July 3, 2008

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Rilke and Andreas-Solome: A Love Story in Letters, translated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler, Norton, 2008 (paperback edition, 407 pages)
By Dan Szczesny dszczesny@hippopress.com

The paperback release of this 2006 book is significant for a couple reasons. The academic nature of the volume made the original hardcover a difficult book to find. Also, because it is Norton, the hardcover was financially inaccessible. The paperback is good news to English-speaking fans of one of this centuryís most popular poets, Rainer Maria Rilke.

The volume covers about 25 years of correspondence between Rilke and his, ah, muse, I suppose would be the polite verbiage. In many ways Louise Andreas-Solome is a far more interesting character than the better-known Rilke. Born in Russia, the only daughter of a Baltic-German family with Huguenot roots, she grew up in the Protestant Church. She left the church at 17, and without her parentsí knowledge took up with the czarís childrenís tutor with whom she studied philosophy and theology. She ended up in Rome, at 21, where she met an as yet unknown 37-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche, who of course fell in love with her. In the end she ended up marrying the son of a Persian prince who on the day before they were to be married got in an argument with Louise and stabbed himself in the chest. He survived, and she agreed to marry him only if they never had sex.

Really, I swear this is all true. And it all took place before she even met Rilke!

When they did meet, Andreas-Solome was 14 years older than Rilke, and it is obvious. Iím not a big fan of Rilke. I know heís the idol of every sensitive teenager looking for a quick phrase to scribble into their spiral notebook, but at 21, as a struggling poet interacting with a much older and experienced woman, he sounds incredibly naive.

Rilke positively gushes in letter after letter about Louise; he goes on about his barefoot walks in the gardens, but mostly he writes about his deeply insecure and frequently despondent feelings about his writing. For her part, Andreas-Salome is more assured, and their back and forth sometimes sounds more mother-son in nature than letters between two lovers. In one letter she scolds him for looking too thin in pictures he sent her. In many letters, she acts as critic and mentor, commenting on ideas or fragments of poems heís working on.

The letters, about 200 in all, span 29 years, from 1897 to 1926, and the editors have let the letters sit with no interruptions or explanations except for a well-written introduction that places the two writers in the context of the time and their own careers.

Ultimately, Rilke is the least interesting part of this book. Andreas-Solome, the mentor/lover/critic, plays a much larger role. Even though there are fewer of her letters (after a spat she asked him to burn some of her letters and he did), her role in his early career is clear. Snow and Winklerís translation is not terribly inspired but serves the function of making Rilke and Andreas-Solomeís relationship transparent.

And finally, even if turn-of-the-century Eastern European Romantic poetry is not your bag, Rilke and Andreas-Solome is, if nothing else, an excellent window into German and Russian history. B+ ó Dan Szczesny