The following concludes my interview with Kay Callison. Begin with Part I here.
Do you think Rilke blamed himself for not being there for [Paula Modersohn-Becker] when she decided to go back to her husband?
I think the guilt that he did suffer over that is evident in the Requiem that he wrote for Paula two years later. It is one of his major poems, and it encapsulates all the driving conflicts of his own life – the idea of how strangely separate art and life can seem from one another sometimes, and the tension between this drive for artistic mastery and the resulting tragedy in one’s personal life. It’s all there in that poem.
Can you tell us how Lost Son was inspired, or a response, to Rilke’s big novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge?
Rilke’s novel was largely autobiographical and the germinating notion for me in writing Lost Son was that he himself recognized all these complex dramas in his own life and novelized them to some degree. So why not just novelize the whole life? And in doing that, somehow pay homage to this amazing novel that he did write. So there are certain elements in Lost Son that are inspired directly by scenes that occur in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. These were often scenes that actually occurred in Rilke’s life, so I hope there is an interesting interplay between Rilke’s created work and the life that produced it, and then this later novel created across this generational divide, based on Rilke’s life and what he had created.
When I first read Lost Son I will confess that I couldn’t imagine how you had so successfully described what the streets of Paris actually looked like and felt like and smelled like to Rilke when he first went there and what a shock to the senses it was to him. And then I learned about the photographer, Eugene Atget. Was finding Atget’s photographs of that time in Paris a dramatic discovery for you?
Yes. It really blew my imagination open in terms of how to capture the Paris that Rilke knew. Atget was working at the same exact time in Paris that Rilke was living there and writing his novel, based on his own experiences in Paris. We have a photographic documentation in Atget of what Rilke was documenting in the poetic manner in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. And sometimes you can hold the two bodies of work up next to each other and the parallels are just astounding. What’s more, I found out that they were living in the same apartment building in Montparnasse, at exactly the same time!
Do you suppose they knew each other?
I don’t know! That’s an amazing sort of feast for the imagination. A whole other novel could be written about a speculative friendship between Atget and Rilke. And I’ve been surprised to learn that they haven’t been discussed together much at all, that the connections and parallels between their two bodies of work haven’t been studied more closely.
Did the photographs of Eugene Atget help you get to work on writing this novel?
They did, mainly in the structural sense. Prior to discovering these photographs, the book didn’t start with Rilke’s arrival in Paris, for instance. It took me quite a while to discover that that was the entrée to this book. And that came about through Atget’s work. It enabled me to visualize the terrors that Paris caused Rilke, and to evoke how seeing all that squalor around him could send him reeling back into boyhood. And then we could find out about the relationships that had
formed him and the unique traumatic experiences that had formed his sensibility as a poet.
Well it gave you a physical presence to work with, a real place.
I think that’s a big thing for me as a writer. I’m finding it’s really hard for me to work without a strong sense of place. I need a place that’s kind of a driving character in the story. It helps me inhabit that world, and hopefully evoke it effectively.
So to do research you did travel for 10 weeks in Europe, and follow Rilke’s life path?
I did. That was a ten week pilgrimage in 2001. We went to Prague and we went to Munich where he met Lou and we ended up in the Rhone valley of Switzerland where he lived at the tower of Muzot. We walked around it in the dark. It was a very eerie and vivid experience. Later, I went back to Paris for eight weeks to do more research with the papers and letters.
At the end the novel, the teller of the tale, your persona, walks up to Rilke’s apartment in Munich where he spent those years right after World War I, and meets him on the street. Did you actually have a moment like that where you sensed his presence?
I did, actually, and it was a moment very similar to that one that’s captured at the end of the book, in Munich, on that very street corner. There’s a plaque on the house where he lived. It has his face on it and just a few words to the effect that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke lived here, in 1917. That was the first moment in 2001 in which I arrived at a place where Rilke had lived and spent a lot of time. It was my first experience of that feeling of living in a certain layer of time that somehow overlaps the layers of time that Rilke lived in that same place. It was a really powerful experience for me.
You have said that Lost Son was in some ways a letter sent to a ghost. What did you mean by that?
Saying it is a letter sent to a ghost is my way of highlighting the very personal nature of the novel. This is in no way a book that purports to be an authoritative portrait of Rilke. Writing a book about a figure like Rilke can only be a personal process, because someone like him, a poet so much larger than life, who’s become a figure of great legend, gets subjected to a force that the generations who try to understand his work exert upon him. He is turned into a spokesman, I guess, for a certain way of life or a certain artistic manner. That in turn creates something of a two camp situation where he’s either adored as a saint [of poetry] or he’s reviled as a profligate husband and father who failed to live up to his duties. The truth is probably neither of those things. It’s always a more deeply human, a much more complex situation than that. So really the only way to approach his story is in a very personal manner.
Can you give your take on the aesthetic that Rilke was studying with Lou and took for himself, the “thing form,” the ding-gedicht? Is that akin to what his contemporary, the great American poet William Carlos Williams, said: “No ideas but in things?”
Absolutely, and I think there’s also a parallel in T. S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative, of tying, somehow using an object or a thing to express the secrets of our own inner selves, all of our unfathomable conflicted feelings and emotions. Somehow when you focus your artistic attention on a “thing” and seek to create it as wholly as possible through some artistic discipline, in Rilke’s case, poetry, just by looking at a thing and rendering it, you can plumb pretty deeply a lot of human mysteries.
Right, you generate the higher idea.
Yes, so its not so much about explicitly exploring an emotion on a page as it is about exploring a thing and seeing what that draws out in him. That’s another thing that I love about Rilke! His sense of living in this world that is just teeming with things. As human beings it‘s all we have, really. We are these souls walking around in a world of objects and things and so how can we not have an incredibly intimate relationship to those things and how can they not tell us a great deal about ourselves.
And it would seem that you’ve carried that same aesthetic into both of your novels.
Oh really? I’m flattered to hear that.
The finished novel, Lost Son, is your exploration of the “thing” of Rilke’s life and the times and places he lived in, especially Paris, and I can only imagine what a watershed those photos of Atget’s must have been for you.
Yes, that’s a perfect example of what we are talking about. And that’s funny that you bring up William Carlos Williams, who was a physician, because Rilke always had this joke that started when he was with Lou. He would say well, if it gets to be that my poetry is basically destroying me because of what it puts me through, you know, I’ll become a country doctor somewhere. And he came back to that constantly in his life, in his darkest periods. He would joke to himself, or he would joke to a friend in letters, maybe it’s time to give up poetry and move to a small village and become a country doctor. It was like a fantasy that he held out for himself.
If a reader were to ask you what one important thing you would want him or her to take away from reading Lost Son, what would that be?
I love this quote by Lee Siegel that I use as an epigraph at the opening of the novel. It states the driving spirit of Lost Son: “We must understand one another or die. And we will never understand one another if we cannot understand the famous dead, those fragments of the past who sit half buried and gesturing to us on memory’s contested shores.” When we inherit these legendary poet figures and we’re given their work and their lives, we can take them and try our best to interpret and understand them. But it remains a fact that there are going to be really complex, ultimately unanswerable questions raised by that work and that life. There’s a real value in dwelling upon this kind of life and exploring the questions that it raises, and exploring the tensions within the life and the conflicts that were created within the life. It somehow helps our own humanity become something more expansive, more empathetic, when we can explore those things.
-- Interview conducted by Kay Callison
-- Listen to the podcast of Mark Cunningham on www.unbridledbooks.com