For Rainer Maria Rilke the year 1903 did not begin auspiciously. He and his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, were living in Paris, where the poet had come in order to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin. The Rilkes were not exactly dazzled by the City of Light. In a letter to his friend the artist Otto Modersohn, dated New Year’s Eve 1902, the poet spoke of Paris as a “difficult, difficult, anxious city” whose beauty could not compensate “for what one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people and things.” A few lines later he compares the French capital to those cities “of which the Bible tells that the wrath of God rose up behind them to overwhelm them and to shatter them.”
As one may gather, Rilke did not tend toward understatement, particularly when speaking of his physical and emotional health. In Paris he suffered a more or less serious nervous collapse, which no doubt clouded his view of the city. Writing from Germany in the summer of 1903 to his friend and sometime lover Lou Andreas-Salomé, he compared his sojourn in Paris the previous year to his time at the junior military academy at St. Pölten, where his parents had sent him as a boy in need of toughening up: “For just as then a great fearful astonishment had seized me, so now I was gripped by terror at everything that, as if in some unspeakable confusion, is called life.”
His description, especially in the long, extraordinary letter to Lou dated July 18, of the horrors he witnessed and suffered, was later transferred, in expanded form, into the Paris sections of his 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The people he encountered in the streets, he told Lou, seemed to him “ruins of caryatids upon which an entire suffering still rested, an entire edifice of suffering, beneath which they lived slowly like tortoises.” Baudelaire himself could not have written with more disgust, fearfulness, and desperation.
From his earliest days Rilke had been of a nervous disposition, to say the least:
Long ago in my childhood, during the great fevers of my illnesses, huge indescribable fears arose, fears as of something too big, too hard, too close, deep unspeakable fears that I can still remember….
His troubles began at home. Writing in confessional mode in 1903 to the Swedish writer and pedagogue Ellen Key, he told of his early boyhood spent in “a cramped rented apartment in Prague” with parents—German-speaking, Catholic—whose marriage “was already faded when I was born” and who separated finally when he was nine. His mother had wanted a girl, and christened her son and…
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