Home > 20th Century, Austrian Literature, Correspondance, Rilke Rainer Maria > Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

November 12, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1897-1926

Your being has been the door that allowed me to reach fresh air for the first time.

Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1897. He was 22, she was 36. Their love story lasted until 1901 and turned into a friendship that only ended with Rilke’s death in 1926. The little book I’ve read is composed of letters coming from their correspondence. The first one dates back to 1897 and the last one was written a fortnight before he died.

The first letters are beautiful love letters. Once I wrote that I didn’t envy Albertine for being loved by the Narrator as he seemed complicated and difficult to live with. Nothing like that with Rilke. These letters are sunny despite the absence and how much he misses her. His love is a gift; it doesn’t claim anything else that what he already receives. These letters are full of acceptance, of loving Lou just the way she is. She loves him back, he’s happy. Their fierce passion isn’t a tortured one.

I think of you at any time of the day and my worried thoughts accompany all your steps. The slightest breathe on your forehead is a kiss from my lips and each dream speaks to you with my voice. My love is like a coat wrapped around you to protect and warm you up.

In 1897, Rilke stopped signing his letters René (his firstname) and became Rainer. His meeting with Lou was his rebirth.

The following letters are more about him and his creating process. One of them, written in 1903, describes his life and sufferings in Paris. I recognized the raw material he will use in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke suffers from acute sensitivity. He’s a sponge, he absorbs the outside world to such a point that it hurts him. He perceives the mood, the emotions of his environment. He has no filtering system and it hits him badly every time. He’s a disquiet man, disturbed by fears and anguish. What fascinates me is that despite his disquiet, he manages to describe his fears in a lucid way. He doesn’t complain although he somatizes a lot and has a poor health. In a way, he tries to tame his pain and at the same time cherishes it as he knows part of his work will come from it. For the reader, his fears sound real, painful but he doesn’t sound unbalanced.

When reading these letters, the reader witnesses his artistic quest. He admires Rodin for his work, his ability to materialize his inner mind into statues, into art. He chides himself for not being able to concentrate and work as much as he should. He gropes around, aware that he’s piling up ideas, sensations, characters, observations in his soul and in his mind. But he’s not able to reach them and turn them into art. Yet. It’s fascinating to read about his quest. It’s obviously painful but he doesn’t complain. He takes the pain, doesn’t wallow into it but probably sees it a step to creation. He’s also lucid about his failure as a husband and as a father. In French, we say être mal dans sa peau, literally, to be ill-at-ease in one’s skin to say to feel bad about oneself. Rilke was literally like that and his skin reacted to it.

In the last letters, he has found the inspiration and managed to let out the work he was sitting on. The joy when he writes the Elegies, the Sonnet to Orpheus is palpable. His health declines, he talks a lot more about physicians. He also thought about doing a psychoanalysis but preferred to keep his demons as part of his creating process. He’s a man who suffered from a poor health all his life and never rebelled against it, took it as the way life was for him and lived day by day.

All these years, Lou became his distant spine, his anchor in life. She immediately saw him as a gifted writer and he trusted her judgement. She believed in his talent, thought highly of his work and that gave him the strength and the confidence he needed. She was his confidant, his safe – she received a copy of his work –, his living diary. Would we have Rilke’s work without her? I’m not sure. These letters had the same effect on me than Letters to a Young Poet and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: a profound fondness for the man who wrote them, awe for his literary gift and sadness for him that it should come with so much pain. When I read Kakfa’s letters to Milena, I heard his pain but I never really sympathized with him. He sounded complicated and whimsical. I sympathized with Rilke, deeply. He was a man I would have loved to meet.

  1. November 12, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I’m not much of a fan of poetry, but I did like the Rilke collection I read this year. I’ve got a copy of ‘Malte Laurids Brigge’, so I should get around to that too (but not this month!).

    Are you a big fan of biographies and letters? It’s not something I’ve really got into, but I know some readers love to know as much as possible about their favourite writers…


    • November 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

      I’m not a great reader of poetry either. I don’t read a lot of letters or bios. I enjoy discovering writers through their work. Afterwards it’s nice to know some biographical elements. At first, I love blind dates.
      There are reviews of Letters to a Young Poet and of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge on my blog.


  2. November 12, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Is there something missing in paragraph 2 of the review?
    It does sound a lot like the Letters to a Young Poet. I’m a huge fan of Lou Andreas-Salomé. I read her autobiography. She was an amazing woman and knew so many interesting people.
    I understand that this is a writer you would have liked to meet. He sounds so soulful.


    • November 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      I don’t think so, why?
      I guess her bio must be interesting indeed.
      There’s something between this author and me but I can’t put words on it for now.


      • November 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm

        Are you sepaking about Proust? It’s not mentioned.


        • November 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm

          Yes. Albertine and the Narrator in Proust.


        • November 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm

          Something else. These letters reminded me a song
          “I’ve been a hermit and a love thief
          And paid for the privilege with tears and grief.”
          This describes Rilke.


  3. November 12, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I have never read any of Rilke’s letters, although I have his letters to a young poet on my bedside table in readiness. I should pick them up – I’m a huge fan of Rilke. His poetic sensibility is just wonderful, and yes, I do think he was a special person.


    • November 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm

      I have the audio version of Letters to a Young Poet read by Denis Podalydes. I really really recommend it. He has the right voice, the right way of speaking to read this. The letters are wonderful. When I think of Rilke, the word “wisdom” comes to my mind.


  4. November 13, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Sounds like you hit a good one. Did their relationship change over the years? Were they involved with other people? Are there any of her letters?


    • November 13, 2011 at 8:36 am

      They started as lovers but became friends. They didn’t see each other a lot and their correspondence was on and off but never stopped.
      In my edition, there are only Rilke’s letters and it covers almost 30 years in 100 pages or so. They are “samples” from his letters. I suppose Lou’s letters have been published too.
      They were involved with other people (Freud for example and Rilke was close to Rodin) but these letters are mostly chosen to illustrate Rilke’s personality and his literary quest, I think.
      I think you’d like him.


  5. November 13, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Interesting. I have Letters to a Young Poet in the Penguin edition and found the letters to be rather indigestible – a little too long and intense. I know very little about Rilke and your review above provides me with some useful insights – I didn’t know about his relationship with Lou. I liked your phrase “to be ill at ease in one’s skin” – something we all feel from time to time?


    • November 13, 2011 at 8:59 pm

      I loved Letters to a Young Poet, they are intense, yes, but full of his unique tone, state of mind that suits me.
      Yes, I believe we all feel ill at ease in our skin sometimes. I don’t know the English equivalent of that French expression.


  6. November 14, 2011 at 4:00 am

    Thanks Emma


  1. November 30, 2011 at 10:13 am
  2. December 1, 2011 at 7:06 am
  3. November 29, 2013 at 11:41 pm
  4. December 29, 2018 at 11:00 am

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