Monday, February 26, 2007

What is Lost Son About? I.
    (Periodic Answers to an Unanswerable Question)

Beginning today, I will be posting periodic replies to the question: "What is Lost Son about?" It's a question as inevitable as it is impossible to answer definitively, because the responses it might elicit from me will change as my own relationship to the novel evolves (and as I come to better understand the book myself).

On the surface, of course, Lost Son is about Rainer Maria Rilke. His life, his work, his loves and friendships and memories and torments and triumphs. But were the question as easily answerable as this, I might not have written the novel at all. Over its five-year gestation period, Lost Son has been driven by more numerous, more elusive, and hopefully more widely resonant impulses than a wish to novelize the great poet's biography.

For this first post, Rilke's work itself provides something of a response. This quote from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge might have served as a relevant epigraph for Lost Son. In a way, the novel's dilemmas are all here: the loneliness of The Poet in this world. His somber restlessness. And a certain need for him to stand in stupefaction before his own destiny, in order to speak of it evocatively...
"Und man hat niemand und nichts und fährt in der Welt

"And one has nobody and nothing and travels about in the world with a suitcase and with a trunk full of books and really without curiosity. What kind of life is this anyway? -- without house, without inherited things, without dogs.
"Was für ein Leben ist das eigentlich…

"Still, if one had at least one's memories. But who has those? If a chilhood were's like something buried. Perhaps one must be old in order to reach back to all that. I think it's good to be old."

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lost Son Excerpt

Read a short excerpt from Lost Son at the book's MySpace page.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Du Einsamster: You Lonely One -- (A Translation from Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge)

"Young man anywhere, in whom something is rising up that causes you to shiver, make use of the fact that no one knows you.
Junger Mensch irgendwo, in dem etwas aufsteigt, was ihn erschauern macht, nütz es, daß dich keiner kennt...

And if they contradict you -- those who take you for a nobody; and if they give you up completely -- those with whom you would associate; and if they pretend you don't exist on account of your dear ideas: what is this clear danger, which holds you together inside yourself, compared to the cunning hostilty of later fame, which makes you impotent by scattering you.

Beg no one to speak of you, not even contemptuously.
Bitte keinen, daß er von dir spräche, nicht einmal verächtlich...

And when time goes by and you mark your name coming around amongst people, take it no more seriously than everything else you find in their mouths. Think: it has become poorly. And put it away from you. Take another name, any, so that God can call you in the night. And hide it from everyone."

Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Letters to A Young Poet, Letters to a Ghost

I was fourteen years old when my mother, somehow recognizing my writerly inclinations in a way I could not, put into my hands a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It was a thin, feather-light edition of Stephen Mitchell’s marvelous English translation. I didn’t like the cover with its bright colors and gaudy font, but upon opening to the first letter of February 1903 I promptly experienced what nearly three generations of readers had experienced before me: the unshakable sense that this missive was addressed directly to me. Come twilight I’d finished the book, and already I wanted to learn more about this letter-writer from ninety years past who seemed to know so much about me and the counsel I so desperately needed in my current day. I could not have known what a lasting presence this literary specter would become in my life, nor how he would haunt my decision to become a writer.

Now, fourteen years and several thousands of travel-miles later, I find I’m the author of a novel about Rainer Maria Rilke’s troubled, triumphant life. Lost Son depicts Rilke in the drive of his all-consuming art as it carries him back and forth across western Europe over the course of fifteen intensely restless years. Perhaps more than any poet of the western world, Rilke was incapable of living one life as a man, another as a poet. Here was a soul who completely lacked the useful mechanism most of us employ to close ourselves off from certain experiences or stimuli for our own well-being. Uncontrollably, every impression penetrated him to his core and became an almost physical vibration within him. It’s as if he was genetically predisposed to poetry--to those profound resonances of which poetry is made. But this resulted in an extreme, at times incapacitating vulnerability to the outer world, and Rilke soon discovered that his sole method of self-preservation would be to control his environment and withdraw into his work as much as possible. Rilke's need to live and breathe his art rendered his loyalties to family and friends extremely complex, and kept him perpetually unprotected, homeless, and poor. It gave him, however, his best poetic works—not a few of which are held to be among the greatest in the world today.

Rilke’s writings, in their powerful and pungent synthesis of mystery, terror, and praise, hold a resonance like no other literary work I know of. The life behind the work tells its own strange, troubling and inspiring story of long sacrifice and sudden moments of transcendence. Rilke’s figure continues to haunt me. Lost Son is the novel I felt I most needed to write in these initial years of my own life as an artist. The book is in many ways the result of a long conversation with a master, a ghost. A reply, perhaps, to those letters I first read at fourteen and felt to be written to me across the span of a century. And hopefully Lost Son is a story of deep, multidimensional humanity.

Lost Son on MySpace

Visit the new MySpace page for Lost Son (if you can stand the flashing advertisements).

Friday, February 02, 2007

Paris Notes: Rilke, Malte Laurids Brigge, and the Latin Quarter Today

As noted in my previous blog post, Lost Son began as a series of journals in which I often directly addressed my main character, Rainer Maria Rilke. Here follows another entry from those journals. In this one, I began addressing Rilke's imaginary character Malte Laurids Brigge. The entry reveals a little about my process of imagining my way through contemporary Paris into the city Rilke (and Malte) knew, namely: Paris between 1902 and 1909, the years during which Rilke wrote Malte's story in the great novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Though this and other such entries do not appear in Lost Son, I feel that they somehow continue to permeate the book...

“It ripped me out of myself and put me into their lives, through all their lives, through and through all their beleaguered lives. Often I had to say aloud to myself: I am not one of them, I am going to leave this frightful city in which they will die.”
Rainer Maria Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé – July 18, 1903

… Rue Linné, Paris V: the present
Paris: the word has now become an insignia on a postcard, a cliché, a simple idiom for earthly pleasure. But what of Paris as you knew it? Can one even see that world in this one?—this city of innumerable camera flashes and riverboat dinners and mid-bridge kisses, city whose only sighs are those of the soon-to-depart. Do the poor, the hopeful and hopeless destitute, still find themselves packed into the cramped hostelries along the river?

The streets are not acrawl with them these days, at least not within a mile or so radius of the Ile de la Cité (though walk out along the Canal Saint Martin, as I did yesterday, and you might reconsider). Here in your Latin Quarter, they sometimes proclaim themselves with signs—black letters smudged onto flaps of cardboard; and sometimes one sees them dragging about the sidewalks or lurking in doorways, asking for nothing. But the boulevard Saint Michel, in its new sterilized brightness, only reluctantly yields up its memory of the man with the Saint Vitus’ Dance, that ragdoll figure whom you watched with gorgonized awe and later gave to your fictional second self, Malte Laurids Brigge, to evoke in his troubled notebooks.

No, one no longer sees such figures as if seeing a great scream personified. But such figures do remain, just beneath the surface dignity of these clean-swept boulevards, beneath Haussmann’s elegant housefronts. And they are most definitely to be found, like the wastage of long-since defeated, long-since scattered armies, in the twisting streets set back from the river and confettied with rubbish. They’re in every city, no doubt, shall always be. Malte’s disgraced kin—the poor and cursed urbanites who occasioned him to anoint the first blank page of his notebook with those agitated words:

“So, people do come here to live. I would have sooner thought that this is where one dies.”

Already I’ve seen much of these figures—and the conditions on these city streets have greatly improved since yours and Malte’s arrival one hundred years ago, so I can only imagine the things you saw then.

May I tell Malte what I’ve seen in a month’s time, and thereby reveal to him something?…something. Perhaps he’d like to know that the grim spectacles he beheld daily were more than the phantasms of his dark soul. That even today one may witness such things in Paris. So Malte, I hope you’ll find it assuring that I have seen:

…the graying slack-sided man who appeared to suffer so much in the mere act of motion. He seemed to have lost his cane or leg-braces. He was just outside the gate of the Hôtel des Invalides when I saw him. Groping along the wall with splayed hands, his spine bowing backward in the effort to free himself of the wall. To walk.

He wasn’t an extremely old man—just gray-haired, like many not-so-old men. His stiffness seemed to be coming from somewhere outside or just above him; it seemed he was hemmed in by some invisible man-size flange made of most inflexible rubber. A number of people streamed past him and crossed the expansive front grounds to the church door. He hardly noticed them. All his focus was fixed in that labor of getting to the gate—the gate through which those others glided like birds.

I asked myself what you might have asked, Malte. Can it be that some persons, some very small number, are cursed by an imbalance of the blood or the brain or the inner ear to bear gravity’s effect at a volume exponentially greater than most? Because it was something like that with this man.

And then it struck me that the man might well be significantly younger than he looked, but the pressure, the incessant pressure, was speeding the clockworks inside him. I’d been waiting for a traffic light to change and now it was time to cross. In a final glimpse I saw him unmooring himself from the wall and starting forward with tiny, slow, hard-won steps. Before him lay the vast open grounds of the Invalides complex, and high above him the gilded dome stood up in mute and grand neutrality.

There was also this, Malte:

...the man with jowls as loose and pendulous as a winded dog’s. He was crossing the pretty little Place Maubert where the pretty fountain patters, and beyond his slightly disheveled jacket and shirt he was perfectly unremarkable. But when he came closer I saw the white, beaded strings of slaver swaying from his unfurled bottom lip. He brushed past me with a glazed stare toward the gutters, a stare that might—to somebody not looking very closely—appear pensive.

And this:

...the brawny balding man with the sunned skull and the heavy, very capable hands, lying unconscious on his back on the clean sidewalk in the rue de l’Estrapade. Flat on his back in front of the artful ironwork gates of that one bright patrician house, the one that looks like a guidebook photograph. And he wasn’t sidled up to the gate, either—no, he was sprawled at the center of the pavement, a great X of a body, like someone who had fallen from some unreckonable height....

(continue reading this entry in Part II, "Paris Notes Continued," below)

Paris Notes Continued

(continued from above, Paris Notes: Rilke, Malte Laurids Brigge, and the Latin Quarter Today)

A drizzle had started: sidewalks and cobblestones all splattered with dark, ponderous droplets. There was no getting past the man except by crossing the street; he lay completely in my path, face-up in the drizzle with his big workman’s hands flung out at both sides and rain falling into the blemished palms. He didn’t appear to stir in the least to that coolness on his face. Next to the blue number of a house three or four doors down an engraved plaque was hung which reported, with nearly implausible irrelevance: “Denis Diderot, that great mind of the French Enlightenment, lived here at such-and-such a date.”

What more? There were many…

…the little dark-skinned man whose upper body was disfigured to the shape of a crescent moon. He was at the corner of the rue Cardinal Lemoine and the boulevard Saint Germain when I saw him. Pacing back and forth with a cigarette in his hand. He kept turning and turning on mincing feet: two tentative steps this way, two that way—as though confined in the tiny box of pain that each movement erected around him, as though expecting again and again to find the pain diminished by a simple about-face, again and again coming hard against the pain. The stubby cigarette kept jumping to his lips—quick pert little puff, then down again. He was neatly dressed: a good thick shirt well fitted to his scoliotic trunk and tucked smartly into his trousers. But he looked confused, seized by that distinctive confusion of people lost within themselves. He was still moving back and forth with those little satyr-like steps when I reached the quay two blocks ahead and rounded the corner.

And this, just last night:

...the tawny man on the Pont de la Tournelle: dressed all in brown, and brown himself, his pale skin seized in filth as in tarnished copper.

He was standing against the stone wall of the bridge with one shrunken hand cupped before him—not held forth in confident need—no, but kept close against his jacket, the fingers curled, the plea of the concave palm barely apparent. At his back was Notre Dame. I was watching the vaporous twilight behind the cathedral towers and didn’t notice the man till I’d passed within a few feet of him. He was standing extremely erect, as if rigid with an effort to press himself out of sight, to blend into the waist-high stone wall. Yet his need remained. His need kept his hand aloft in its dimly remembered gesture. There was a tall streetlamp beside him. It flickered aglow with all the other ones along the quay and with those huge nightlamps that enhalo the great cathedral—flickered just as I was going by him. I saw the shapeless bulk of his face: the knife-thin slits where he’d squeezed shut his eyes. He could no longer so much as look to see who his benefactors might be. He was far inside himself and it was purely obligatory to stand there in accord with his body’s need, to permit the hand to importune; he had no part in it. His lips were drawn back, his teeth bared in a deep-breathing grimace. And this was the most painful part of it: he was snuffling, or panting, or giggling—I couldn’t tell which. Sharp spasmodic sibilations almost like words, but not words. None of these people use mere words; Malte, you know this only too well.

I went past the man (just like everyone went past him) and down the stone stairs to the quay where twilight people were loitering in the mild river air. I sat down and watched the boats go by. Sat for an hour or so. And the man remained on the bridge above me. I kept looking up and seeing his brown back and inert shoulders, his brown head turning neither left nor right. The colored lights had come on in the arches of the bridge: bright colors, but they somehow shed a tainted haze. The man stood motionless in the urinous gleam. People went by him. At length I looked up again and he was gone.

But Malte, I may wonder in my time as you did in yours: in what niche does such a man carve his bed by night? Where is the place he returns to? We wonder because wondering gains us a share in the destinies of strangers—and what could better suit the work we do?

Or maybe the man hadn’t gone. Maybe he’d just lain down below the wall where I couldn’t see.

Goodnight, Paris. Goodnight city toward which so much envy flows from all corners of the earth. Again your streets will coil in their knotted courses around me as I sleep. But I am hindered by the labyrinth no more; I’ve long since surrendered. Tomorrow I’ll tarry again. It need not matter that I am lost.