That Infinite Showplace: Rilke in Paris 1902-1914

NB This review first appeared in a shortened form on the Agenda Magazine website.

Rilke in Paris, Rainer Maria Rilke & Maurice Betz, tr. Will Stone (French original 1941; Pushkin Press, 2019).

The argument of Maurice Betz’s memoir on Rilke’s various residencies in Paris between 1902 and 1914 is that the young poet’s experience of the French capital is what turned him into a great poet. Betz worked closely with Rilke on French translations of his work (particularly his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)). Will Stone’s excellent translation of Betz’s 1941 book, Rilke a Paris, elegantly encompasses its wide range of tones from biographical precision, to gossipy excitement and critical analysis. The book particularly focuses on Rilke’s struggle over a period of eight years to complete the novel which is autobiographical in so many ways, as Betz puts it “in effect a transcription of his own private journal or of certain letters”.

Rilke first arrived in Paris from Worpswede in northern Germany, a community of artists where he had met and married Clara Westhoff. But never one to truly reconcile himself either to community or intimacy, he had already left his wife to travel to Paris. Yet the anonymity, bustling energy and inequalities of the French capital appalled him. In letters to his wife and many others, it became clear that, as Stone’s Introduction argues, Paris had “unceremoniously torn Rilke out of his safe, somewhat fey nineteenth-century draped musings”. In ways reminiscent of Keats’ observations about feeling himself extinguished on entering a room full of people, Rilke would later recall how the city’s “grandeur, its near infinity” would annihilate his own sense of himself. Living at No.11, Rue Touillier, these initial impressions form the opening pages of The Notebooks.

But there were also more positive Parisian experiences, particularly in his meetings with Rodin who he was soon addressing as his “most revered master”. Famously, Rodin advised the young poet, “You must work. You must have patience. Look neither right nor left. Lead your whole life in this cycle and look for nothing beyond this life”. In terms of his patience and willingness to play such a long game, not only with his novel but also with the slow completion of Duino Elegies (1922), Rilke clearly took on this advice. Interestingly, Betz characterises Rilke’s methods of working on the novel, creating letters, notes, journal pages over a number of years, as “like sketches, studies of hands or torsos which the sculptor uses to prefigure a group work”.

Rilke was even employed briefly by Rodin as “a sort of private secretary”. Betz suggests Rilke simply offered to help out for a couple of hours a day with the famous sculptor’s correspondence. But this quickly expanded to fill the whole day and Rilke was soon confessing to Karl von der Heydt that “I must get back to a time for myself where I can be alone with my experience”. A break was inevitable though in later visits to Paris the two artists patched up any quarrel. In terms of his location during this period, Rilke had moved on to the Hotel Biron at 77 Rue de Varenne on the recommendation of Clara. Rilke in turn suggested it as a suitable studio base for Rodin who also settled there and over a number of years gradually took over more and more of the rooms. It is this building that, in 1919, was converted to the now much-visited Musee Rodin.

Maurice Betz

Betz suggests that the traumatic impact of Paris was the making of Rilke as an artist. Between 1899 and 1903, Rilke had been working on The Book of Hours, representing a “religious and mystical phase”. In contrast, Paris presented the poet with an often brutal but also more “human landscape”. He also discovered this was reflected in the French capital’s painters and poets. Baudelaire in particular was important. In personal letters (as well as in his finished novel) Rilke identifies the poem ‘Une Charogne’ (‘A Carcass’) as critical in “the whole development of ‘objective’ language, such as we now think to see in the works of Cezanne”. Baudelaire’s portrayal of a rotting body seems to have taught Rilke that “the creator has no more right to turn away from any existence [. . .] if he refuses life in a certain object, he loses in one blow a state of grace”.

But it took Rilke a while to arrive at this sort of inclusivity of vision. One of his earliest impressions of the city was that there were invalids, broken human bodies everywhere. “You see them appear at the windows of the Hotel-Dieu in their strange attire, the pale and mournful uniform of the invalid. You suddenly sense that in this vast city there are legions of the sick, armies of the dying, whole populations of the dead”. As Betz points out, this is one of the important observations made by the hero of The Notebooks. It is the “multiform face of death” that Brigge (and Rilke) confronts in Paris. And the irony is not lost on either of them because Paris, of course, at this time was renowned for its social and cultural vitality. Here, Rilke is being forced to make critical distinctions which he then worked on for the rest of his life: “Vital impulse, is that life then? No. Life is calm, immense, elemental. The craving to live is haste, pursuit. There is an impatience to possess life in its entirety, straight away. Paris is bloated with this desire and that’s why it is so close to death”. Years later, near the end of the fifth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke expresses something very similar (tr. Crucefix):

 

Squares, oh, the squares of that infinite showplace –

Paris – where Madame Lamort, the milliner,

twists and winds the unquiet ways of the world,

those endless ribbons from which she makes

these loops and ruches, rosettes and flowers and artificial fruits

all dyed with no eye for truth,

but to daub the cheap winter hats of fate.

Hotel Biron Musée Rodin

But unlike Brigge, Rilke escapes Paris. Reflecting later, he feared that people might read his novel as seeming “to suggest that life was impossible”. Betz – who had many discussions with Rilke during the process of translating the novel – reports that the poet, accepted that the book contained “bitter reproaches [yet] it is not to life which they are addressed, on the contrary, it is the continual recognition of the following: through lack of strength, through distraction and hereditary blunders we lose practically all the innumerable riches which were destined for us on earth”. Though the Duino Elegies opens with the despairing existential cry (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?”), by the seventh poem of the sequence Rilke expresses his affirmative view: “Just being here is glorious!”. In Rilke in Paris, Betz records some of Rilke’s conversations: “Instead of perpetually hesitating between action and renunciation, we fundamentally only ‘have to be there, to exist, that’s all”.

Will Stone

Betz’s admiration for Rilke is palpable throughout this fascinating little book. In its concluding pages, he sums up: “In seeking to express in his own way the world we thought we knew, Rilke helps us to hear more clearly what already belongs to us and permits us access to the most sinuous and iridescent forms, to profound emotive states and to that strange melody of the interior life”. This is marvellously put (and translated). Will Stone also includes a translation of a little know early sequence of prose poems by Rilke, ‘Notes on the Melody of Things’. In it, the poet reflects – through thoughts on theatrical experience and on fine art – on the relationship between background and figures in the foreground. Something of the personal angst and despair of The Notebooks can be heard in section XXXVII where we are told that “All discord and error comes when people seek to find their element in themselves, instead of seeking it behind them, in the light, in landscape at the beginning and in death”. The vastness and reality of what lies behind the solitary figure – and the negotiated relationships between the two – suggests to me that Yves Bonnefoy may well have been thinking of these pieces when he was writing L’Arriere-Pays (1972). Betz is right to conclude Rilke in Paris by praising Rilke as a poet who matured through “solitude and lucid contemplation of the loftiest problems of life”, but also one who never failed in patience or effort to express “in poetic terms the fruit of that inner quest”.

On Translating Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

Idris Parry writes in the current PN Review (March/April 2015) comparing Rilke’s Duino Elegies with the Sonnets to Orpheus. The poet always spoke of the sonnets as subsidiary to the elegies, but Parry argues that while the elegies “talk about” the poet’s task, the sonnets perform it. I’d agree and, in translating both in the last 20 years or so, I have come to prefer the vivid enactments of the sonnets. Parry explores Rilke’s response to Rodin in Paris in 1902. What struck Rilke was Rodin’s “dark patience which makes him [as creative artist] almost anonymous”. What the young poet learned was to pursue an “unhurried and uncommitted exposure to experience” (Parry’s words). This is opposed to impatience which is (contra-Keats) an irritable reaching after clarity: “making up your mind before the event instead of letting the event shape your mind” (Parry again).

Rilke’s “praise” is just this acceptance and faithful utterance and is predicated on the truth of an underlying unity of existence. The poet is obliged to speak of this unity but can only use the language of division, a language deluded by the conviction of finality. Parry epigrammatically concludes: “We punctuate to retain our sanity, but we should not come to believe the punctuation”. The PN Review piece ends by looking at sonnet II, 18 and asks, if Rilke’s own German is a poor translation (using shabby tools) of an ultimate reality, how can translators hope to do it justice in bringing it over into English?

Reading Parry this week, reminded me of my own thoughts, not long after having translated Duino Elegies (https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/translations/duino-elegies/). They were originally published in Magma Magazine; I hope they are worth making public again:

My own grappling with the issue of what can be lost and gained in translation began over 10 years ago when London’s Blue Nose Poetry group staged an evening to celebrate Rilke’s work. This was partly in response to a Poetry Review survey of the original 1994 New Generation Poets, several of whom declared his work to have been influential. Though a name I was familiar with, I have to confess I hadn’t gotten far through my Penguin Selected. Perhaps on account of my ignorance, I was to contribute only by reading aloud from the Elegies. The Ninth was chosen but as I practised, I found myself stumbling, losing the thread and, frankly, I hardly knew what it was I was reading:

Here is the time for the Tellable, here is its home.

Speak and proclaim. More than ever

Things we can live with are falling away, for that

Which is oustingly taking their place is an imageless act.

Act under crusts, that will readily split as soon

As the doing within outgrows them and takes a new outline.

This is Leishman’s translation of the Ninth Elegy and I supposed the obscurity was part of the point – that it must signal hitherto unplumbed depths of profundity. My view on this remains equivocal, but I believe a proportion of the difficulty is obfuscation and the impression of slippery ‘mysticism’ it generates has misleadingly become part of Rilke’s appeal for many readers. For me, the bottom line was I could not read this aloud with the kind of conviction that I demanded. I tried a couple of other easily available translations – Stephen Cohn’s and David Young’s – but still was not happy with the sound these poems made in my mouth.

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Castle Duino

Within a month I had produced a ‘version’ of my own. By version, I meant a close-ish translation, but I had taken considerable liberties with the more difficult passages and inserted what I thought Rilke might have meant or what I wanted him to mean. At the time this seemed to me a risky strategy compelled by necessity, though there is nowadays a good deal more debate about the role and value of versioning. My own position is that I prefer a genuine attempt to translate the original into a contemporary target language. I see the point of versions – but it is hardly ever what I am seeking as a reader. Nobody imagines translation is easy; but only a fool anticipates a perfect rendering. We expect translators to work in good faith and that their work will read sufficiently well in the target language not to distract us with the stale sweat of their strenuous wrestling with the original. Nor should they cover the difficulties of translation by delivering obscurities that defensively resist comprehension.

It was coming across my first attempt a couple of years later that set me systematically picking my way through the million pitfalls of the Elegies. Take for instance Rilke’s opening lines, the great cry at the start of the sequence. Rilke writes “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?” Not too much of a problem you might think, but William Gass, in his book, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Basic Books, 1999), considers no fewer than 15 versions of these 11 words. Most – though by no means all – accept Rilke’s opening word – “Who” – and most, though not all, take over Rilke’s relative clause “if I cried”. But is he merely crying or crying out? And beyond this point of relative agreement lie terrible dragons of disagreement, especially over the word “Ordnungen”. How are the angels deployed? Are they in “angelic orders”, “amid the host of the angels”, “among the hierarchy of angels”, “the order of the angels”, “among the angels’ hierarchies”, “among the ranked Angels”, “through the Angel Orders” or even (Gass gives his own version) “among the Dominions of Angels”? In such company, my own version, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?” runs the risk of a watery plainness but it has the advantages of clarity, echoes the rhythm, syntax and line break of the original closely, and (remembering my first concern was for oral performance) the line has a satisfying aural quality. I hear in the first phrases high, thin vowels that contrast the second half’s weightier, assonantal ‘a’ sounds: the cry of alienated humanity contrasts the solid, seemingly impregnable powers that lie beyond our reach.

But the best-equipped translator faces especially difficult problems in Rilke. In the Fifth Elegy, for example, the poem describes some acrobats. This is a combined portrait of a troupe Rilke knew while living in Paris and a painting by Picasso (La Famille des Saltimbanques, 1905) with which Rilke lived in the summer of 1915 in the house of the dedicatee of this Elegy, Frau Hertha Koenig. This is, formally, one of the freer of the Elegies, its lines extending and contracting to reflect the energy of the tumblers.

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Picasso’s ‘La Famille des Saltimbanques’ (1905)

But in the Picasso painting the figures are arranged in an almost imperceptible D-shape and Rilke writes:  “Und kaum dort, / aufrecht, da und gezeigt: des Dastehns / großer Anfangsbuchstab . . .” In my version: “And barely discernible, / yet up-standing and unmistakeably on display, / the capital D of Destiny . . .” The original word “Dastehns” (something like “standing there”) reflects the visual pun and it would be a great loss not to bring this into the English. Stephen Mitchell uses the word “Duration”; Young’s looser version loses the pun with “existence . . . presence”. On this occasion, I found myself following Stephen Cohn and opting for “Destiny” (more usually the translation of “Schicksal”) which I felt conveyed Rilke’s sense of how these individuals are driven to perform by forces external to them, rather than by a more truthful inner compulsion.

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Another critical decision arises in the Tenth Elegy with its tribe of people who enjoy a closer, more authentic relationship with death and grief than Rilke perceived in contemporary Western culture. He uses the word “Klage” and an English equivalent has to be found that works as the name of a young woman, her tribe, her ancestors and her country. Like the sound of the original, the word also has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in such powerful emotions. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is certainly heroic. Most previous translators have opted for the word “Lament” but I felt this suggested a rather affected, almost poetic attitude – precisely the kind of posturing that Rilke asks us to avoid in our confrontation with these difficult aspects of life. I chose the word “Keening” to convey the genuine edginess of feeling (aurally again I liked the harsh initial K and the word’s trailing, wailing fall). This word seemed to me to work perfectly as personal and tribal name and geographical location: “gently she guides him through the vast / Keening landscape, shows him temple columns, / ruins of castles from which the Keening princes / once wisely governed”.

One thing I have learned is that translators take sustenance from their chosen originals. This is not just in the obvious way of extending their range, but also that they feed on a familiar. They find in their subject an answering voice, a confirmation of something already present within themselves. I experienced this in a surprising way. Rilke’s influence on Auden was particularly evident in the late 1930s. The sonnet sequence In Time of War refers directly to him and Mendelson’s Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) argues that ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ concludes with “an explicit echo” of Rilke’s Ninth Elegy and its famous injunction to “praise this world to the angel”.

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Auden asks Yeats’ spirit to “Teach the free man how to praise”. Interestingly, Auden has never been a strong influence for me, yet the elegy to Yeats is a poem I have always loved. In fact, five or six years before I got to know Rilke, I remember modelling an elegy of my own on Auden’s – from the choice of title, the formal variety of its sections, to a finale in which I too celebrated one who “loved the world, craved its taste”, elevating him to a teacher of praise: “Listen, let me make this master speak: / Laughter, love, the senses are profound. / Drink deep, remember, Jeremy Round” (‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’). Reading Mendelson’s book has convinced me that I had been responding not merely to Auden but also – unknowingly – to Rilke. It turns out I have been finding a sympathetic familiar in him for longer than I had imagined.