Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1903-1908) and Romain Rolland on Rilke (1941)

Drawn by some sympathetic note in one of his poems, young people often wrote to Rilke with their problems and hopes. From 1903 to 1908 Rilke wrote a series of remarkable responses to a young would-be poet, on poetry and on surviving as a sensitive observer in a harsh world. An accompanying chronicle of Rilke’s life shows what he was experiencing in his own relationship to life and work when he wrote these letters.

Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet or Briefe an einen jungen Dichter are very famous. I often heard people mention them. So far I had only managed to read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his only novel, and Rilke’s poems. He has always been one of my favourite poets and I was quite thrilled when the first Rilke Projekt CD came out in Germany. German actors and singer’s recite his poems to music that has been especially composed for the project. Meanwhile there are at least two or three other CDs out.

I’ve been reading the book you can see below Briefe an einen jungen Dichter which also contains the Letters to a Young Woman and an essay by Romain Rolland on Rilke.

The essay fascinated me even more than the letters.

Romain Rolland and Rilke were living within walking distance from each other in Paris, Rilke in the Rue Campagne-Première 17 and Romain Rolland on the Boulevard Montparnasse 162. For years they were living close to each other without knowing each other. They were introduced by Stefan Zweig. To read the names of all their mutual friends with whom they met regularly is quite amazing. Stefan Zweig, André Gide, Emile Verhaeren, Auguste Rodin, are but a few. Rilke and Rodin were very close friends and it’s interesting to read how different the two were. Rolland also mentions what an unhappy childhood Rilke had. From 10 to 16 he was at a very strict Military Academy and one can imagine how horrible this rigid discipline must have been for someone so sensitive.

Rolland and Rilke met before WWI and when the war broke out, Rolland left for Switzerland and lived in Geneva while Rilke left for Germany and was finally drafted in 1916. This is something I had either forgotten or didn’t know. Luckily Rilke didn’t have to fight and was working in an archive instead but he lost all his belongings which had remained in his apartment in Paris. His things were confiscated and auctioned, everything, including his manuscripts. What a nightmare. Gide tried to help but it was too late. Nothing was returned to the owner.

After the war Rilke came to live in Switzerland as well, not far from where Romain Rolland stayed. Most of the time Rilke lived at the Château de Muzot.

By that time Rilke’s health had deteriorated considerably and he had to stay frequently at the sanatorium Valmont where he also died. Only shortly before he died it was discovered that he had suffered from some very rare form of leukaemia.

Reading the letters with all this in mind, was quite touching.

A young aspiring poet had written to Rilke asking for advice and over the years Rilke would guide him with his letters. The idea of art and the artist that Rilke describes in his letters is so far from what we see nowadays.

Rilke’s idea of an artist is almost religious and deeply spiritual. First, he advises the young poet, he must try to find out whether being a writer is really his deepest wish. Only if he isn’t able to exist without creating, he should pursue this career. Everything else isn’t true to the soul and will only achieve to produce things devoid of meaning.

Art is good when born of necessity.

He also tells him that loneliness and solitude must be endured. They will transform the soul and lay bare its depth and truth. Most people look for an easy way of life but that isn’t the way of the soul. The soul strives for the difficult and serious.

In one of the first letters he tells the young man to read the novelist that is closest to his, Rilke’s, heart, Jens Peter Jacobsen. I have read Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne when I was very young, shortly after reading The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and I can confirm that it is deeply moving and engaging.

The artist described by Rilke is a pure being of the utmost integrity. This isn’t the realm of creative writing schools and MFA’s (I don’t want to criticize these at all. Our time is a different one). The art created by a being who is capable to endure loneliness and dive into the abyss of the soul or embrace the beauty of inspiration, has a deeply spiritual dimension.

I liked the gentleness of Rilke’s tone, how each and every single word is chosen carefully and especially for the one receiving the letter.

It is interesting to read what he writes about criticism and how to live with being criticized.

The advice he gives in his letters is true and precious but I was, once more, astonished, how much Rilke’s German is different form the one written and spoken nowadays. German isn’t a language that is supervised by a body of language authority like French. The German from only a few decades back sounds quite different from the one in use now.

Rilke is a deeply emotional man and so is his writing. There isn’t the tiniest trace of irony or sarcasm which is a deliberate choice. Rilke writes that a young aspiring poet must stay away from irony as he must explore things that are very serious and deep. Irony will, according to Rilke, never reach the deepest layers of the soul.

Another interesting aspect was what he said about love and men and women. Love, like loneliness, must be endured, he states, it is the most difficult thing in the world. He further says that he doesn’t think that men and women are all that different and that he thinks that women sadly are not yet fully accepted as human beings and that is not how it should be. They should be able to be whole and independent without the need of a man.

It made me a bit sad to read the letters, the world in which they have been written, is long gone, and our values have so much deteriorated.

Rainer M. Rilke: Briefe an einen jungen Dichter - Briefe an eine junge Frau, Buch

Franz Kafka: Brief an den Vater – Letter to My Father (1919)

This letter is the closest that Kafka came to setting down his autobiography. He was driven to write it by his father’s opposition to his engagement with Julie Wohryzek. The marriage did not take place; the letter was not delivered.

In his preface he [the translator Howard Colyer] states that he was most concerned to reproduce the raw “venting of feelings” in the letter as well as the extraordinary “momentum of the prose.” In both these aims he succeeds. Unlike earlier, and fussier, versions, his translation catches the naked energy of the original.

Written in 1919 and published posthumously in 1952 Brief and den Vater or, in its latest English translation, Letter to My Father, is a unique piece of writing. Although decidedly a letter, Max Brod, did not include it in Kafka’s correspondence but in his other work.

Before going into details I have to say a few words about the title. Being a native German/French speaker I did read the German original but since this blog is written in English I attached the English cover.  This latest translation is called Letter to My Father while former translations were either known as  Letter to His Father or Dearest Father. The title of the German, which of course hasn’t been given by Kafka himself,  would best be translated as Letter to the Father. I think that choosing a pronoun wasn’t a good idea, be it “his” or “my”. Dearest Father isn’t satisfying either. It is the opening of the letter but it gives the wrong idea. This isn’t a nice letter by a loving son. A neutral title like the one chosen for the German original is by far the best version, closely followed by Letter to His Father. Why a translator, who claims to want to stay close to the raw venting of feelings, chooses the possessive determiner “my” eludes me.

Putting aside my reservations regarding the choice of the English title, I would really like to urge anyone interested in Kafka who hasn’t done so already to read this book. It is incredibly precious and sheds a light on many of Kafka’s novels and stories, and can show where a lot of the angst and torment came from.

Kafka was already 36 years old when he wrote this letter that he never gave or sent to his father. Five years later Kafka would be dead. The trigger for the letter was his father’s reaction to Kafka’s engagement with Julie Wohryzeck. This is the second engagement in Kafka’s life, the first to Felice Bauer was equally broken off.

In his long letter Kafka gets square with his father. He describes in detail his upbringing, analyzes his father and himself and leaves almost nothing unsaid. It would have been interesting to know how his father would have taken such a letter but judging from the descriptions he wouldn’t have been impressed.

Reading the letter was equally fascinating and painful. We understand how much Kafka was afraid of this Über-Vater who was nothing less than a preposterous tyrant. Whatever he said was the abolute truth. He never doubted himself for one second and would never tolerate any contradiction. One of his favourite methods of education was irony and crushing his children with his verbal superiority. He would abuse and swear and make them look ridiculous. All of Kafka’s friends were criticized, all of his ideas were ridiculed.

The worst was how different the two men were. Hermann Kafka was a strong, vulgar, muscular, irascible, energetic man with a very loud and overbearing voice. He loved to eat huge amounts of food and swallow them down very fast. Franz on the other hand was weak and frail, sensitive, hesitant and delicate and represented everything his father despised.

The constant bullying and criticism infused him with feelings of guilt, anxiety and insecurity. But he also realized that his father wasn’t a superior being at all. Being degraded by someone who isn’t special must have made him feel even worse. His father scolded the children when they misbehaved at the dinner table but everything he asked of them, he didn’t do.

One part I found particularly interesting was Kafka’s analysis of his father’s Judaism. He clearly saw it as what it really was, a phony way of being accepted by society. He didn’t really believe or live according to the religion, he only used it to show himself in public and to further intimidate his son.

An endless source of pain were the different ways of seeing sexuality. When barley 16, Kafka’s father urges the young man to visit brothel,s and every time he wants to get married, he tells him to go and see prostitutes instead of getting married to the next best woman.

I can imagine how painful, crushing and ultimately damaging it must have been to grow up with such an egotistical bully.

The letter is very dense and offers much more on different other topics. If you are interested in Kafka and like his work, you shouldn’t hesitate to read it. The fear of the father hasn’t often been put into such eloquent words.

Marilyn Monroe: TAPFER LIEBEN. Ihre persönlichen Aufzeichnungen, Gedichte und Briefe (2010) Marilyn Monroe´s diaries, poems and letters

What a find. After all these years Marilyn Monroe’s diaries, poems and letters have been found. The German market is the first to publish this sensational book. I am really enthusiastic about is as I am a great admirer of Marilyn Monroe and have always been. The book contains diary entries, poems and letters in English and German translation. None other than one of my most beloved writers the Italian Antonio Tabucchi has written the foreword. We can discover how sensitive, vulnerable and intelligent the tragic actress was.

There are many photos in this book and pictures of the original pages on which she wrote and scribbled or drew. Some of the notes have been taken on random bits of paper like bills and the like.

Apparently the photo below was her own favourite one.