"When I was a young woman and first read Rilke, I thought he was a 'love 'em and leave 'em' fellow."
"But when you read the letters, there is give-and-take in his relationships. For him loving someone is terrifying. When you open yourself up, you make yourself vulnerable. There is always that next step, which is to leave them. That's always there, the possibility, because you are exposing yourself so much that you may not want to go any further because you've become too vulnerable. I found that compelling that he was willing to take that risk."
"Rilke," I said, "understood early on that to be a great artist was not necessarily compatible with the clatter of domestic life."
"No, and the woman that he married, Clara, a sculptor, essentially felt the same way. Rilke and Clara separated and left their daughter Ruth with Clara's parents. The grandparents had a farm, and theirs was a better situation. The young Rilkes were poor; they couldn't make money: he couldn't make money off his writing; she couldn't make money off her sculpture. They devoted themselves to art rather than to parenting -- a questionable choice, but a better choice in some ways. I don't feel I'm in a position to judge Rilke.
"For what it's worth, Rilke's daughter never said anything bad about her father. Ever. She was devoted to him, she was close to him, and she became responsible for editing his letters. Ultimately, she and her husband -- and their daughter and her husband -- all lived off Rilke's writings for two generations. So in a weird way, he provided for them. He paid alimony to his wife until the end of his life. Even when they weren't getting along, he was always thinking this is important; he made this commitment at some point. So that being an artist wasn't compatible with domestic life, but he didn't completely walk away from his responsibilities."
"Someone said, making a joke, that Rilke in the days before Guggenheim fellowships and NEA grants and the MacArthur 'genius awards' had financial-aid sources of his own -- women."
Professor Baer laughed. "I made a joke recently also, that some of Rilke's letters are the first fund-raising letters we know. Because he wrote these incredible letters to mentors or donors or sponsors, these educated industrialists, these rich people. Some of the letters are so beautiful and funny and entertaining that you think you'd rather get a letter like this than spend money on another fur coat. These people had so much money, and at that point in time, it was possible to support an artist, with little money, for an entire year. So they gave him a stipend for the entire year, and then they could live their expensive lives. There's a moment in 1912 when Rilke's living in Berlin and he spends three months in a fancy hotel.
"It's such a great moment. And this guy who has given him money writes to Rilke about his choice of hotels, and Rilke immediately responds, he doesn't miss a beat, and he says, 'Oh, no, no, no, no. This is completely appropriate. I cannot be expected to be living in a tiny little pensione; people would know who I am. I would be disturbed in my peace.' Rilke's sponsor accepted that. He wrote back, saying, 'Well, you're the artist. You should know. I don't know. I'm not the artist. I don't know how these things work. I guess you'll be doing your poetry.'
"They had faith in Rilke. He didn't publish a thing for ten years. That's become more rare. Now people are expected to come up with a new title every two years. People had patience then."
"How," I asked, "did Rilke move between German and French?"
"German was his native language. He was brought up in Prague, where German was the minority language. His German is sometimes slightly inflected by dialect, a certain use of words that you wouldn't necessarily use elsewhere -- idiomatic expressions. His French was not perfect. His French was exactly at the level that I can recognize mistakes in it, and my French is solid and quite good, but it's not perfect. But if he makes mistakes that I can notice, that means they're mistakes.
"He identified strongly with French culture [Rilke lived, off and on, in Paris from 1902 to 1912, working for a time as secretary to Rodin]. He wanted to be French. He learned French relatively quickly. But he did not know French as a child, or he had no exposure to it to speak of.
"He read Valéry in French. That was much later, in the '20s. Rilke formed an incredibly strong identification with Valéry, and he started writing French poems. By that time he moved comfortably in the French language, and André Gide was one of his close friends. In the '20s, Rilke moved with ease in Paris in those circles. He was celebrated by people who couldn't read his poetry because they didn't read German. Rilke would give someone like Gide an inscribed book, and Gide would respond and say, 'Beautiful, but I have no idea what it says.' Gide couldn't read German."
Rilke, I said, was Czech, born in Prague.
"Exactly. So somehow people could relate to Rilke without having to have that baggage of the French-German conflict. So he was German, but not German for them. He was a celebrated poet in this beautiful language of poetry, but he wasn't associated with that culture.
"In the '20s, someone attacked Rilke for starting to write in French, saying that he was betraying his native language. This is the only time Rilke asked friends to defend him. He made a point never to read reviews of his work. But he read that, and he said, 'I need to be defended, this is outrageous. I have no identification with the language whatsoever. One cannot identify with a language; it has nothing to do with politics or nationality.' In another letter that was published later, Rilke wrote, 'I feel the least connected to the Germans of all people. I just happened to write the language.' He ultimately said, 'I am inventing this language for them anew. I'm giving them their language back. They don't even know what they have and what they speak.' He actually gave the Germans what they didn't have, which was German beyond nationality."