Rilke & Me: From Prague to Muzot

Pictures from my travels & research for LOST SON, my novel about Rilke that was published 10 years ago this spring

Rainer Maria Rilke.
Ten years in the making, Lost Son appeared in 2007 (it is still in print).

In the spring of 2007, my biographical novel about Rainer Maria Rilke, Lost Son, was published by Unbridled Books. This large, nonlinear, and stylistically varied narrative spans 42 years and much of western Europe and was itself roughly ten years in the making. I spent the whole of my twenties working on the book, and traveled across Europe in Rilke’s footsteps. These travels took me from the paranoiac streets of Rilke’s native Prague, through the urban claustrophobia of the squalid Paris found in his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, to the rustic tower of Muzot in the Swiss Valais, where the Sonnets to Orpheus were born and the Duino Elegies finally completed, and to the high windswept churchyard in Raron, Switzerland, where I passed the better part of a morning alone in the rain at the poet’s grave.

To mark the ten-year anniversary of Lost Son’s publication, I’ve returned to my research files to share some images from these travels.


Prague:

The Týn Church in Prague. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.

I’d been reading Rilke all but daily since age 14, but my travels for Lost Son began in Prague when I was 23.

Rilke was born in this city on December 4, 1875 and christened René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke. Except for miserable stints away at military boarding school and a brief term as a business student in Linz, Austria, Rilke lived in Prague with his family until leaving for Munich around age 22.

Rilke as a girl, age 4 or 5, in Prague.

Rilke spent his earliest years in Prague as a girl, encouraged in this prolonged role-playing by his mother, Phia, a deeply dissatisfied woman who was still mourning the loss of an infant daughter from the year before his birth. He was later enrolled in a military boarding school, a traumatic experience for the coddled child. For the rest of his life, he would speak of his “unaccomplished childhood.”

From Lost Son:
“The impartial camera apprehends an unmistakably boyish face fringed with ribbons. Dark soul staring from a body not its own. Already an outlander’s gaze. Don’t believe destiny to be anything more than the heaviness of childhood.”

(The final sentence above is a quotation from Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.)

Rilke as a military school cadet, around age 10.

Prague. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.

My private notes from my first day or two in Prague express frustration: it was hard to find tangible traces of Rilke amid the tangle and crush of this modern European hot-spot. But eventually I began to sense in the winding lanes a bit of the ambient fear that seems to have haunted Rilke’s childhood (much like that other native son, Kafka). And then I started to notice, almost everywhere I looked, the dark scrutiny of countless contorted faces, stone faces peering constantly from the many buildings.

Prague. Photos: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.
Prague. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.
From Lost Son:
“Affixed like parasites at the elaborate fronts of buildings, countless walleyed faces leer in faded baroque plasterwork or stone, sidewalk sentries seeing all.”
Prague. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.
“Christ kept staring sadly, as if to say, I can’t come down, and years later the boy would learn the reason: this god meant to screen the Heavenly Father from sight by those injured arms.”

Munich:

Rilke plaque in Munich. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.

Rilke lived in Munich in his early twenties — he first met and courted the great Lou-Andreas Salomé in this city — but this plaque at number 34 Ainmillerstrasse commemorates his brief residency here as a much older man following World War I: “In memory of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He lived in this house in the years 1918 and 1919.”

M. Allen Cunningham (age 23) in Munich, 2001.

In its last few pages, Lost Son describes an encounter between myself and Rilke’s ghost on the sidewalk outside this building:

“You come walking around the street corner toward the spot where I’m standing. To my left, on the wall of number 34 Ainmillerstrasse, a plaque has been hung. Your face in bronze relief. But you are approaching from a different time: 1918, in the days just before you will leave for Switzerland, never to return. You’ve written the Fifth and Sixth Elegies, and now the others await you out there. Restless with God, your hands stoved in your coat pockets, you come rounding the corner out of war, the heartache of thousands, your world long crazed. You’ve been loitering in this city, place of the damned, for years, one amongst the wounded many…”

Paris:

Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

In 2005, age 27 and deep into the writing of the Lost Son manuscript, I stayed for two months in the Latin Quarter of Paris. (Left) These are the steps to my atelier door, a place just blocks from Rilke’s first Paris address in the rue Toullier.

M. Allen Cunningham, at work on LOST SON, Paris 2005
Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above, right) Rilke’s door at number 11 rue Toullier. Readers of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge will recognize the address (though in the novel Rilke converted the number to a date).

11 September, rue Toullier.
So, people do come here to live. I would sooner have thought that this is where one dies.
-The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pantheon viewed from the corner of rue Toullier. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

Rilke himself was 27 when he first came to Paris in 1902. He’d received a commission to write a study of Auguste Rodin’s work, an assignment for which he left his wife and infant daughter behind in rural Germany.

The French capital distressed Rilke greatly (his horror is transmogrified in the person of Malte in his novel), but he spent weeks upon weeks in Rodin’s company at the sculptor’s Paris studio in the rue de l’Université and at Rodin’s estate in the suburb of Meudon.

Chez Rodin, Meudon:

Rilke quickly found in Rodin a kind of surrogate artistic father and referred to him from the start as “mon Maître,” drawing poetic instruction from the master’s methods and solace from his work.

Rainer Maria Rilke & Auguste Rodin at Meudon, 1902.
Rodin’s house at Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
From Lost Son:
“At the lane’s end the trees shuffle back to reveal a tall slim house, a faded reduction copy of some grander country chateau. Peculiar structure…implausibly tiny garret windows gabling up out of the declivitous roof. House for a boy-prince.”
Rodin’s house at Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
From Lost Son:
“They stand before a grandly arched garden pavilion, a kind of classical temple adjoined improbably to the weird little house.
‘It was my showcase at the World Exhibition a few years ago. I had it moved here from Paris.’ Rodin leads Rainer inside, and the poet finds the long airy hall teeming with creations.”
The exhibit hall of the Musée Rodin, Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
“Adam” by Rodin. Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
“The Burghers of Calais” by Rodin, Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Hands by Rodin, at Meudon. Photos: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
From Lost Son:
“Even the countless unfinished works treasured in this pavilion seem somehow complete. Amongst the sculptures stand long glass cases filled with plaster fragments. Here are hands — very human hands of all sizes and all gestures. Hands without mates, without wrists or arms, but hands with destinies all their own.”
“When he shapes a hand, it is alone in space and it is nothing other than a hand; and God in six days made only a hand and poured out the waters around it and curved the heavens above it, and rested over it when all was complete, and it was a splendor and a hand.” -Rilke, letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé, August 8, 1903
Arms and legs by Rodin. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
From Lost Son:
“On a lower shelf lies a row of small individualized arms. Another case holds nothing but rows of legs. Fifty or more legs fashioned of bleached white plaster, each bent at the knee like a rigid comma, the arch of foot taut or rounded, toes cramped or curled or rearing like tiny heads.
It’s as though Rodin has gained a secret from the plastic world’s very soul, has heard the whisper of that which is part, that which is bound always in its service to the whole. Hands have said to him, feet have said to him, heads have said to him: I wish I could drop from the body and have my wholeness known. I am more than limb, more than nerve and muscle — let me show you! So in this Master’s fearsome power even fragments cease to be fragments.”
Rodin in 1902, around the time that Rilke met him.
Rodin’s collection of antiquities, Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Rilke in Rodin’s Pavilion d l’Alma, Meudon, 1902–3.
The current-day Rodin museum at Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Rodin’s dining room & sitting room, then and now. Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Rodin in the dining room at Meudon.
Rodin’s “Le Penseur” marks his burial spot at Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Rodin’s grave at Meudon: inscription on the base of “Le Penseur.” Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Rilke, Rose Beuret (“Madame Rodin”), Auguste Rodin
The lawns and gardens at Meudon. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Rilke at Meudon, 1902 / M. Allen Cunningham (age 27) in Rodin’s garden at Meudon, 2005.

Chartres:

Chartres cathedral. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

In 1906, while working as Rodin’s secretary, Rilke joined the master on a visit to Chartres Cathedral.

From Lost Son:
“You stand with the Master before the ancient cathedral at Chartres, its huge stone face soaring up from your feet into dizzying towers, and at one corner a Romanesque angel in long chiseled robe is mounted to the stone, bearing a half-moon sundial to the heavens and smiling a grave, placid smile.”
Rilke’s “Angel of Chartres.” Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

In the first part of his Neue Gedichte (New Poems), Rilke included a sequence of verses inspired by Chartres. One of these, “L’Ange du Mèridien (Chartres)” took for its subject the stone angel above:

“Angel: your stony flesh was taught to feel,
your smiling mouth outwarms a hundred smiles,
but do you watch the overburdened dial
from which the shadows of our hours spill?
…Stone Angel: can you learn the human heart?
And do you smile even more joyfully
when no one reads your tablet but the night?”
(transl. Stephen Cohn)
Notre Dame de Chartres. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.
From Lost Son:
“A freezing wind howls down the hard flank of the cathedral, lifting thin cyclones of dust that coil about your legs and whip at your face till you must shield your eyes from the sting.
With a mild dispassionate voice the Master says, ‘It is always like this. These cathedrals anger the wind with their greatness.’ ”
M. Allen Cunningham (age 27) at Chartres, 2005.

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris:

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

During his first difficult weeks in Paris, Rilke found sanctuary in the reading room of Bibliothèque Nationale. His second-self, Malte Laurids Brigge, writes of such an experience. Destitute, squalidly housed in the Latin Quarter, Malte fears he’s becoming indistinguishable from his neighbors: the sick, the desperate, the mad. His library card saves him, temporarily at least, from the spiritual degradation shown in those impoverished “husks of humanity” who ambulate the grim cobbled warrens around his apartment. With his reading room pass he is safe — for a while, at least.

I sit and have a poet. How’s this for a destiny. There are now perhaps three hundred people in the hall, reading. But it is impossible that each and every one has a poet (God knows what they have). Three hundred poets there are not. But see now — how’s this for a destiny — I, perhaps the most dejected of these readers, a foreigner: I have a poet. Even though I am poor.
-The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (transl. M. Allen Cunningham)
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

While staying in Paris in the spring of 2005, I visited the Bibliothèque Nationale and decided to obtain a reading room card of my own. This involved an intimidating application process and interview much like what the young foreigner Rilke, unknown and poor, had faced a century earlier. But once sheltered in the serene grandeur of the reading room with Rilke’s novel in hand, I felt the span of one hundred years contract to a level of human intimacy, a profound experience I’ve written about elsewhere, in an essay called “Ghost Coda”:

There is no monument in this room. But once, a young foreigner, a threadbare poet of twenty-six, was given leave to linger amidst these storied bookstacks (“Probably the most extensive in the world” says the 1902 Baedecker of this Bibliothéque). How does that change a place? What memory can an airy library hold of a young nobody’s fierce, secret, silent inspirations? In his time here Rilke read Baudelaire, Flaubert, and a poet called Francis Jammes, but I am reading Rilke. My dog-eared English copy of his wonderful, terrible novel lies open before me. If the book were an eye, it would see me bent in an elliptical field of light, and encircling my skull like a crown of thoughts the names of cities as they’re inscribed overhead: Berlin, Alexandrie, Londres, Babylone, Vienne, Thebes, Rome. I sit here and read Rilke in this room where he read his poet, and I feel my poverty, my obscurity, flowing on and on down the ages.

“It is possible that one day it may occur to them to come as far as my room,” writes Malte while sitting in the hush of this salle de reference.

“They certainly know where I live, and they will take care that the concierge does not stop them. But here, my dears, here I am safe from you. One must have a special card in order to get into this room. In this card I have the advantage of you … I am among these books, and then taken away from you as though I had died, and sit and read a poet.”

Emerging from the Bibliothèque Nationale one day, I was greeted by the sight of this hotel, which stands virtually across the street, and which bears the name of Rilke’s fictional alter ego. (This was one of many such uncanny hello’s I sensed from the ghost(s) about whom I was writing.)

The Hotel de Malte stands virtually across the street from the Bibliothèque Nationale. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

Paris Hospitals:

“I have gone out. I have seen: hospitals…”
-The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
The Hôtel Dieu, founded in 651, is the oldest hospital in Paris. This building was built in the 1870s on the site of the original hospital. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
From Lost Son:
“You’ve not been wholly well since your arrival in the horrendous August rain. And in your mean quarter you are surrounded by hospitals: the Hôtel Dieu, the Salpêtrière, the Maison de Bicêtre, the Val de Grâce. They are in abundance, the hospitals. They’re right there whenever one should need them — and what if you should actually need them now?
…Beyond the gray windows of the Hôtel Dieu as you come past them by day, you’ve seen invalids standing in pale shapeless shifts, looking out, looking out as if awaiting you.”
From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:
“I am afraid. One must do something to counteract the fear, once one has it. It would be a hideous thing to become sick here, and if someone had to take me to the Hôtel Dieu, no doubt I would die there. This hotel is a pleasant hotel, tremendously well visited.”
(transl. M. Allen Cunningham)
Hôtel Dieu. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
A hospital inmate, Paris, early 20th-century. From a photo in the Paris Hospital Museum.
“This excellent hotel [the Hôtel Dieu] is very old; already in the time of King Clovis people were dying in there, in a few beds. Now there are 559 beds for dying in. Factory-style, of course. The production being so enormous, each particular death cannot be very well made.”
-The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (transl. M. Allen Cunningham)
A hospital ward, Paris, early 20th-century. From a photo in the Paris Hospital Museum.
From Lost Son:
“Despite his fear he will see a doctor. … He will walk to the hospital, the Salpêtrière. And he needn’t even go in — not necessarily. The walk itself may be enough to clear his conscience. A doctor may be superfluous by the time Rainer gets there.
A half hour gone and then he is standing outside a factory-like building, rows of small windows in the walls of oppressive stone. An angry arch reads CONSULTATIONS in rigid tombstone letters, an open door beneath.
Something sucks the poet inside — it’s not a matter of decision. Something recognizes him and draws him through the door.”
The Salpêtrière, Paris, early 20th-century. From a photo in the Paris Hospital Museum.
The Salpêtrière, Paris, early 20th-century. From a photo in the Paris Hospital Museum.

The Panthéon, Paris:

M. Allen Cunningham at the Panthéon, Paris, 2005.
“St. Genevieve’s Solicitude” by Puvis de Chavannes. Panthéon, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:
“I’m trying it now — writing to you, although there is actually nothing that can follow a necessary goodbye. I’m trying it anyway; I think I must do this, because I have seen the saint in the Panthéon, the solitary, holy woman and the roof and the door and the lamp inside with its little circle of light and, out there, the sleeping city and the river and the distance in the moonlight. The saint watches over the sleeping city. I wept. I wept because all at once, unexpectedly, everything was there. I stood in front of it and wept. I couldn’t help it.”
(transl. M. Allen Cunningham)

Rilke’s Addresses & Related Sites, Paris:

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

Rilke lived number 3 rue de l’Abbé de l’Eppée in 1902–03, while working on his Rodin book. His wife Clara Westhoff joined him here briefly.

Rilke & Clara Westhoff, at the time of their wedding in 1901
Photos: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

Rilke lived at 29 rue Cassette in 1906, immediately after Rodin dismissed him as his secretary (a rift in their relationship that the two men would repair a few years later).

Photos: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

Rilke lived at 17 rue Campagne-Première in 1914, right before the outbreak of war in Europe. He was in Göttingen when Germany declared war on France, and was prohibited to return to Paris to collect his belongings, including a trunk full of manuscripts.

Jardin des Plantes, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

On Rodin’s recommendation, Rilke spent a great deal of time at the small zoo at the Jardin des Plantes. Many of the animal poems that resulted (including “The Panther”) are found in his New Poems.

Here’s my translation of “The Panther” from Lost Son:

His gaze, from the passing bars,
has grown so weary that it can hold nothing else.
To him there are a thousand bars
and beyond the thousand bars no world at all. //
The soft drop of his dread sleek steps,
conscribed to a tight circle,
is like a dance of stamina around a center
in which a greater will stands stunned. //
Yet sometimes the curtain of the pupil stirs,
opens itself soundlessly — then an image gets inside,
passes through the silent tension of the limbs and —
snared in the heart, ceases to be.

(transl. M. Allen Cunningham, 2007)


Carousel, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, 2005. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham.

From Rilke’s “Das Karussell, Jardin du Luxembourg”:

“A small white elephant goes sailing by,
the lion bears a little boy in white,
the fearsome creature shows its teeth and glares,
the hot excited hands hold very tight. //
And so they ride and so they circle round
and round again, and lively girls are there
for whom such games are practically outgrown
whose eyes look everywhere, search everywhere. …”
-found in New Poems, part 1 (transl. Stephen Cohn)

Rue Castiglione, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

In 1908 at the Hotel Liverpool in the rue Castiglione (above), Rilke first met the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis. Princess Marie would become one of his most important patrons, and he would conceive one of his greatest poetic works while staying at her Duino Castle on the Adriatic coast.

From Lost Son:
“ ‘After Malte,’ he tells her wearily, ‘I may have nothing left to say.’
And means it. For a book, he’s learned, can sometimes be a fatal thing. And he’s amazed to feel that this princess, listening in her thin matronly equipoise, understands this truth. To feel, by the look in her shrewd empathetic eyes, that she knows him. Even, perhaps, that she foresees something he cannot. …”

Hôtel Biron / Musée Rodin, Paris:

Present-day Musée Rodin at 77 rue Varenne, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

In the autumn of 1908, having returned once more to Paris after many wanderings, Rilke moved into a room on the ground floor of the Hôtel Biron, a somewhat derelict 18th-century mansion a stone’s throw from the Hôtel des Invalides. Some years before, following innumerable transfers of ownership, the French government had disbanded a resident order of nuns and opened the rooms of the Biron for lease to artists. Rilke’s wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff had been living and working here, and while she traveled to Germany Rilke took over her room. He would stay here, off and on, for a few years while working on The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It would be one of his longest residencies anywhere.

Today the Hôtel Biron is the Paris Musée Rodin. It was while visiting Rilke in September, 1908 that Rodin first discovered the place. The very next day Rodin arranged to rent half of the ground floor for use as his atelier. That afternoon, in gladness, Rainer brought the sculptor a gift: a wooden statue of Saint Christopher. This statue remains in the collection of the Musée Rodin.

Saint Christopher, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
From Lost Son:
“The saint carried the Christ-child on his shoulders, and the Christ-child’s small hands clutched the orb of the world. To the poet’s eyes this particular Christopher, long-bearded and French, bore an uncanny resemblance to the Master.
‘This is Rodin carrying his work,’ Rainer said. ‘The work grows always heavier, but it holds the world.’
And the Master smiled his great pleasure.”
Saint Christopher, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Plaque on the exterior of the Hôtel Biron/Musée Rodin. Photo: Wikipedia.

During his first few months in the Hôtel Biron, Rilke wrote his “Requiem for a Friend,” in memory of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, who had died suddenly the previous year, following the birth of her first child:

“I’ve had dead ones, and I’ve released them. …
Only you, you turn
back; you graze against me, you move about
in order to unsettle something, so that it will ring with you
and betray you to me. …”
-from Rilke’s “Requiem für eine Freundin” (transl. M. Allen Cunningham)
Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1905

Rilke at work in the Hôtel Biron
From Lost Son:
“He is photographed during his residence here. Thirty-two years old, he sits at a great wooden galleon of a desk in the milky light of a window. No other furnishings, just a bare expanse of wall looming up in front of him. The images radiate hollowness, solitude, the vast airiness of this once-grand house. The poet is shrunken in the picture-plain, engulfed in a thick duffelcloth coat, for he suffers a constant draft in these autumn days. This unsealed house in which spirits stir.”

“Adam & Eve” by Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
“The Hand of God” by Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Rose Beuret by Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
“La Priere” by Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Baudelaire by Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

Rodin Archives, Hôtel Biron:

While working on Lost Son in Paris, I spent a few full days in the archives of the Musée Rodin, high in the garret of the Hôtel Biron. At my first appointment, the archivist placed before me a green file folder labeled simply “Rainer Maria RILKE et Clara WESTHOFF.” Inside were perhaps a hundred letters in Rilke’s hand.

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) Rilke’s first letter to Rodin, written (in French) on 28 June 1902 from Haseldorf Castle in Germany, outlining the poet’s plan to come to Paris to meet Rodin and study his work for a monograph, and inquiring about where to get photographs of Rodin’s work.

“It must seem to you indiscreet on my part, to dare to write to you about trifles, but it is of great importance for me to have the best thoughts and advice on this point, which only you can give me. I considered it a great loss not being able to visit your exhibition in Prague… But I hope to see in autumn in Paris all that was assembled in Prague …”
Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) Rilke’s signature at the close of his 28 June 1902 letter to Rodin from Haseldorf Castle.

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) A letter by Clara Rilke, written from Rome, with sketches.

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) Rilke’s calling cards, 1906. The first is dated 12 May, the day after Rodin dismissed Rilke as secretary and told him to leave Meudon. It informs Rodin of Rilke’s new address in Paris, at 29 rue Cassette.

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) A Christmas card from Rilke and his wife Clara to Rodin and Rose Beuret, Christmas 1905.

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) A document in Rilke’s hand lists each of the inscriptions he made in copies of his own books presented to Rodin as gifts.

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) The death announcement for Rilke’s father, Josef Rilke, who died in March 1906, during Rilke’s time living at Meudon and working as Rodin’s secretary.

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Above) Letter from Rilke to Rodin, dated 26 October 1905. The letterhead bears the Rilke family seal.

From Lost Son:
“I felt I could see the silence of the rooms in which these lines had been written. Slow or fast, time had passed for you as it passes for me now. … Amidst your letters were some receipts, some telegrams, your father’s death announcement, a few of your calling cards. I took up each of the calling cards in turn — these small quotidian things you’d once carried in this or that pocket. One was black-bordered. They were all very plain. Several had been jotted over with notes or messages. The center of each read simply: Rainer Maria Rilke. And it was as though you’d turned your face toward this future of mine and had spoken very softly, very gravely.”

The Louvre:

Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.
Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2005.

(Left) The “Archaic torso” believed to be the source of Rilke’s celebrated poem.

“We cannot know his legendary head / With eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso / is still suffused with brilliance from inside, / like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, // gleams in all its power …” (transl. Stephen Mitchell)

From my essay “Ghost Coda”:

“Later, in the Louvre, that hall of gathered time, I will stand before the Archaic Torso, the subject of Rilke’s celebrated poem. Moments will tick past — half an hour, hour — and slowly, I will begin to understand how Rilke must have waited there before that powerful object — waited, waited, and finally, confronting the torso’s antique silence, felt his waiting grow fruitful. Then he knew he could give back, in words that would not profane it, the force of such silence. “Denn da ist keine Stelle, / die dicht nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.” For there is no piece of this that does not see you. You must change your life. I’ve been seen by something, having bent my head in the reading room, having shuffled the poet’s letters in my hands. What is it? What comes of this turning back, these travels amongst the stirring dead? …”

Duino:

Duino. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.

Castle Duino, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis’ home on the Adriatic Gulf of Trieste, came late in my ongoing Rilke travels. I finally visited in 2012.

Duino Castle. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.

Rilke passed many visits here, and in these gardens in 1911 he conceived the poetic masterpiece that bears the castle’s name: The Duino Elegies. It would be ten years (of wandering, displacement, and the traumas of war) before he would complete the ten-poem cycle.

Duino Castle. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.

Appropriately, on the day of my visit a mad wind was howling. “A wind full of infinite space gnaws at our faces….” reads one line from the Duino Elegies.

Inside Duino Castle. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.
View from Duino Castle: Gulf of Trieste. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.
Library at Duino Castle. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.

A late section of Lost Son describes Rilke’s stay at Duino during that winter/spring of 1911–12. It was a lonely stay — the Princess was absent for much of it — and in the midst of it, in February 1912, Rilke received a letter from his wife Clara requesting a divorce. On March 16th, Rilke wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé about discovering a book of Montaigne’s correspondence in the Duino library. This letter is the basis of the following passage in Lost Son:

…Retiring to your bedchamber with the book, you sit up reading and chance upon a letter in which Montaigne describes the slow death of his beloved friend Etienne de la Boetie.
At the letter’s end a fit of uncontrollable tears takes hold of you. You must set the book aside. Something is welling up convulsive and violent, and as you lie in the silence of your darkened room, you can do nothing to stop it. Some part of you has seized upon the fit, determined to make it count for something. So you spasm and cough and cry, shivering in your snug four-post bed in that old castle atop the cliff, helpless to fall asleep and sorrowing alone, child-like, into the deep morning hours.
“A shame it was,” you wrote to Lou, “how this crying returned the following evenings without clear reason.”
“Like dew from the early grass,” says the Second Elegy:
“that which is ours rises from us…like the heat from a
hot dish. O smile, where do you go? O expression in the eyes:
new warm escaping wave of the heart — ;
how it hurts me: we are these very things. So does the world-space
in which we come loose, taste of us?”
Rilke’s presence is commemorated throughout the interior of Duino Castle. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.
Atop Duino Castle. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.
Duino Castle. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2012.

Vienna:

Vienna, Das Wieden neighborhood. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2015.

To his own shock, Rilke was drafted into the Austrian Army in November 1915. In January of 1916 he endured a disastrous spell of infantry training in Hütteldorf, outside Vienna, before being transferred to a desk job in the Vienna Imperial War Archive to write propaganda.

Rilke in Austrian uniform, circa 1916.
From Lost Son:
Three photographs … Here: he’s capped in the regulation kepi, one arm hugging a slim leather briefcase to his side. Here: he stands against garden shrubbery, the doffed kepi held in his right hand as it falls along his thigh. Thinning hair recedes high on his brow, his mustache enunciates a dark frown. This full-figured shot betrays the poet’s thinness, his narrow unsoldierly shoulders. And here, in close-up: the poet’s shallow chin rides high above the dark collar, his face half-shadowed, wide eyes looking askance at the lens, fixed in bleak and numb alarm. Face like a glove turned inside out. … This uniform, tattered in several places, had already seen combat by the time he’d received it. A dead man’s woolen shell. He was not issued another when his transfer was approved. ‘I am here to say life,’ says the poet’s exploited face, ‘but they’ve garbed me in the getup of death.’

Eventually, Rilke’s duties in the War Archive were restricted to ruling blank paper for use in official ledger books.

Vienna, Literaturmusem. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2015.

(Above) A copy of The Book of Hours inscribed by Rilke to a fellow employee of the Vienna Imperial War Archive: “Warmly I write your name in your Book of Hours and beneath it my thanks for the memories of the Vienna winter 1916 and our table in the War-Archive. / Rainer Maria Rilke / Vienna, July 1916”


Muzot, Switzerland:

Muzot, Switzerland. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.

(Above) The Tower of Muzot in the Swiss Valais (Rhone Valley). Here, in a single month, February of 1922, Rilke completed his ten Duino Elegies (first conceived ten years before) as well as all 55 of his Sonnets to Orpheus.

The tower dates to the 13th-century, and was purchased in 1921 as a home for Rilke by his friend and patron Werner Reinhart.

Rilke’s story ended in this region, but Lost Son begins here:

By silent evening I drive down the vineyard road to Muzot. Stand in the narrow byway and stare through summer darkness at your gaunt tower rising from the grapevines. … It was refuge from old restlessness you sought in this place. This tower then harbored you night by night in the long-burning work you’d awaited through years of war. Upon completion of your last great poems, you opened this rudely canted door to a February night punctured with searing stars. Stepped out into celestial air and stood stroking the tower’s stones with thanks.
Muzot, Switzerland. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.

Here’s a snippet from my journal of that day. I was twenty-three, and would begin writing Lost Son that evening, in a hotel room in the nearby town of Sierre.

“Came into Sierre about 7PM and very promptly found our way, half by accident, to Muzot. Parked directly beside the old venerable tower. It is a private residence today. The present owner was out on the long front lawn, trimming his hedges and mowing the grass. We bade him an apprehensive bonjour, then wandered up and down the little road, gazing at the beautiful place. Roses still grow — great red ones — along the side wall, clinging to the stone.”
M. Allen Cunningham (age 23) at Muzot, 2001.

I would later learn, while talking with the curator of the Rilke museum in Sierre, that the Muzot interior remains exactly as Rilke left it, and that the present owners summer there among his books and furnishings every year.


Raron, Switzerland:

Raron, Switzerland. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.

Rilke died of Leukemia in December 1926, and is buried in the churchyard of the Burgkirche in Raron, Switzerland. He said once that this was the place he first “learned wind,” “learned light.”

Journal entry, 8 August, 2001:

We drove through the rain to Raron, twenty minutes east of Sierre. What a chosen place that is. One feels it has grown right out of that massive rock to take in the poet’s quiet being, to bear him to the clouds. … We climbed the narrow path to the churchyard where, with rain drumming down on my umbrella, I stood a long time alone by the grave. Finally the bell in the tower above me sounded noon. Then all the bells in the valley below started ringing, twanging and warped from that height.
Raron, Switzerland. Photo: M. Allen Cunningham, 2001.

There is a small room in honor of Rilke at the church of Raron (the Museum auf der Burg). It contains a replica of the kind of standing-desk he frequently had custom-made to his proportions while traveling.

“Try it. Go away and think nothing of a homecoming. Go as one likes to go by the sea in the night, farther and farther out under the many silent stars. Try it.”
-Rilke’s Florence Diary (1898)

More about Rilke, Lost Son, and Cunningham’s work on the novel:

An interview with Cunningham about Lost Son and his approach to biographical fiction is featured in Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists, edited by Michael Lackey, released February 2014 by Bloomsbury. Have a look at the interview HERE.

Cunningham’s Lost Son receives in-depth consideration in Artistic Individuality: A Study of Selected 20th Century Artist Novels by scholar Živilė Gimbutas (2013).

Cunningham interviewed at length by Kay Callison about Lost Son, Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Clara Westhoff, Paula Becker, Auguste Rodin (unedited transcript 2007). Or listen to an edited audio version of the interview HERE.

Six Questions About the Novel Lost Son & its Protagonist Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke: Myths, Masks, & the Literature of a Life


M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son, and Partisans; a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance; and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for the literary journal Moss.