andreas-Salome, Nietzche’s ideal disciple and fantasy lover, and a married woman at the time of Rilke’s fall. From 1912-1913, she trained with Freud to become a psychoanalist. She shared her insights with Rilke until his death in 1926, outliving him by eleven years. Lou is generally credited with getting Rilke to change his name from Rene to Rainer.
Rilke’s life remained fascinating until the end. He traveled widely, had several affairs with brilliant women and created great poetry. I’ll explore that in future posts. Will end this one with my translation of The Panther. A translation in the tradition of Ezra Pound. I do not read German, as he did not read Chinese. So I translate a translation already made. Stephen Mitchell’s, in this case . . . .
I mourn the fact that I do not live in a castle as I write this, especially one that overlooks the sea. And that I lack a stand-up writing desk, the kind Rilke used in that castle, with the wind coming through the medieval windows and the candles flickering, the smell of the sea, the song of the gulls, the moonlight across the floor. I mourn the fact that Rodin did not teach me how to craft poems like a sculptor, and that I was never a welcome guest of royalty. Then again, Rilke never heard the Beatles, or read Murakami or Kundera, or saw a film by Wong Kar-wai . . . .
His worldview from the constantly moving bars
Has become predictable, boring and cannot hold
Anything more. The black cat sees a
Thousand bars, and beyond the bars, nothingness.
As he paces again and again in cramped circles,
The movement of his powerful, athletic strides
Is like a ritual dance circling a core
In which a mighty will is engulfed in stone.
Only now and then the curtains of each pupil
Lift, slowly–. An image, a sound enters in,
Rushes down through the tensed, locked and waiting
Muscles, plunges straight into the heart and disappears.
–by Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation by Douglas Pinson, after Stephen Mitchell.