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Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

November 12, 2011 18 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.

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