I attended a reading the other night at the college where I teach, Columbia College Chicago. It was one I promised myself I would not miss. When a National Book Award winner pays a visit, you make the time.
Sigrid Nunez is a brilliant writer. The Friend is one of my favorite books of recent years. It brings together the love of writing, canines, and the fragility of life so beautifully. Nunez is also a wonderful reader of her work. I hate to say, many writers are not very good at this part of the job.
Nunez read from a section of the book where the narrator recalls a favorite book of her own, one she uses in a class she teaches: Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. The book is cited often as the quintessential work on the sensitivities of a writer’s life. And although there are those now who find Rilke’s words overly romantic, even unrealistic in a modern world, I am not one of them. Rilke’s book is one of several that motivated me to begin to write, to take it seriously, to try to stretch myself. By writing this I am at risk of appearing overly romantic myself, but I will admit, Rilke was a very big influence, even though I came to him late in life. I read Letters to a Young Poet for the first time while in my MFA program nearly twenty years ago. I kept a tattered copy in my backpack. I read it over and over. I referred to it when I was missing the point of all the damn writing I was doing, writing that at times I believed was meaningless. I had been reading writers who were so strikingly brilliant—brilliant like Nunez—and I was frequently questioning why I was bothering.
After the event at Columbia that had reminded me of Rilke’s book, I traveled home on the train and I when I arrived I walked here to the writing shed. I couldn’t recall the last time I read Rilke and I wondered why when I had read the passage in The Friend months ago that the sensation to revisit Rilke had not emerged then. Still, there I was.
I couldn’t begin to imagine where that old book could be. It had been years. I searched the pile by my chair. I scanned the shelf at the rear wall and then the smaller shelf to the right of my desk. No Rilke. I ran my fingers over the spines of the books on the desk. No Rilke. I returned to the rear shelf and after several minutes of slow examination, I found it. The thin volume was tucked between Joan Didion’s South and West and a book of nonfiction entitled In Short. It was in better shape than I had remembered. No tears in the cover; the binding still intact. Inside was evidence of how I felt about this book. Underlined passages. Stars marking paragraphs. I sat down turned on the light and began to rediscover what had moved me many years ago. I was not surprised to find that what had inspired me then, what had made me think about writing in a new way and with new vigor, was the same thing that motivates and arouses my writing heart today. Rilke’s words had stayed with me, inside me, since I first read his book nearly two decades ago. His embrace of solitude as artistic energy, his belief that to “go into yourself” was the true process of art, his belief in the spiritual, something bigger than all of us as an unknowing guide.
As Nunez noted in the passage she read from The Friend, the myth of Rilke’s death at a young age (he was only 31) surrounds the rose, the flower he had written about many times. It is said that while gathering roses from his garden, he pricked his finger. It became infected and spread. Doctors could not heal him and he died. It is most likely that he died of leukemia, evidence shows. But like a true poet might have wished, death by rose is much more beautiful. Even though it is unlikely, the story of his death matches the man and the themes in this wonderful book of letters, and although more likely fiction than fact, Rilke’s romanticized death reminds us of how fragile we are, how delicate life is, and that like Rilke, living as an artist at any level, is a life well-lived.
I have returned Rilke’s book to my bag and plan to carry it with me for many days.