Rilke, again.

November 29, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.

German_lit_monthYEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.

This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in lovetortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.

The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.

I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.

I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.

Rilke_fil_de_la_vieThe stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.

More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.

This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.

If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.

  1. November 29, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    I haven’t read any prose by him, but his poetry is fantastic.


    • November 29, 2013 at 11:48 pm

      I’m sure it is. I have to read some but I’m reluctant to read poetry in translation. What’s the point if it doesn’t sound like the original?


      • November 30, 2013 at 3:15 am

        I think that poetry in translation loses – naturally – rhythm, sounds, rhyme, even metre – and that is a profound loss indeed, but I also think that Rilke is one of the poets where, even after you take away all that, you have great beauty of thought and imagery, and most of all, sentiment. A way of thinking and imagining that is unique and that – I think – survives the translation.

        It’s a bit like reading Baudelaire, for me. I know I’m missing out on a lot, but I still love “A Une Passante”, because I think the basic ideas survive the translation, and they are extremely beautiful.


        • November 30, 2013 at 7:51 am

          I’m never reluctant to read literary fiction in translation. I don’t think you lose that much, except for the accents. For example, the accents in Thomas Hardy or in Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) don’t make it in French. The French text is flat while the English has an additional dimension. Plus, I’m not convinced that literary fiction writers put a lot of thinking behind every word they write.

          It’s different for poetry. I have read poems by Dezsö Kosztolanyi. It was beautiful but I knew that the translator had a hard time translating them from the Hungarian. I couldn’t help wondering how much came from the translator’s choices in what I was reading. This is a question I never asked myself when I read a novel translated from a foreign language.

          That said, there’s a bilingual edition of Rilke’s poems and that’s the best option, since I have vague remembrance of my German classes.


  2. November 30, 2013 at 12:52 am

    Because there is far more to poetry than sound. Imagery, ideas, stories.

    There are at least two outstanding translators of Rilke’s poems in English. I will bet there is at least one in French.


    • November 30, 2013 at 7:38 am

      I know. But for me, poetry, more than literary fiction, is built on the widest meaning of words. Each word counts and every language has words that don’t exist in another one. Plus there is the metric, the rythm, the rhymes.

      Of course good translations conveys most of the original but I find it frustrating not to know what it was like in the original text. But yes, it’s better than nothing at all.


  3. November 30, 2013 at 1:12 am

    I am nearly finished my 2013 Humbook The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, and am aiming to have the review up on the blog by tonight, just scraping into German Lit Month by the skin of my teeth!


    • November 30, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Good luck with that. I think I’ve read it but don’t remember it.


  4. November 30, 2013 at 3:09 am

    I’ve read some of the poetry. Hadn’t heard of this collection, and it sounds good. Are you joining in with Tony’s Japanese month?


    • November 30, 2013 at 7:41 am

      I think you’d enjoy these short stories.
      Japanese month is in …January. You know my job, not the best month of the year. I’d like to read The Cat.


  5. November 30, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! This book looks wonderful, especially because Rilke wrote it when he was young. I liked very much what you said about the different faces of Rilke. ‘The Secret’ makes me think of the film ‘Babette’s Feast’ in which also two sisters decide to live together and grow old together. I loved your description of ‘The Anniversary’ – about the way the morning sun makes us see a place with new eyes. I also liked very much that sentence you have quoted about emotion going from his nose to his handkerchief. I will keep an eye for this book. Thanks for this beautiful review.


    • November 30, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Forgot to say this. So glad that you were able to sneak in, into German Literature month 🙂 Caroline will be so happy.


      • November 30, 2013 at 11:31 am

        I’m glad I made it too. It’s a big success, there are enough participants without me anyway. I have other German books at home, among them Concrete. I’ve started it three times and never managed to read it.


    • November 30, 2013 at 11:34 am

      Rilke’s words breathe patience, understanding and empathy for the world. I picture him as someone who felt a lot, probably too much to be happy. He was gifted beyond imagination.


  6. November 30, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Loved the Rilke poems I read – although I must confess that I still haven’t made it through the epic ones (like the Dueno Elegies)…


    • November 30, 2013 at 2:43 pm

      I’m going to buy the bilingual edition of the poems. I have that for Shakespeare’s sonnets and it’s great. My English is far superior to my German but I’m still curious about the original text.


  7. davidsimmons6
    November 30, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I tend to avoid reading any poetic translations because versions from French to English/English to French (the only languages I know) usually have been disappointing. However, there is an exception, but it may prove the rule. I found a translation of Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline” so beautifully poetic, I had to ask a friend, M. Google, if French might have been the original language.


    • December 1, 2013 at 5:36 pm

      Translating poetry is delicate. Not translating it would be a shame. There’s no perfect solution for that. My impression (and I say “impression” because I haven’t researched what I’m going to say) is that English has more words than French. So translating a French poem into English means choosing an option for a word and making the other possibilities of meaning disappear. In the other way round, using a wider word in French than it was in English opens the poems to possibilities unwanted by the author.


  8. December 1, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Thanks a lot for this lovely review, Emma. I had ambitious plans for this month as well but most of those fell short. Like you I was glad for shorter books.
    Thsis sounds wonderful. I’ve only read his poetry, his novel and the letters but no shorter fiction. I like him as a poet. He’s very accessible, unlike many others, that’s why I think, translating him may work, to some degree.


    • December 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm

      I’ll get the bilingual edition for poetry.
      I just bought Histoires pragoises, other short stories he wrote during his youth.


      • December 1, 2013 at 5:44 pm

        I’m disappointed. It’s not available in German.


        • December 1, 2013 at 5:48 pm

          Which one isn’t available in German? Au fil de la vie or Histoires pragoises?
          I couldn’t find neither the German nor the English titles of the short stories included in Au fil de la vie.
          It’s exasperating that the French publishers don’t always put the original titles of books. Same problem with Histoires pragoises.


  9. December 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Well done for making German lit month!

    To chime in with Vishy it sounds wonderful. Is it a good place to start with Rilke do you think? I may look for an English translation.


    • December 2, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      I haven’t found them in English.
      For a start, I recommend Letters to a Young Poet. I have a feeling that you’ll like it.


  10. acommonreaderuk
    December 22, 2013 at 1:00 am

    My ability to read poetry has decined in recent years, mainly because my life seems to be too busy and I no longer have long train journeys with lots of “reflection time”. I enjoyed reading your review however and I think I have on my shelf some Rilke in an anthology. Perhaps I will dig it out now.

    Please forgive my neglect of your blog in recent months. I’ve been doing other things this year but hope to return to book reviewing next year. In the meantime I wish you a very happy Christmas.


    • December 22, 2013 at 10:22 am

      It’s difficult to find time for poetry in our high-paced lives. And according to your experience, it doesn’t slow down after you retire.

      I feel a special bond with Rilke, I don’t know why.

      Thanks for your kind words. I wish you a happy Christmas too. I hope your grand-children will be around as young kids bring magic to these festive days.


  1. December 12, 2013 at 8:02 am
  2. December 29, 2018 at 10:59 am

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