Rilke in Sweden, Summer of 1904

Oct, 2018

Rainer Maria Rilke was in his late twenties when he wrote Ellen Key from Rome, complaining about the “galloping spring.” Two years earlier, in 1901, he had married Clara Westhoff, a sculptress, with whom he now had a daughter. He longed for the north, for distances and wind – for solitude.

Born in Sweden, Key had long fought on the barricades for women’s rights. Stirring up all of Europe, men and women both, she believed that marriage should be based on love, not be a means of support. Because of her veneration of motherhood, she also drew the wrath of many for not going far enough. For years she herself had been in love with Urban Von Feilitzen, a reformer and essayist, whose ideas on women as mothers and nurturers echoed hers (perhaps it was the other way around). Their relationship, sustained through letters alone, had ended in 1889, her hopes that he would divorce his wife long since dashed.

By the time Rilke wrote to Key, he was in a bad way. “You cannot imagine what I am suffering and what I have suffered all these last months; I know I am not exhausted; but the little and continual thoughts of every day and its most unimportant things confuse me so that I can no longer recollect my own.” With her usual vigor, Key set about to introduce him in Denmark and Sweden. When she sent him a questionnaire, in preparation for a lecture and an essay, he balked. “If any man stood in need of secrecy, that man is I,” he wrote to Lou Salomé, a former lover, now friend. Still, he needed Key and her connections, so he complied.

He was born in Prague in 1875. Although he claimed to be the descendant of an old aristocratic family, the details may or may not have been true. His childhood had been hard. His father wished him to pursue a military career for which his sensitive nature was all wrong. Trying to console herself for the death of an infant daughter, his mother had dressed him in skirts until he was almost seven. His schooling had been a disaster, five years at a military boarding school, where he spent most of his time “in the sickroom, more spiritually exhausted than physically ill.” Key’s question about his books may well have been the one that plagued him the most, even though he had published quite a few. Again he wrote to Salomé: “I am watching her undertaking (confidentially speaking) with terror, for in reality and to less charitable eyes, nothing has actually been done.”

In July 1904, thanks to Key, Rilke boarded a steamer to Sweden. Rain whipped his face as he stood alone on the deck, the cries of seagulls like voices from Hades. Ernst Norlind, a young artist, met him in Malmö as the waves crashed against the rocks. Where he really wanted to be was in Denmark – he revered Jens Peter Jacobsen and carried a copy of Niels Lyhne wherever he went — but Sweden was close enough.

He spent that summer at Borgeby, an ancient castle in southern Sweden. Slight and stooped, alone in his thoughts, he walked barefoot in the park, the red brick walls of the castle rising behind him. Black and white cows grazed on the other side of the river. Above him rooks shot in and out among the trees (in a letter to Clara, he called them ravens). On his “white” days, he fasted and took himself to the sea, where he lay in the sand reading Thomas a Kempis, only to return in the evening, sated with wind and sun. Years later he would recall how people from other estates used to send their carriages, “as one sends for a doctor,” to hear him recite a poem by Richard Beer-Hoffman, the rage of Vienna. Perhaps he read some of his own verses too, like the ones about Prague — blonde maidens moving amid grey ruins or lost in reverie in dusky gardens – lovely images but none very original.

In the midst of this arrived Ellen Key, now in her fifties, her hair white, her body stout. Norlind, also a guest at the castle, found himself clasped to Key’s bosom, which, I can only assume, Rilke did too. In his diary, Norlind notes how she disappeared into the castle to study the paintings, only to emerge again, dressed in a robe and heading for the river, “skipping through the park with the lightness of a girl.” She dove into the river and “swam about like one of Böcklin’s sea monsters,” while the castle inhabitants watched. Later, her energy far from spent, she informed them “about the spiritual crisis of the times, about Nietzsche, about Heine, about Goethe and about God, but more than anything about Berlin, where so many splendid and wonderful people lived” and where “the erotic problems were being resolved.”

That summer, for all his apparent joie de vivre, Norlind was recovering from troubles with his nerves. He professed fondness for Key, but after one of her hours-long monologues, he found himself “seized by angst.” Rilke also found Key overwhelming, not least because of her tendency to expropriate his poems rather than letting them speak for themselves. Even now, in hindsight, it’s not difficult to find faults with this woman whom Norlind chose to mock. Her emphasis on women’s roles as mothers and wives still grates. Her advocacy of free love at a time when contraceptives were illegal seems naïve. And she came dangerously close to eugenics, when she lost herself in musings on race. Could she not see where such ideas would lead? Still, is there not something to be said about her fierce engagement in the world, even after Urban von Feilitzen let her down? When everyone else appeared to look inward, she looked out.

Rilke himself wrote long letters to Clara but didn’t seem to want her near (she did come to Borgeby but left very soon). In spite of his assurances to Key, he took little interest in his daughter, who grew up with her maternal grandparents, so that both Rilke and Clara could devote themselves to their art. In a letter to Salomé, Rilke openly regretted having tied himself to family and home. “What was my house, then, except a foreign thing for which I had to work, what more my family than visitors who refused to leave?” His whole life would be one of seeking refuge from the clamor of everyday life. “Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain,” he wrote to Franz Kappus, a young poet who sought his advice. “And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind.”

The price of genius? Perhaps. Are we not prepared to forgive almost anything in exchange for art? By the time he died from leukemia in 1926, Rilke had written poems whose vision and beauty would astonish the world. Estranged from Clara but not divorced, he had found other castles where he could put up for free, his need for solitude respected and met. He was good at that. Even without Ellen Key.

Photograph shows Rilke with Clara Westhoff, his wife (1901).

Ernst Norlind’s diary published in Rilke på Borgeby (Ellerströms förlag, 2004). I’m also quoting from his memoir (Gleerups förlag, 1947).




by Birgitta Hjalmarson

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The girl’s breath misted the glass as she pressed her nose against the windowpane and looked out at the street. An eerie stillness ruled out there, no movement seen, other than snowflakes falling slowly from a black evening sky. In front of the house, a solitary lamp post shed a small circle of light. The father and the boy had shoveled the garden path free of snow, all the way from the white wooden gate to the front door.

In this town, on the west coast of Sweden, winter had come early that year. The war had ended less than a decade earlier. Memories of the camps already seemed distant, the guilt assuaged, for all the claims of ignorance of something that should have been known. But the girl and the boy knew nothing of that, especially not on an evening like this, the house warm and snug, the oil furnace humming in the cellar, the Christmas creche on display in the fireplace, the wise men in their richly colored robes, the ceramic ox looking down on the infant in the manger. Out in the bicycle shed, the hedgehog had bedded down for the winter, underneath a pile of twigs and leaves, its breathing suspended, its torpor all but complete.

From the sofa in the living room, the sister-in-law watched the wife. The sister-in-law came rarely to the house. She was a stranger to the children. Even the husband, her younger brother, had long since tried to understand who she was, or perhaps he understood it all too well, her desire for his wife, her need to see her, if only from a distance, and only once a year, as this evening in the living room, her mind taking note of the wife’s every gesture, her quietness and content, and yet that hint of strain, the skin below her eyes tinged with blue, and now the news, as the wife had whispered in her ear, even as they greeted each other in the hall, that she was expecting a third child.

The boy joined the girl at the window. He wore his new pullover sweater, an early Christmas gift. Early that morning, he and the father had gone to the country, the boy in the back seat of the Volvo, as they traveled along winding forest roads, with glimpses of the frozen river against the gray winter light. At the farmhouse, the grandmother had been waiting, a devout woman in black, made even more devout by the death of her husband years before the war. A horse dealer, he had lived on too grand a scale in a place where most of the forest had already been felled, leaving the ground scorched and too stony for crops. No one, not even the grandmother, had been willing to admit that his death had been a suicide. Rather, it was blamed on a sudden dizziness, which must have struck as he crossed the old stone bridge, his body floating ashore a couple of miles to the south.

While the grandmother stayed behind, the boy and the father had walked out into the forest, following the tracks in the snow, the boy carrying his grandfather’s rifle. The fox had waited for them, or so it seemed to the boy, at the far end of a meadow, the boughs of the fir trees weighed down by snow. As the father guided him, the boy raised the rifle to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger. The fox looked straight at them, as if in anticipation of what the boy would do next. Blood hammering in his ears, gun oil stinging his nostrils, all the boy could think of was the stillness of the fox, the frozen landscape around them, and the father wanting him to shoot. Just then, the fox turned and loped back in among the trees, and the boy lowered the rifle.

On their return to town, the boy and the father had found the Christmas tree toppled by the cat, ornaments scattered all over, the cat on the windowsill licking its paws. Order had been restored, the Christmas star rewired to the top of the tree, the tree itself secured to the wall, and the shards of the broken glass balls, covered with fake frost, swept off the floor. At last, after hiding in his room, the boy had come out to light the candles in the tree, not electric, as in the houses of his friends, but real, the candleholders made of brass with drip pans for the melting wax. He bowed before the aunt and joined the girl at the window, who kept wiping the mist off the glass. He was not at all sure that Santa Claus would come, especially not since the father was still in the house. In the past, the father had always disappeared just before Santa Claus arrived. Now, looking at his father converse with the aunt, the boy felt sorry for his sister, who clung to the notion that Santa Claus was no less real than the grandmother’s God.

The wife was still in the kitchen, preparing the sauce for the lutfisk, rich enough to conceal the blandness of the cod. The afternoon had grated on her nerves, and she had reached for one of those pills she kept hidden in the corner of the cabinet, behind the crystal glasses. She could hear her husband’s voice from the living room. A month earlier, her sister-in-law had helped her with a dress that needed to be let out. It was only natural that the wife should have asked her, the sister-in-law being a seamstress with clients coming to see her as far as from Berlin. In the bright atelier, the sister-in-law had bent at her side, one knee against the floor, as she pinned the dress around her waist, the porcelain pin heads like pricks of blood. Even now, the wife could feel the hands of her sister-in-law resting on her hips, longer than necessary, long enough for the wife to respond, as if a small animal had stirred inside her womb. That night, unable to forget, she had turned away from her husband in shame. The following morning, a messenger delivered the dress with a note from the sister-in-law, embossed in blue and gold, with hopes that the dress would now be a better fit.

To this day, the wife could see the husband enter the shop where she used to work, his collar raised, his coat of the latest cut. He had asked to taste almost every cheese in sight, buying two or three, as the other customers waited in line, the matrons smiling behind his back. When she married him, she had already been pregnant with the boy. Crushing his dreams to become an architect, she expected him to provide for her in style, all those dinners and bridge parties, the maids in starched aprons and caps. Once he became a successful businessman, he took her to Milan and Paris, the two of them sitting in their own loge at the opera house or walking hand-in-hand along the Seine. Even now, after all these years of living in this small Swedish town, when he thought she was asleep, he would leave their bed for the room in the attic. Here, when cleaning, she would see his blueprints spread on the drawing board, his pencils sharpened and lined up, his compass and triangles laid out the way one might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone who might still return, all those dreams stashed away, like her pills.

Now, as the wife entered the living room, she found her sister-in-law talking to the husband, the cat purring in his lap. Both children were at the window, looking out. This year, aware of the boy’s suspicions, she and her husband had agreed to hire a Santa Claus. Other parents in the neighborhood had asked to join, and an advertisement had been answered. The man, named Linder, was given not just the addresses but also the names of the children, their grades at school and the subjects in need of improvement. He should already be making his way down the street, sacks of presents waiting for him in garages and cellars, a glass of snaps offered him in each house, strong enough to warm his insides. The wife did not know this man, nor did her husband. According to the agency, he lived east of the river. People there had little to do with the people who lived in the villas to the west, but the agency had presented him as a retired engineer, very respectable, his own son long since grown.

Approaching the house, Linder saw the children’s faces in the window, noses pressed against the glass. His mask had holes cut for his mouth and eyes. Rubber bands attached his cotton beard to his face and dug into the skin behind his ears. He did not need the money, but he was willing to suffer it all, as long as he did not have to be alone on this one night, when once, underneath the stars, the shepherds heard the angels sing, “Glory to God on high!” Before he knocked on the front door, he stomped the snow off his boots, loud enough to make sure the children heard him. The husband and the wife shook his hand, as did the girl and the boy, curtsying and bowing, neither one brave enough to look him in the eyes. The woman, who introduced herself as the sister-in-law, remained seated, while the cat hissed at him and hid under her chair. He had seen women like that in the other houses too, widows and maiden aunts, their relatives taking turns in having them over for the holidays, as inconvenient as it was, and in this particular case clearly putting added pressure on the wife, whose hand had been cold and wet in his, before she quickly took it back.

Linder sat on a chair in the middle of the room. He emptied his glass of snaps, uttered a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, pulled the presents out of the sack, and read out the names on the tags. When still in his thirties, he had come down from the north, building railroads through the wilderness, living in barracks with the other men, carousing and fighting, until a young woman from one of the villages stood at the barrack door, wanting to save him, her face tapered and pale. She had a child by a man, whose name she never knew. The boy, she said, needed a father, and so a deal was struck. She had been pliable, adjusting to his ways to please him, quoting from the Scriptures, and calling him a decent man. In the end she had bent too much, and she broke right under him, something erupting inside her; the doctors were unable to save her, or even explain what had gone wrong.

After the funeral, he moved with the boy to this town, where the railroad company paid him handsomely and called him an engineer. When Germany occupied Norway, the Swedish government allowed German trains to travel through Sweden to transport wounded soldiers back to their own country. He stood on the platform, as did many of the other townspeople, watching the trains roll by, the soldiers leaning out the windows to wave. Several newspapers published articles in protest, claiming that the trains carried not just wounded soldiers but also Swedish iron to be forged into guns. The townspeople jeered and shook their fists, the air hot with hatred, but one man – he recognized the husband, who now stood behind his seated wife, cupping his pipe, making sure his children behaved — had raised his right arm in salute, palm down.

The distribution of presents over, the mood in the room was one of comfort and warmth, all meant to convince the children that they were somehow in good hands. For a moment Linder too felt drawn in, but only until he met the stare of the cat, still crouching under the older woman’s chair, its pupils opening and closing, yellow slits against black. At the husband’s insistence, he accepted a second glass of snaps. It was then that the girl climbed up on his knee, her stockings white and crumpled at her feet. Someone ought to have stopped her, but no one did. She was too close to him, her scent of vanilla and milk, her slight body trusting his. He heard himself burst into song, his voice like the cranking of a rusty shaft, raucous words about lonely men around a fire, miles and miles of forest to the nearest town, the curses and profanities shielding them from the dark, but the girl still leaned against his chest, until he wrenched her away and the wife rushed in to gather her up. The girl was crying now, not loud, more a drawn-out sob, as if she had glimpsed the hunger in his eyes and made it hers.

From the window, the boy and the girl watched their father walk Santa Claus down the shoveled garden path, through the gate and out into the street. Stopping under the lamp post, the father handed Santa Claus an envelope, slapped him on the back, and returned to the house. The snow had stopped falling now. Pressing her cheek to the misty glass, the girl looked up at the stars. She told the boy she could see the star of Bethlehem leading Santa Claus on his way, his red hood bobbing and disappearing in the night. The boy put his arm around her shoulders and told her about the fox, all that wood stacked in front of their grandmother’s house, enough to take her through the winter, the empty stalls in the stable, halters hanging from iron hooks, the wood nicked from kicking hooves. He told her he was all she had.

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