Thursday, May 24, 2007

Discerning Transitions

Lost Son has now appeared in most bookstores.

To mark its arrival, I post this passage from Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Ibsen is the writer being described here, but for me the following prose articulates my own relationship to Rilke himself, to whom I was first introduced 15 years ago, and well describes my enduring bewilderment and wonder through the years-long process of creating Lost Son.

"There I sat before your books, obstinate man, trying to understand them the way those others do who do not leave you intact, but have taken their portion and are satisfied.

For as yet I did not understand fame, that pubic destruction of one in process of becoming, into whose building-ground the mob breaks, displacing his stones...

Most lonely one, holding aloof, how they have caught up with you by reason of your fame.

But lately they were against you from the very root, and now they deal with you as with their equal.

And they carry your words with them in the cages of their presumption and exhibit them in the squares and tease them a little from their own safe distance.

All your terrible wild beasts.

Only then did I read you, when for me they broke out and fell upon me in my wilderness, desperate as they are.

Desperate, as you yourself became in the end, you whose course is wrongly entered on every chart.

Like a fissure it crosses the heavens, this hopeless hyperbola of your path, that only once curves toward us and draws off again in terror.

What did it matter to you whether a woman stays or goes and whether someone is seized with dizziness and someone else with madness and whether the dead live and the living appear to be dead: what did it matter to you?

It was all so natural for you; you passed through it, as one crosses a vestibule, and did not stop.

But yonder you lingered, stooping; where our becoming seethes and precipitates and changes color, inside.

Farther in than anyone has yet been; a door had sprung open before you, and now you were among the alembics in the firelight.

Yonder where, mistrustful, you took no one with you, yonder you sat discerning transitions."

(This comes from M.D. Herter Norton's now classic translation of Malte, first published 1949 by W.W. Norton.)

Ondaatje & Rilke

Reading Michael Ondaatje's glorious new novel Divisadero, which appears in stores next week, it struck me that the following passage could apply to the character of Rainer Maria Rilke in my own novel, Lost Son.

The "old writer," with his bittersweet message to the boy, seems a Rilkean figure.

"When I wrote, the man said, that was the only time I would think. I would sit down with a notebook and a pen, and I would be lost in a story. The old writer, seemingly at peace, thus casually suggested to Rafael a path he might take during his own life, and taught him how he could be alone and content, guarded from all he knew, even those he loved, and in this strange way, be fully understanding of them. It was in a sense a terrible proposal of secrecy -- what you might do with a life, with all those hours being separated from it -- that could lead somehow to intimacy. The man had made himself an example of it. The solitary in his busy and crowded world of invention. It was one of the last things the writer talked to him about."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

McCarthy & Rilke

While reading Cormac McCarthy's play The Stonemason yesterday, I noted this allusion to Rilke's Duino Elegies:

"BEN: The big elm tree died. The old dog died. Things that you can touch go away forever. I dont know what that means. I dont know what it means that things exist and then exist no more. Trees. Dogs. People. Will that namelessness into which we vanish then taste of us?"

Here's Rilke's Second Duino Elegy:

"Like dew from the early grass, that which is ours rises from us the heat from a hot dish. O smile, where do you go? O expression in the eyes:
new warm escaping wave of the heart--;
how it hurts me; we are these very things. So does the world-space,
in which we come loose, taste of us?"

Friday, May 11, 2007

For the Portlanders Among Us

Lost Son is now for sale at Powells Books and Annie Blooms.

In stock at the Powells Burnside, Hawthorne, Airport and Beaverton locations.

For those outside Portland, check your
local independent bookstore.

The novel will appear in the Barnes & Nobles and Borders of the world next month.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Six Questions About the Novel LOST SON & its Protagonist Rilke

Lost Son tells of the life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Who was Rilke?

That is a bigger question than I could pretend to answer, and Lost Son is less an authoritative portrait than it is a letter sent to a ghost. Rainer Maria Rilke is almost universally recognized as one of the world’s greatest poets. But he is perhaps best loved in the United States for the prose of his Letters to a Young Poet, a slim little volume offering some remarkable, unorthodox perspectives on such things as love, solitude, grief, art, and fate. It’s a book cherished with near religiosity by many people young and old. Rilke was born in Prague in 1875 and died at age 51 in Switzerland.

What drew you to telling Rilke’s story?

I am fascinated by how wholly and entirely Rilke lived and breathed as a poet, almost to the exclusion of everything else – and am particularly fascinated by his much-expressed conviction that living this way was his only real method of surviving in the world. One gets the sense, while reading his amazing work, that Rilke was a nerve laid bare to everything around him, that every impression and experience affected him almost physically, vibrating inside him and eventually becoming transformed to poetry. The unique way in which he “utilized” his vulnerability would ultimately take him from provincial-born, sickly, psychologically mistreated child to enduring master artist held dear by readers all across the planet. I wanted to live in, explore, and evoke that strangely inspiring, sometimes disturbing process of artistic development and all its reverberations.

Why did you choose to explore Rilke’s life in a novel rather than a biography?

It seemed that a novel would allow me to explore the poet's remarkable life at a level of intimacy that a more academic format just would not permit. For a figure of such great specialness as Rilke, the fictional form seemed appropriately special. Amidst his powerful poetic output, Rilke authored a single novel called The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It’s an astounding book, pungent and luminous and unlike anything else in the realm of fiction that I know of. Malte is semi-autobiographical, and I’ve always been intrigued by Rilke’s urge to novelize his own life story to some degree. Likewise, I’ve always found his real biography irresistibly intriguing, and I suppose Lost Son first began with the thought, ‘why not take the actual life and novelize it in full?’ – from Rilke’s childhood being raised as a girl and then being abruptly shipped off to military school, to his passionate affair at age 21 with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a famous intellectual 14 years his senior, to his close friendship with the great sculptor Rodin. All the dramas and relationships of a strong novel were there waiting.

What sort of research went into Lost Son?

Well, aside from exploring Rilke’s body of work, I’ve read pretty much all the major titles about Rilke available in English (biographies, commentaries, etc.), but most of those I absorbed early from mere personal fascination, prior to any plan for this novel. Otherwise, I’ve done quite a bit of Rilkean traveling, visiting places of importance to the poet: Prague, Munich, the Swiss Valais, etc. Once I got well into the writing of Lost Son, I traveled to Paris and stayed for a few months in the neighborhood where Rilke lived. In Paris I did a bit of archival exploration, mainly at the Rodin Museum where a great number of Rilke’s original letters to the sculptor are kept. But my research, aside from exploring the available information relating to Rilke’s life, was largely impressionistic: traveling and observing, walking around Paris and doing lots of imagining.

Did you find yourself having to re-order, leave out, or distort biographical facts while writing Lost Son?

The material of Rilke’s life – his experiences and relationships – was so rich already that surprisingly little manipulation of fact was required in order to get to a story of great drama. Lost Son tells Rilke's story quite faithfully.

What’s your favorite work by Rilke?

I think my answer to that will change depending on when you ask me. Right now, I’m most in admiration of The Book of Hours and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.