As noted previously in this blog, Kay Callison interviewed me about Lost Son for a podcast. The finished podcast was a neatly edited version of a much longer conversation. Here follows part I of the full discussion.
You’ve put out quite an impressive a body of work for your age, young man! Two large novels -- The Green Age of Asher Witherow and now Lost Son.
Both of your novels have been written from history. Is that coincidence?
You know, that’s kind of funny. I guess it is coincidence but I find myself drawn back to that same kind of thing in starting my 3rd novel now, a historical setting, late 19th century. This time it’s my family’s history, but it’s the same experience of sifting through this material and finding the story in it, finding the narrative arc. And I don’t know why I am so drawn to the 19th century. It might be partly that my reading life began with the great 19th century writers, American writers, Emerson and Thoreau. They were my first literary Gods.
When you were 14, your mother gave you a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and that started you on a path to becoming a great fan of his work. But what brought you to write a novel about Rilke?
That was a driving question through the course of writing Lost Son, which was "why am I not writing a biography, and writing a novel instead?" One answer to that is just that I’m not an academic. But the more compelling answer to me, as a fiction writer, was that this life story seemed so rich with dramas and tensions and conflicts and relationships and these really incredibly inspiring moments that it was just ready made for a dramatic, complex narrative. Fiction can be so special and so moving, with the absolute immediacy and absolute intimacy that it creates, so the novel seemed a very suitable way to approach a life that was as special and complex and deeply human as Rilke’s life is.
For instance, one of the first images that came to me was the young Rilke in the outfit of a girl. Something about that really haunted me, and I thought that would be a powerful image to put early in the novel. That aspect of his childhood truly fascinates me -- how it contributed to forming his sensibility; his extreme sensitivity, his lack of any protection in the world, and his total vulnerability to everything around him.
Rilke’s father always blamed Rilke’s mother for everything that went wrong with him, and yet Rilke seemed very devoted to her, as a little boy. When did his attitude change, and why?
I think the turning point came when Rilke was about ten years old. He was sent away to military academy and really left to his own devices among a whole host of boys all two years older, rough and tumble military family kids. Prior to that, Rilke had been raised as a girl, and his mother had inculcated this whole practice of responding to her in a very feminine, very obsequious way. It’s true that in Europe at the time Rilke was being raised it was a pretty common practice for little sons to be raised as little daughters in terms of dress and fashion and even behavior, playing with dolls and what not. But in the context of his family, it was taken to a greater extreme, I think. Biographers speculate that the motivation for that was that Rilke’s mother had lost a baby daughter a year before she gave birth to him and so she was seeking to fill some void.
Tell us about Lou Andreas Salome.
Rilke’s relationship with Lou is really a major chord in this book and its an astonishing story. The year they met, 1897, she was a famous writer in Europe. She had written a biography of Nietzsche with whom she had had something of a romantic liaison that ended badly – for Nietzsche. Essentially she refused his advances, and the speculation was that his madness was partly a result of that. So she was this lady of letters, an accomplished writer, and already known to be the woman who had broken Nietzsche’s heart. Later on, she befriended Freud and became one his first protégés.
The dynamic between Lou and Rilke and then the way their relationship transpired from 1897 basically to Rilke’s death 30 years later starts with a tumultuous affair, during which she became to Rilke a surrogate mother, a sister, a spouse, and a muse, all at once. Then at a certain point she had to cut the cord, and -- as she saw it, for his own well being -- send him off on his own. He was sent reeling from that for a long time, and Lost Son really does seek to capture the enduring love that he felt for Lou, the sense that she was the unattainable romance of his life.
What is your take on her in terms of her relationship with Rilke? Do you see a certain amount of seduction/alienation behavior in it?
Oh! That’s interesting! It was to some degree, I think. But things were complicated. She was 14 years older than he when they first had the affair; and she was married and he was essentiallyan obscure poor nobody, at 21 just trying to fulfill this sense of his destiny as a poet.
It depends on the reader, I guess, but you can read this novel and you can infer that.
Oh sure! Yes! And I like that aspect! I want the book to remain an open question in many regards; for readers to inhabit these relationships and come away thinking about them in various ways. But I’ve been very cautious not to come to a judgment like that, because, in the process of creating this novel, it seemed to me that an explicit sort of perspective like that might diminish the complexity of all the human conflicts that are happening in these relationships.
Now what do you make of Lou’s condemnation of him to his wife, Clara? Lou visits Clara in 1907, long after their affair, and denounces Rilke as “an apostate father and husband,” who anybody in their right mind would send the police after.
Right. That’s a very odd moment in the Rilke-Lou relationship, because they hadn’t been lovers for seven years but they’d been maintaining an avid and really personal correspondence for about a four year period, one of great sympathy and understanding and mutual respect. You wonder how deep her bond was and how much love she harbored for Rilke. And how that influenced this seemingly random attack, in 1907. Did it come from some old wound in her in never being able to fulfill what could possibly have been a great relationship? Because Lou and Rilke were in many ways destined to be together. In any case, she seems to have had some kind of epiphany or come to some place of feeling that she was entitled to judge Rilke, after finally meeting Clara without Rilke’s being there, which I think was a real shock to Lou in some ways. They could relate to each other as the two women who were really the magnetic poles of Rilke’s existence. He gravitated between Lou and Clara, Lou being the unattainable lover muse and Clara the wife, fellow worker, and fellow artist.
Who he has abandoned.
Right, Lou does make that charge. But I think its interesting how Clara responds at that moment. The relationship between Clara and Rilke so fascinates me because she always deeply respected Rilke’s need for solitude even while sometimes urging him for greater intimacy. Their letters on the subject of their lives together when they’re talking about how they’ll manage to live together, or if they’ll manage to live together, are full of this mutual understanding that’s very moving. And after Lou made these accusations in 1907, and Clara was the one who came back and communicated all these charges to him, she says she couldn’t defend him, but she
communicated the news in a way that was very tender. It was almost as if she didn’t know what to make of it. She presented it to him as if to say “I didn’t know what to tell Lou. I was surprised by this. What do you have to say?”
Do you have a sense from reading all the correspondence between Rilke and Clara as to whether or not this really was a mutual decision to live separately, so as to pursue their respective careers?
Well I know that she deeply respected his wishes, and that’s clear in her letters. There’s a real
sense of understanding between them in the correspondence. But at the same time it is interesting to look closely at her letters, particularly early on in their relationship during the time shortly after Worpspede [an artist’s colony of sorts where they met and married], when their correspondence first took off. You get a sense that she is still defining herself as an artist, and she latches onto and responds to Rilke’s ability to articulate his own artistic needs and requirements. And that answers a need in her to define those things for herself. So I think her sensibility of what it meant to be an artist and the importance of solitude and the importance of constant work was nurtured within the context of her developing relationship with Rilke.
The other intensely close and influential relationship on Rilke was with the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, and he too threw him out!
Right. Rilke first met Rodin in 1902. He had come to Paris to write a monograph about the sculptor’s work, and Rodin became something of an idol for Rilke in his manner of working steadily and with this immense and powerful discipline that Rilke had not yet been able to attain in his own work. He quickly saw Rodin’s example as the means by which he could one day rise to artistic greatness. So Rodin became a much admired figure in Rilke’s life and very important to his personal development as a poet.
And then just turned on him. Which he had a habit of doing, apparently. How did Rilke react?
His immediate response was to write a letter to Rodin the very following day. The essence was: "I know you have done this because you have to protect yourself and protect your art. I will take that as an example; and the strength that you have shown in your own discipline and in your own self awareness as an artist is something I will seek to emulate." It was really a remarkable response and a very humble response.
Was that really the way Rilke felt, do you think?
It’s really hard to know, and that’s why he’s an amazing figure for a novel. He is so wholly and entirely a poet that there’s no other way to know him except through the things he created, and a major part of his body of work was his correspondence. He wrote more than 10,000 letters and he’s creating himself as a poet in his letters, just as he is in his work. Beyond that, I think mostly he just felt disowned because he had just lost his own father, and Rodin was like a 2nd father. So he must have thought, “Oh my God, I’m a lost son again.” [after losing Lou]. His life was just a series of events that orphaned him again and again and again. It’s just amazing. And it began early on. First he was a girl. Then he was a military cadet, then he was a business school cadet, and then he was a law student. Then he was a husband, then he was a father, then he was a secretary [to Rodin] and then he became again a soldier [Rilke was drafted into the Austrian army at the age of 40].
And in there he also became a lover to his soul mate, Lou, with whom he felt like he had found “Home,” only to be sent away. Another very important relationship in the novel is with Paula Modersohn-Becker, the painter. Did you bring that forward for the purpose of the novel, or was that friendship indeed as precious and important to him and to Clara as it seems in the novel?
Yes, it was just as important and precious as in the book. Rilke and Clara were friends with Paula from their time in Worpspede around 1900, and Clara and Paula had been friends prior to that. Later on in Paris in 1906 when Paula was there working, Rilke was deeply touched by her circumstances, how she had essentially left her husband against his wishes because she had this passionate belief that she had a destiny as a painter. Early on, Rilke and Paula didn’t see eye to eye on the way he wanted to live, his need to be separate from his wife and daughter. But later on, after several years of marriage, she came to understand it and came to a place in her art, too, where she felt she could identify with that perspective.
(continue to Part II of the interview)