Monday, December 04, 2006

Birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (and where the new novel begins)

Today marks the 131st anniversary of the birth of Rainer Maria Rilke. I thought this would be an appropriately auspicious date to announce here that my new novel, Lost Son (forthcoming in May 2007), explores and evokes this magnificent poet's life. Below are a few photos I took in the course of my early research for Lost Son. I started writing the novel in the summer of 2001, during some extensive European travel that I tailored as a Rilke pilgrimage of kinds. At the midpoint of my trip I arrived in Prague, the poet's birthplace.
Above: a view of the Tyn Church, which towers above the old Staromĕstské Square, the throbbing center of the city. Below: the ancient Charles Bridge spanning the River Vltava.
After my first full day spent wandering Prague, I wrote in my journal:

"The streets are mad with tourists. Restless tangles of people. Strange smattering of sounds, sights, music, settings: pop songs in English blaring everywhere; Czech and German writing all over; Parisian-like cafe tables arranged before towering Bohemian edifices. The ancient, the modern, the provincial, the cosmopolitan, the charming and the tasteless all shoulder to shoulder here. It is hard to find Rilke in all the crush. But everywhere is the dogged fear that seems to have haunted his childhood. It is in the scrutiny of those contorted stone faces which peer silently, constantly, from the walls and high cornices of countless buildings."

Given the extremely restless spirit that kept Rilke in a state of wanderlust most of his life, it's no real surprise that one should have trouble "finding" him in any single location (particularly in our contemporary Europe) the way one "finds" Faulkner at Rowan Oak or Jane Austen in Bath. So as I traveled country to country in the poet's footsteps, I often found my research centering upon impressionistic stimuli: the character of a place or the quality of its light or the very specific sense that would be stirred in a sheltered little boy while, clinging to his mother's hand, he walked past these innumerable stone-carved faces of Prague.

In a very important way, this more subtle form of research became extremely fruitful in my five-year process of writing Lost Son because it engendered a closeness to my main character, a personal experience, an intimacy of a kind that might have been precluded had my research placed me before this or that definitive, heavily trafficked monument. In the end, this very process of imaginative identification has become a major note in the chords that ring through Lost Son. I wanted the novel, more than being a book about a poet, to be a book about those delicate, mysterious processes that inform poetry or art in general. In other words: the processes that inform a peculiar and potent re-creation of feeling or experience. In Lost Son this carries over, even, into an exploration of how one goes about re-imagining the life of an artist who stands at the other side of a gaping century. How does one create and inhabit that past? I know of no figure who embodies these processes of imagination and re-creation more purely than Rainer Maria Rilke.
My travels in Europe that summer brought me at last to Rilke's final residence, the ancient Tower of Muzot in the Valais (Rhone Valley) of Switzerland. By then I had spent so much time dwelling upon the poet's strange, precarious existence that I actually did feel I had "found" him in this place.

One night during my stay in the Valais, I drove from my hotel in the nearby village of Sierre out through the vineyards to Muzot. I parked and walked up and down the road, staring through the darkness at the tower. It was the third time in two days that I had driven there for no other reason than to walk about and stare, but it was my first time coming by night, and there was something very special about being at Muzot in the dark. In that night-graced tower Rilke had crowned his lifelong poetic accomplishment with the completion, during a single month, of the marvelous Sonnets to Orpheus and the mystic Duino Elegies. Muzot is still a private residence, owned by descendants of the Rilke patron who purchased the place for the poet in 1922. Inside, the tiny rooms remain furnished exactly as Rilke left them. The sutural windows glowed yellow that night.

Back at my hotel in Sierre I opened the shutters, sat down at a small round table, and wrote: "By silent evening I drive down the vineyard road to Muzot."

And now, five years later, that is how Lost Son begins.

Please check back here at Dispatches between now and publication date (May 20, 2007), as I post more about the novel and my journeys while writing it.

For now, in honor of the poet's birthday, here is Edward Snow's remarkable English rendition of Rilke's poem "From a Childhood" (The Book of Images, North Point Press, 1991):
The darkening was like treasures in the room
in which the boy, so deeply hidden, sat.
And when his mother entered as in a dream,
a glass trembled on the silent shelf.
She felt how the room was giving her away,
and kissed her boy: Are you here?...
Then both gazed fearfully toward the piano,
for many an evening she had a song
in which the child got strangely, deeply caught.
      He sat stock still. His wide gaze hung
      upon her hand, which, all weighed down by the ring,
      as if it trudged through deep snowdrifts,
      traveled over the white keys.

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