Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Find LOST SON on the rue Princesse

Lost Son is one of just 14 featured hardcovers at the famous Village Voice Bookshop in Paris! Merci beacoup, Village Voice.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rilke in Paris: 105 Years Ago

On this day in 1902 Rainer Maria Rilke arrived for the first time in Paris. He was twenty-six. He and Clara Westhoff had been married for a year and a half. Their daughter Ruth was 10 months old.

Rilke came to Paris alone, and Clara planned to join him after an indefinite period. Little Ruth would be cared for by Clara's parents. Rilke and Clara didn't know how long they would remain in the city, but they knew their quaint household in Westerwede, in the north of Germany, would be dissolved.

Rilke's main purpose in journeying to Paris was to make the acquaintance of Auguste Rodin and write a monograph about the great sculptor. The monograph had been commissioned by the Berlin publisher Richard Muther.

Paris proved an immediate shock to the poet. His accomodations were shabby, and he found the Latin Quarter claustrophobic and bristling with squalor. Paris generally seemed to him a city of the dead. His arrival there marked a major turning point in his life and his art -- and thus would prove a landmark moment for modern literature.

Out of Rilke's experiences in Paris came the remarkable book on Rodin, and -- eventually -- a magnificent novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, as well as the New Poems (which include "The Panther," "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," and many other famous works).

At the beginning of Lost Son, Rilke has just made this signicant arrival, and the city quickly sends him reeling:

'The City was against me. It rose up before my life and was like an examination I could not pass.'

Three long days alone with Paris. It seems a lifetime of sorts. Rainer walks about in a troubled thrall. The dim crevasses of the Quartier Latin digest him and even for his Baedeker he is lost. He must widen his stride to overstep lank piles of trash heaped in the streets, pockets of dross and litter amongst the cobblestones. Rag pickers trundle toward him steering their rude and wobbling carts and he must stop and turn himself flat to a wall to let them by. In the grim fissures of lanes or alleyways sallow people stand amidst the puddles in sagging clothes, back between the houses where the huge worms of the pipes droop from the walls like vermin killed and curing. He sees small children peering up from sullied basement windows: pale hairless wastrels like moles. And just as the gutters along every street bear the sluglike flow of fluids, so does a strange and abounding fear coagulate in the very air, hardening into sound till it seems some discarnate voice is spluttering the name of this place with malfeasant insistence: ParisssParisssParisss! A name somehow reptilian, infernal in its pop and hiss: Parisssss. Fork-tongued city. It's fast becoming his private capital of fear.

And yet it is a great city, and not without beauty, certainly not -- and isn't that natural: for such dread to be bedfellow to such beauty? At the end of this momentous apprenticeship beginning now in Paris, Rainer Maria Rilke will write:

'The beautiful is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still unguardedly endure, / and we admire it so because it spurns us, stopping short of our destruction.'

But these streets. These streets engulf the poet as they have long since engulfed the gaunt gray man he sees daily guarding the door of Saint Etienne du Mont: the man's rheumatic hand cupped in front of him, his dumb mouth contorted in an effort toward words. The man tries and tries, but never speaks. And it seems he means to utter some inexpressible gratitude, with never a thought of whether a single charitable coin has fallen to his big-knuckled hand.

Rainer sees at once how easily he himself could go under in that manner, this city's sea of anonymity churning him down and his every word snared fast in its greasy undertow.

He's to meet Rodin on first September, when the sculptor expects him in his Paris atelier. Till then, in his sordid fifth-story silence, the poet wrestles with the need inside him. Need that incessantly makes itself felt but cowers when he gives it leave to come forth as work. He sits at the broken desk, the window open at his side, and the need is a confused shudder; he cannot tell its meaning. He waits at the desk, full of readiness. The need won't slacken, and neither will it bring anything forth. But Rainer does not move from the desk, for this time spent at the desk is the reason he's come to this city. For this he's abandoned everything, in order, perhaps, that everything might return to him somehow.

Outside, far below in the street, people are laughing. Laughing and running. Feet tromping by in breathless clatter. And it's the laughter of something big and profoundly contemptuous. The clatter of everything within him: running away....

Monday, August 27, 2007

Rainer Maria Rilke: Myths, Masks,
    & the Literature of a Life

Louis Menand's discussion of "the biography business" in his August 6 New Yorker article, "Lives of Others," contains several observations that interest me greatly in light of my own biographical adventures researching and composing my novel about Rainer Maria Rilke, Lost Son.

Menand emphasizes that the task of biographical objectivity is a fundamentally impossible one, because "people lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and to vent. These are rarely sites for balanced and considered reflection. They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception. But diaries and letters are the materials with which biographies are built, generally in the belief that the 'real' person is the private person, and the public person is mostly a performance."

Laying Menand's comments into the context of Rainer Maria Rilke's life, we find this gauntlet of public-versus-private assuming a new and compelling intensity.

If ever a life demanded a biographer rely upon letters and diaries, it was Rilke's. For biographical fodder we have his poetic corpus and published prose works, a few journals, some remarkable accounts by friends and contemporaries, and Rilke's more than 11,000 letters. Astonishingly, all the material, at every juncture, presents an image of Man and Work unified—in other words, we find a figure who lived in a state of ceaseless poetic disposition.
For Rilke the line between public and private did not exist. He presented to the world the persona of the unadulterated artist (committed wholly and exclusively, at every private hour, to his work) and he seems to have embodied this persona in all his private moments as well.

But biography demands that the biographer bifurcate his subject. As Menand notes, the actual person must be isolated from the public persona. It's an art of balanced scrutiny into the particulars of a life, in search of the peculiarly 'real' figure behind the familiar public performer. The expert on a famous life works in sympathy to the reader's desire to see the masks of the famous dead pulled away. Indeed, at their most cynical, biographers are sophisticated iconoclasts, presenting a biographical logic of reduction (often in the form of psychoanalysis). For example, it was Henry David Thoreau's latent homosexuality that provoked his fierce espousal of solitude (rather than Thoreau's natural inclination to be alone with nature and the whim of his thought).

Certainly, though, the wish to de-mask the famous dead can be understood on a very human level. With the passing of time our great ones become more legend, less human. The loftier their exaltation, the more their power to inspire us pales. Conversely, if our famous foregoers were evil they become hyperboles of infamy. We find it impossible to draw morals from their stories. How to learn from human failures of the heart if the failers had no hearts to begin with? Demigods, be they evil or beneficent, are little use to posterity. We want to preserve the humanity of our famous dead. As Menand puts it, "Biographies of the powerful and famous that humanize their subjects may play some kind of egalitarian social role."

In his remarkable study, Rainer Maria Rilke: Masks & the Man, H.F. Peters addresses the special challenge confronting a Rilke biographer: "The true poet is both a man transformed and a transformer. He has no other function. Outside his work he may be a philistine, a fool, or a criminal. What he is does not matter provided he turns it into poetry. The crux of the Rilke problem is that he turned his whole life into poetry. That is why it is so difficult to isolate the man." (p.33—my emphasis).

Rilke's mask never dropped. So can it be called a mask at all? "He willed to be an artist," Peters writes, "even if it meant the death of the man: that is the real meaning of the Rilke myth." (p.46)

The "Rilke myth" is exactly what so fascinates the poet's biographers: the paradox of a life that is thoroughly documented and yet simultaneously traceless. We cannot separate the man from his image. Rilke consciously managed to make himself into art. Mythmaker and hero were one in the same.

The poet's 11,000 letters were written tirelessly over a 35-year period. He took immense pains with each of them, composing page after page in his gorgeous, calligraphic script. Frequently he re-wrote whole sheaves rather than stand for ink blotches or unsightly deletions. Most letters he copied by hand and neatly filed for his own records. His letters make him one of the greatest self-chroniclers of the 20th-century, and at every phase it seems he was intently constructing his own persona. In his final days, Rilke expressly approved the publication of his correspondence, saying it constituted an important element of his work.

The letters rehearse the story of his life, from his very unpromising beginnings, through his ongoing tribulations of homelessness and alienation, adoration and heartbreak, his incapacity to be loved, his brushes with incandescent beauty—all experienced in the name of art. Finally, he even records his pains while lying at the threshold of death from leukemia at age 51.

Writing to Magda von Hattingberg on February 8, 1914, Rilke uses an image of construction when speaking of his own existence: "My loving friend, you see, my life was never given a foundation, no one was able to imagine what it would want to become. In Venice there stands the so-called Ca del Duca, a princely foundation, on which later the most wretched tenement came to be built. With me it's the opposite: the beautiful arched elevations of my spirit rest on the most tentative beginning; a wooden scaffolding, a few boards....Is that why I feel inhibited in raising the nave, the tower to which the weight of the great bells is to be hoisted (by angels, who else could do it)?"▫

A later revealing letter, written in December 1922 to a young admirer, shows Rilke explicitly acknowledging his lifelong labor of constructing, through his art (in Rilke's case this term includes personal letters), his own valid and meaningful myth. He points his correspondent directly to the persona he's fashioned: "I direct you further, out beyond me, to the figure I am building for myself, outside, more validly and more lastingly. Hold on to that, if it seems big and significant to you. Who knows who I am? I change and change. But it is the boundary of my transformation, its pure rim: if it radiates love to you, deeply, good: then let us both believe in it."**

Louis Menand wonders "whether the bits and pieces on which biographical narratives are often strung are not a little arbitrary...Once these 'pivotal moments' or primal episodes get established in the literature, they acquire an unstoppable explanatory force." Indeed, in Rilke's case, it's the biographical subject himself who established the pivotal moments—and given that a literary master outlined the events, it's no wonder their 'explanatory force' has proven unstoppable.

Rilke strung his life-narrative onto an armature of a few very key episodes, obsessively and repeatedly testifying to their importance. They include: being raised as a girl by his mother following the loss of an infant daughter prior to his birth; suffering, as a young and sickly boy, five miserable years of military school; having a superstitious spirituality instilled by his mother early on, accounting for his lifelong sensitivity to ghosts and the subharmonic vibrations of the spiritual; his artistic coming-of-age under the influence of Lou Andreas-Salomé, mother-figure and muse; his reverence before the Master Rodin, who became father and idol in one.

Menand observes, "All any biographer can hope, and all any reasonably skeptical reader can expect, is that the necessarily somewhat fictional character in [a biography] bears some resemblance to the person who actually lived and died, and whose achievements (and disgraces) we care to learn more about. A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror."

In Rilke's case, the "necessarily somewhat fictional character" is all we have. Even reports by his friends corroborate the image he projected in every moment of his personal life—a poet's image.

Stefan Zweig's remarks upon Rilke's death appropriately invoke the metaphor of construction: "No one has fully known his inner life...devout stonemason on the never-to-be-completed cathedral of the language. [He toiled softly,] silently as with all great work, remote from the world like all that is perfect."

"One felt him," said Edmond Jaloux, "without interests on earth, his face ever turned towards those verities which are never expressed."

Rudolf Kassner commented famously, "Rilke was poet and personality even when simply washing his hands."

Paul Valéry called him "a man who more than anyone else possessed all the wonderful anguish and secrets of the spirit."

And Lou Andreas-Salomé, who enjoyed a greater, longer intimacy with Rilke than anybody, said: "Deep in the heart of anyone who saw it happen, a realization remains of how little could be done to alleviate Rainer's final loneliness, which his hand blocked from vision for a moment only, on the mountain's peak, shielding him from the abyss into which he sprang. Those who saw it happen could only let it happen. Powerless and reverent."* And in another place, Lou wrote: "Were this loner, who was isolated in death, still with us, I believe he would feel most immediately at home in the deepest anonymity of his work's effects."†

Rilke's "necessarily somewhat fictional character" and his poetic work existed in a powerful symbiosis. He could not produce art except within the personal cosmogony he'd created—and that cosmogony itself could not endure without the body of work to express it and sustain it. In this sense, Rilke did no "pretending" or "performing" that might enable a biographer to sever the man from the work. Is he who devotes every waking hour to pretending really a pretender? Sometimes, perhaps, authenticity is more than a matrix of involuntary attributes; sometimes it's produced by a matter of pure will. Rilke's ghost continues to demand that his life be studied in whole—man and work as one.

Donald Prater concludes his remarkable biography, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, with these cogent observations: "He reached out toward experience of the senses in the real life he praised, but constantly drew back again into an essentially unreal existence, 'ahead of all departure', to transform into the language peculiarly his own the 'glorious tapestry' of the world and of human emotion. In the process he transformed himself. The Rilke that emerges from the poetry and the letters is a construct, an ideal self...The friends who were so eager to help him were probably as far from knowing the real person as many who are beguiled by his words today or who add another stone of interpretation to the mounting edifice of Rilke scholarship."(p.411)

Given the imperviousness of the Rilke myth and the Rilkean demands it continues to place on the researcher, given the fascinating circumstances in which the poet worked to establish the myth (for himself and the sake of his art more than anything), I believe the "necessarily somewhat fictional character" of Rainer Maria Rilke is marvelously suited for exploration in a novel. He fictionalized himself, made himself into a work of literature—something essentially dreamt-up.

Rilke's self-created literature of a life continues (as all great literature does) to resonate the human, the true. I hope Lost Son resonates too.

▫p.27 of Rilke & Benvenuta: An Intimate Correspondence; translator Joel Agee (Fromm, 1987)
**p.312 of Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1910-1926; translators Jane B. Greene & M.D. Herter Norton (W.W. Norton, 1972)
*p.84 of Looking Back by Lou Andreas-Salomé; translator: Breon Mitchell (Paragon House, 1991)
†p.127 of You Alone Are Real to Me by Lou Andreas-Salomé; translator: Angela von der Lippe (BOA Editions, 2003)

Cormac McCarthy Honored in Britain / Discussed in Current Poets & Writers

Cormac McCarthy has just been awarded Scotland's distinguished James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Road.
On a relevant note, my essay "The Art of Reading Cormac McCarthy: The Darkness & the Light" appears in the new issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (Sept/Oct 2007). Here's a snippet:

"Inexplicable things (the undeniable presence of evil in the world, the confounding absence of God) are the chief preoccupations of McCarthy's corpus. As Roger D. Hodge wrote in Harper's Magazine last year, McCarthy's characters are "fugitives from the present who go forth into to the rotten holdings of the vanquished in search of something they cannot name." And in exploring what is essentially unaccountable, McCarthy's narration shuns explication with obsessive consistency. His novels are constructed entirely of evocative scenes. This is why his stories burst open within the reader like pellets of gas, seeming to imbue us with their haunting imagery.

"McCarthy writes the way a shaman heals, invoking and exploring a spirit world of sorts, peculiarly American in its vastness, its rugged desolation, its inhabitation by almost nothing but individual destinies often at war with one another. In each of his novels we find ourselves on this cruelly gorgeous, unforgiving metaphysical plain. It's a realm of raw and raging energy."

Friday, August 24, 2007

    "I'd Like to Be His Brother:"
Hermann Hesse on Rilke

Thoughts by the wonderful Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) on the occasion of Rainer Maria Rilke's death:

"When the poet Rilke died a few months ago one could tell clearly enough from the attitude of the intellectual world —- partly from its silence but even more from what was said —- how in our time the poet as the purest type of the inspired human being, caught between the mechanical world and the world of intellectual industriousness, is forced as it were into an airless room and condemned to suffocate.

We have no right to denounce the times on this account. These times are no worse and no better than other times. They are heaven for him who shares their goals and ideals, and hell for him who rebels against them. Now the poet, if he wishes to be true to his heritage and calling, dare not commit himself either to the success-mad world where lives are dominated by industry and organization, or to the world of rationalized spirituality which seems on the whole to dominate our universities, but since it is the poet's single duty and mission to be the servant, knight, and advocate of the soul, he sees himself at the present world-instant condemned to a loneliness and suffering that is not every man's affair. We all guard ourselves against suffering, each of us would like to receive a little kindness and warmth from the world and would like to see himself understood and supported by those around him. So we observe the majority of our present-day poets (their number is small in any case) in one way or another adapting themselves to the time and its spirit, and it is just these poets who meet with the greatest superficial success. On the other hand, others fall silent and come to destruction in the airless space of this hell.

Still others, however —- Rilke belongs amongst them -— take the suffering upon themselves, subject themselves to fate, and do not rebel when they see that the crown that other times bestowed on poets has today become a crown of thorns. My love belongs to these poets, I honor them, I would like to be their brother. We suffer but not in order to protest or to curse. We suffocate in the, for us, unbreathable air of the world of machines and barbaric necessities that surround us, but we do not separate ourselves from the whole, we accept this suffering and suffocation as our part of the world fate, as our mission, as our trial.

We believe in none of the ideals of this time, not that of the dictators, nor that of the bolsheviks, not that of the professors, nor that of industrialists. But we believe that man is immortal and that his image can emerge again, healed of every distortion, freed from every hell. We believe in the soul whose rights and needs, however long and harshly suppressed can never die. We do not seek to enlighten our time, or to improve it, or to instruct it, but by revealing to it our own suffering and our own dreams we try to open to it again and again the world of images, the world of the soul, the world of experience. These dreams are in part evil dreams of anxiety, these images are in part cruel horror pictures—we dare not embellish them, we dare not disown them. We dare not hide the fact that the soul of mankind is in danger and close to the abyss. But we dare not conceal either that we believe in its immortality."
—Hermann Hesse, 1927

This passage is found in the Hesse collection, My Belief, Essays on Life & Art, translated by Denver Lindley.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

J.B. Priestley on Rilke

I recently took note of this comment by J.B. Priestley, included at the front of my old UK edition of Stephen Mitchell's The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

"He transformed the German language into an astonishing new poetic instrument, and provided our age with one of its strange disturbing voices...poetry shining through a crack in the mind of the finding a narrow passage between suicide and madness." --J.B.Priestley

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Some pics from a recent walk in California, through the land of Asher Witherow. Actually, these images were captured at Mount Wanda National Historic Site in Martinez, about 15 miles west of Asher's haunts. John Muir had a house less than a quarter-mile from here, and is buried nearby. He walked these hills regularly. The "Wanda" of the park's name was one of Muir's daughters.

Mount Diablo (in its summer colors).

Valley oaks.

In the region immediately surrounding these hills, there are more than 7 million people leading bustling lives. But up here all is quiet and timeless.

You're alone with the land that preceded the hurry and noise.

Do I miss this country? Sometimes painfully. But then...

...Oregon is not exactly short on natural beauty.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Clara Reads Rilke's "Das Karussell"

Found this fascinating audio file of Clara Westhoff-Rilke reading her late husband's poem "The Carrousel," which describes the colorful children's merry-go-round (still standing) in Luxembourg Gardens. Her reading beautifully captures the lyrical cadences of Rilke's German.

Listen for the rhythmic, recurring line:

"Und dann und wann ein Weißer Elefant." ("And here and there a white elephant")

The audio file can be found in situ at the Rilke-Worpswede website (click on the "audio" link at the upper right).

(The other link at the upper right, "Rilke und Worpswede Bilder," is a lovely musical slideshow of paintings by Worpswede artists who were Rilke's contemporaries: Otto Modersohn, Heinrich Vogeler, Fritz Mackensen.)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Director Remembers Bergman

Todd Field, director of the lit-films In the Bedroom and Little Children (and actor in Nicole Holfcener's excellent Walking & Talking) notes down his thoughts about the late master Ingmar Bergman in the L.A.Times.

"It is hard to believe now, but there was a time when Ingmar Bergman, the poster boy of the European "art house," became unfashionable. He found himself accused of being earnest -- of residing in an austere, pseudo-serious pose. Many of his biggest supporters jumped ship and ran straight to Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave, with the excitement of a hand-held, jump-cut image and cartoon story line. I think this must have really made Ingmar angry. He once famously remarked, 'Godard is a . . . bore.'

Bergman was of the theater first and foremost and stayed with it until the end. He compared theater to a faithful wife -- over his lifetime he would have five wives -- and film to the costly, exacting mistress. But it seems of the two, he was in awe of the mistress. 'No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.'"