Book Review: Rilke in Paris by R.M. Rilke & Maurice Betz
One of the most distinguished poetic voices of early twentieth century Europe, Rainer Maria Rilke was influenced by the places he spent his time in as much as by the people he met. Born in 1875 in Prague, he would go on to live in Munich, Saint Petersburg, Paris, and Trieste among other cities. After meeting Tolstoy while in Russia, Rilke went to Paris in 1902 to write a monograph on acclaimed sculptor Auguste Rodin. This was only the beginning of his love affair with Paris, a city which he would leave and return to again several times between his first visit and his death in Switzerland in 1926. Rilke in Paris is the combination of his own reflections on Paris and the observations of his French translator, Maurice Betz.
The book is introduced by Will Stone, who provides both a historical and artistic context for the work. He frames the structure of the work and how it combines Betz writing and notes with Rilke’s own first-hand account of his experience. The first part is Betz’s “Rilke in Paris” which is largely based on Rilke’s letters and notebooks. It describes the first trip to Paris, which was the most immediately impactful for the poet. As with Tolstoy, he sought in Rodin a sort of artistic guidance. He was briefly employed as Rodin’s secretary, which allowed him to write the intended monograph, but the sculptor took a liking to him and shared with Rilke his own philosophy and work ethic that stayed with the poet. He soon came to view his poetry as Rodin viewed his own art: both men agreed that an artist has to make a choice between happiness and their art. An artist who was intent of living for their art could not expect to seek fulfillment in anything else in life.
Apart from Rodin, Rilke had little contact with anyone in Paris, particularly during this seminal first stay. This was a necessary sacrifice in his view, one that he made without much hesitation, as Paris offered him stimuli for his work. He was initially taken by the city’s atmosphere and the vibe of the people. He saw in Paris something of his own loneliness, but also a landscape that drew him more than any other. Aside from working on his poetry, Rilke kept extensive notes on how he viewed the city and what effect it had on him – musings that indicate to his awareness of his position there. The Parisian life was for Rilke a perfect condition to prove his, and Rodin’s, conviction of the artistic choice between happiness and art, for he saw much in Paris that unnerved him but that would ultimately allow him to take his poetry further. This relationship with the city would make him leave it many times, only to always go back.
Betz’s section is the bulk of the book, and he uses material left behind by Rilke in order to inform his account. The French translator had the opportunity to meet with the poet during the latter’s last stay in Paris in 1925. From the collected writing of Rilke and his personal experience, Betz forms an account of his visits and how they influenced the poet. He writes about Rilke’s similarly difficult relationship with the French language – the initial difficulty and the eventual interest in Cézanne and other writers whom he came to admire and later even translate into German.
An interesting part of this section is the genesis of Rilke’s only work of prose, the largely autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Though he wrote it in Rome, Rilke based it on his Paris life and preoccupations during his first visit, and Betz writes about one of his conversations with the poet where he discusses the way the novel came to be. The other big section of the book, at least in terms of importance, is Rilke’s Notes on the Melody of Things. As Stone writes, Notes is an obscure poem of Rilke’s early years that has been largely neglected in English translations. Divided into 40 parts, the poem showcases the mystical and evocative language that Rilke was known for in later decades, and is reminiscent of the themes that became prevalent in his personal writings during his stays in Paris, as well as his artistic musings when he was under Rodin’s guidance.
Maurice Betz manages to fuse Rilke’s thoughts into his own account of the story, creating a narrative that completes the artistic portrait of the seminal poet. He uses his own experience in talking to and translating Rilke to contextualise his ruminations and guide the reader through the transformation of his poetic output during those years. Will Stone helps in this contextualisation for the English language, while framing the events from his 2012 perspective.
Rilke in Paris is published by Pushkin Press.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.