Monday, June 25, 2007

Audio: William H. Gass on Rilke

Here's the audio of a fascinating conversation about Rainer Maria Rilke, with KCRW's "Bookworm" host Michael Silverblatt and American novelist William H. Gass, author of Omensetter's Luck. Gass discusses his nonfiction work Reading Rilke. The discussion was recorded in 2004. I wouldn't put Rilke's art in the crass, somewhat oversimplified biographical terms that Gass sometimes does, but it's great fun to listen in as he and Silverblatt talk about Rilke's life and work.

A snippet:

Gass: [Rilke] is trying to do something in one sense impossible, and that is to make a verbal object into a thing. And Rodin is teaching him--not only to make works of art from the ontological view, from the point of view of creating being and placing it in the world as solidly as a statue--but also to give it a kind of almost impressionistic, multilayered, multisurfaced effect
that Rodin was getting in his sculpture. But it is also, of course, for Rilke an enormously important time psychologically, because what he's doing when he begins to write The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is to write about a failed poet. And Rilke is seeing himself for the first time as a failure, as someone who is risking a failure, and while he's courting, in order to stay alive (he's getting paid for this monograph on Rodin)--he's courting genius, success, overwhelming success that Rodin is enjoying at this time. Moreover, Rodin is in a sense, from [Rilke's] point of view, coarse, sexually on the rampage... And there's this little Lord Fauntleroy type watching all this, who then goes back to a little squalid room in Paris and can hardly make ends meet, and who is also feeling an enormous amount of guilt, because he has in effect left his wife and small child. It's a mess. And that very mess is something that Rilke was able to make a capital of.

And here's a little bit from Lost Son dealing with these same critical Paris days in Rilke's life. The poet is standing before Notre Dame Cathedral at twilight:

"The cathedral is perhaps the greatest of all this city's things, and it unifies all that surrounds it...What beautiful power it is that this Notre Dame in its grand thingness can take such discordant elements and draw them all into a pure harmonic. Rodin's body of work has a similar power: his sculpture seems to have gathered everything, everything into itself. And Rainer wonders now: How may a poet acquire such ingathering power? How not merely understand the power but acquire it? How construct as the Master does?

Rainer knows he's nothing like Rodin--no sculptor, no craftsman. Enormous hunks of stone arrive frequently at Meudon. The Master orders the stones set down on the lawn that he may circle them with his thoughtful topheavy stride, his hand wandering in his beard. The poet has watched his eyes and seen the visions kindling there. In blocks of intransigent stone, fragments of mountains that move only with the strength of several men, Rodin gratefully receives the heaviness of his work.

Rainer, though, is no sculptor. By what handcraft, then, could he possibly make work of this city's things?--of this city's fear, even, which stands three-dimensional amongst the things? The fear, he sees now, could be a unifying power should one muster the strength to make it such. But what immeasurable quantities of strength would be required? How might he get outside himself and make of himself a hand to grasp Paris and everything Paris stirs up inside?--to give it all a form, a shape?"

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Portland Event #3 -- Powells Books

Monday June 18 -- I read from talk about Lost Son (and sign copies) at Powells Books on Hawthorne. The reading begins at 7:30 pm. This is my final Portland event for a while.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Portland Event #2

Tonight I read from Lost Son at 23rd Avenue Books in NW Portland. The event starts at 7:30.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Book Group Expo Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Sunday June 10, I will be in attendance at the 2nd annual BOOK GROUP EXPO in downtown San Jose, CA. At 11:30 am, I'll participate in a panel with fellow authors Nathan Englander, Michelin Marcom and Elizabeth Rosner. Our discussion will be hosted by KQED radio's Michael Krasny.

BOOK GROUP EXPO was a lot of fun last year, with a full-day schedule of author salons on intriguing subjects. If you are in a book group, or are merely a bibliophile, it could well be worth a trip to San Jose.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Audio Interview

I recently discussed Lost Son with Kay Callison, that should-be legendary interviewer of the American Audio Prose Library. It was a two-hour conversation, but you can listen to some parts of it, neatly edited, in a podcast here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cormac Speaks

If you happened to view the historic, first-ever TV interview with Cormac McCarthy on yesterday's Oprah Winfrey show, for godsake don't stop there. Go to Oprah's website and watch the fascinating moments that were left out of the edited conversation that aired.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Event Report: Annie Blooms Books, Portland

Last night was my inaugural Portland reading from Lost Son, held at Annie Blooms Books in Portland's charming Multnomah Village. The event was well attended, and to my delight the majority of listeners were readers of Rilke.

It was a pleasure to gather and discuss the great poet and his work. Below are some snippets from the q&a, approximately recreated (and also embellished, at points, with things I wish I had said).

Gentleman in the back row: Would you speak a little about your feelings on whether Rilke led a "healthy" life?

Me: The question of Rilke's psychological "health" is an interesting one. My novel avoids (appropriately, I believe) a Freudian approach to Rilke, so its narrative doesn't really seek to answer the question in any conclusive way. I will say, though, that Rilke himself acknowledged, through his whole adult life, his own "complexes" and emotional and spiritual dilemmas. He was such an immensely sensitive, self-aware person that it would have been impossible for him to live in any kind of denial about these things. And he was always honest, sometimes painfully so, with those around him regarding his own shortcomings. The possibility of undergoing psychoanalysis was constantly on his mind, though till the end he resisted such treatment, choosing to recognize, instead, that his art was in many ways his own method of working through things (and fearing that pyschoanalysis would "rid him of both his devils and his angels too"). Rilke cherished a quote from Rudolf Kassner, which says: "The road from intensity to greatness lies through sacrifice." So, in a very conscious way Rilke knew that he was giving up a great many things, even perhaps choosing a less-than-happy life for the sake of his work as a poet, which he felt demanded solitude -- and he emphasized that quality of sacrifice. In the end, I believe he spoke his own authentic truth when he said that he could only be a poet -- that a life committed wholly and entirely to art was the only life he could really lead.

Gentlelady in the back row: Was there ever a point during the writing of this novel when you felt overwhelmed or daunted to be writing about somebody like Rilke?

Me: Yes, yes, yes. This novel was in many moments a terrifying journey for me. I mean, here I am, a kid from the suburbs of Northern California writing a novel about one of the world's greatest poets! At many points, I had to wilfully avoid thinking about it in those exact terms, because the material itself, the sheer mass of story and fact that needed to be shaped down to a digestible narrative--that alone was almost overwhelming at times. To entertain any fears about how the finished book might be received would simply have paralyzed me. Writing a novel, after all, is one of the most personal things one can do, and yet this particular novel, given the fame of its main character and the passionate responses he arouses, really felt like a dauntingly public act. In the end, of course, Lost Son is entirely personal, as it had to be. I felt that such a story, dealing with a figure as large and legendary as Rilke, could only be handled as something personal, as an encounter of sorts. In fact, I've been referring to the book as "a letter to a ghost."