Rilke: Bio Novel

Naters, Switzerland: Valais Books, 2021

English language… shaped to resemble… dialog that must have been the life blood of the Central European cultural life…” 

Elena Danielson, Emirata Archives Stanford University.

© Elena S. Danielson, 2024

It is already a challenge to understand the role of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Prague 1875 – Montreux 1926) in the cultural life of his long-lost world. He was considered old fashioned, even archaic, in his own time. Much of his best work was written by flickering candlelight or lanterns in the absence of electricity. It is even more baffling to comprehend why he has become increasingly influential in our own postmodern world. Lady Gaga has a message by Rilke tattooed on the inside of her left arm, next to her heart, in the original German. (Basically: “Only write if you feel your life depends on it.”) This counter-intuitive historical novel by Farrol Kahn clears away some of the mist, bringing Rilke’s life and times into better focus, without losing any of the magic.

In Rilke’s lifetime the so-called Great War transformed Central Europe from a semi-feudal system of empires governed by grand royalty to a fragmented system of impoverished small states, with an unreliable food supply and unstable currency. It is hard to imagine how people coped, but we do know that an outpouring of words in poetry, letters, and conversation formed a life line for many. Rilke wrote poetry compulsively because he felt his life depended on it. He also wrote something on the order of 17,000 letters on fine blue writing paper, sealed with his family crest. But writing was not enough. In a world without constantly streaming distraction and entertainment, the cafes and parlors were the gathering spaces for countless small groups and endless long talks. Lectures, chamber concerts, and poetry readings were a mainstay, often preceded and followed with heartfelt discussion. Kahn depicts how Rilke always kept a notebook handy to capture and store up fleeting words and ephemeral thoughts to be put in more permanent form later. 

We have Rilke’s poems. We have much of the correspondence, because the recipients preserved his treasured, lyrical letters. The Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach has recently acquired dozens of his notebooks, even more letters, sketches and drafts. But much is lost: all those discussions during long strolls in the countryside and after leisurely dinners. Bringing these conversations to life, animating them, requires a serious exercise of the imagination. This is the missing piece of the puzzle that Farrol Kahn recreates in his beautifully detailed and heavily researched novel Rilke. I was initially skeptical that our battered 21st century English language could be shaped to resemble the kind of dialog that must have been the life blood of Central European cultural life at the time. But the author succeeds. Apparently, the novel grew out of a 10 year project to follow Rilke’s footsteps in Switzerland, the last station in his meandering life. Many scenes were written with a view to producing a future movie. So the use of conversation was intended from the outset to reimagine the interrelationships created with the spoken word. I suspect that Rilke’s reputation in the German-speaking world is so sacred, almost exempt from tampering, that this reimagining simply had to happen first in English, a language he did not speak.

Kahn focusses on the most puzzling period in the poet’s life, when the Prague native Rilke, considered the greatest living German poet,  fled Germany as soon as he could, once the agonizing years of the First World War were finally over, and went to Switzerland, initially on a temporary visa, never to return to Germany, nor to his home town. By then his reputation as the “greatest living German poet” was secure. Rilke, the draft dodger, initially earned his fame based on a ballad that accidently became an unexpected best seller in the trenches of the Great War: “The Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke” (“Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke”). My copy from 1956 notes that 974,000 copies had been sold, an indication that it still resonated with soldiers in World War II.  This ballad of medieval knights in battle, with its echoes of Goethe’s “Die Feier,” is pretty much unreadable today. Rilke’s reputation was more credibly solidified by a few slender volumes of short, carefully chiseled poems, with enduring aesthetic value. He still lacked a major work. He had begun and temporarily abandoned what he knew would be his masterpiece, the “Duino Elegies,” in a friend’s magnificent castle on the Adriatic. The castle was heavily damaged in the Great War. It’s almost a stone metaphor for the way the political turmoil and the war wrecked Rilke’s creativity. He stopped writing the elegies, and felt blocked, for long frustrating years.

Rilke’s last years in Switzerland are the focus of the novel. Beginning to recover his powers in Swiss exile in 1919, he first of all needed a muse, and found one in a beautiful married artist, the mother of two talented young boys. Her improbable name: Elisabeth “Baladine” “Merline” “Mouky” Klossowska.  Originally from Breslau, she spoke fluent German and French, both with a lyrical Polish accent. Kahn excels at making this improbable relationship seem real, although trying to describe it here, I’m totally baffled at how the novelist pulled it off. Rilke alternately showered Merline with love and roses and verses, and then pushed her aside so he could listen to his Angel’s dictation without distraction. And write. An obliging wealthy Swiss businessman helped secure the appropriate setting for the genius to compose: a small medieval stone “castle” called Muzot that Klossowska found for Rilke. And she helped clean away centuries of dirt and debris to make it habitable for him, only to be periodically banished by him to Germany. Kahn includes a color reproduction of the charming sketch that Klossowska drew of Rilke dozing there on a sofa, finally comfortable.

Of course, there was no electricity at Muzot, but Rilke had a strong preference for candlelight. He had rose bushes planted on the grounds. The venue worked. The writing came to him rapidly. While his early reputation was based on small jewel-like pieces, he still needed a substantial piece of writing to secure his place in the German pantheon alongside Goethe. Goethe had his breakthrough when he ran away from traditional obligations and travelled to Italy, where he wrote the Roman Elegies (not altogether mournful like traditional elegies, it was originally entitled “Erotica Romana”). Rilke, in this small, subsidized stone chateau in Switzerland, could abandon cares and obligations and complete his Duino Elegies, also not altogether mournful, in fact some passages are supremely exuberant. As a bonus, Rilke quickly wrote up a second grand masterpiece in a fit of inspiration, The Sonnets to Orpheus. His legacy was secured. And just in time. His health soon gave way.

Kahn does a superb job of summoning up the conversations between Merline and her René, as she called him. Her role in his success is made clearly evident. It was not all candlelight and roses. In one scene, Merline’s younger boy Balthus (yes, that Balthus) tries to steal her treasured love letters received from Rilke, but for a noble cause. Balthus wanted to sell them to a shady character in a Berlin café and help out the desperate family finances during those hunger years in Germany. Kahn includes numerous disarmingly honest descriptions of difficult encounters. (And there is a traveling Swiss watch salesman who gave me nightmares.) With over 700 pages, Kahn takes his time to unravel the story. Gracefully woven in among all these exchanges are flashbacks to earlier eras in Rilke’s career, his relationship with Paula Becker being the most moving. One of the great joys of the novel comes from dozens of cameo appearances by colorful figures, from Joseph Roth, Bruno Cassirer, Rudolf Kassner, and Rudolf Steiner, to Leonid Pasternak, Boris Pasternak, Maria Tsvetaeva. And at least two princesses with enchanting names: Princess Ghika, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis. And amid all these conversations, fragments of now famous lines begin to emerge. Towards the end of the novel, Kahn has Rilke say, page 747: “There‘s one thing they will never find in my letters. My lighter side. My sense of humor will be a secret between us.” Kahn has unveiled some of this secret.

Rilke himself was quite aware of all the contradictions in his life, even incorporating “Widerspruch”’ in the epitaph he helpfully wrote in advance for his tombstone. These tensions must have been part of his creativity. Kahn’s erudite but accessible historical novel provides the missing dimension that makes sense of these contradictions, with all those dialogs, and in a way that academic treatises could not. After all, reading Rilke’s poetry is an aesthetic experience, reading about him should be as well, and with such a lavish reimagining of his life, the reader can savor many fine points in this improbable story.

“Every ten years, if ever, I manage to get my hands on a book that touches and seduces me as much as Farrol Kahn’s Rilke Novel. That borders on a miracle…” 

Kleiner Literatur Raum – Anne-K. Riek

5 out of 5 stars Rilke Bio Novel – A great throw by Farrol Kahn

Reviewed on and in July 2023

Every ten years, if ever, I manage to get my hands on a book that touches and seduces me as much as Farrol Kahn’s Rilke Novel. That borders on a miracle. At the latest after Ralph Freedman’s highly respected biography, which appeared in German at the beginning of 2000, I believed that everything had been said, written and researched about Rilke. Every piece of correspondence had been decoded and interpreted several times, Europe-wide. After the Rilke estate was handed over to the German Literature Archive in Marbach in 2022, the literary world again became aware of what a fascination Rilke was and still is.
So what does Farrol Kahn offer us with his extensive (800-page) novel? Read in full