Take the Rilke 2023 Swiss Tour challenge and you can win a prize!

2023 is the centennial of the publication of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies. Author and investigative journalist Farrol Kahn, based in Gstaad, has found an innovative way to commemorate this key opus from perhaps the 20th century's most original lyric poet. Farrol explains.

Rilke 1906
Rilke 1906 (Photo: Filke Foundation, Sierre)

Farrol’s new book on Rilke in Switzerland marks the centenary of a key work by the poet.

I’ve just finished a book, Road Trip with Rilke Round Switzerland, due out on 28 June 2023. It covers some 200 places.

Now I am challenging readers to visit as many of them as possible and post selfies on a special website as evidence.

An annual award will be given to the hikers, bikers, train or car trippers who have achieved the most.

St- Pierre-de-Clages
St. Pierre-de-Clages has made a name as The Swiss Book Village (including English paperbacks), boasting an 11th-century church with Switzerland’s only octagonal tower, local buildings echoing Italian architecture, and a superb shop

The visits will be graded from the most obvious places, such as Castle Muzot or his tomb at Raron, to rare places like church of St. Pierre-de-Clages or the Hottingen Club, which will be credited with more points.

Another unique feature is that when you are standing in front of a place or spending a night at a hotel he stayed in, you can share the moment with Rilke because, from the book, you can read the letters he wrote there.

Many of the partners involved in the Road Trip with Rilke will have a memorial corner with a display of books and other mementoes, so that people learn more about this life-enhancing poet by following in his footsteps around Switzerland.

I discovered to my delight while writing the guide that a tradition had evolved of a pilgrimage to Raron’s Rilkedorf to place a bouquet of white roses on Rilke’s grave. It began over 30 years ago when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited his grave on 14 April 1989.

The book is part of a project to roll out an English-focused programme as Rilke is very popular with anglophones. More books are published about him and his poetry in English than in German.

Jojo Rabbiit, the official poster in Nazi propaganda style.

Rilke was also featured in the Disney movie Jojo Rabbit, which won an academy award in 2020. (It includes Rilke’s letter ‘Requiem from a friend’ and the poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”) Both the Oscar winner for the best adapted screenplay, Taika Waititi, and Lady Gaga who has a Rilke tattoo on her arm, will be invited to the celebration. The singer’s Rilke tattoo is on the inside of her left arm, close to her heart.

Chateau de Muzot, where Rilke completed the Duino Elegies in February 1922, 11 years after the first composition. He recorded: “I went out into the cold moonlight and stroked the little tower of Muzot as if it were a large animal.” The chateau is still a private residence (Photo: wikipedia)

Already two books have appeared in advance of the centennial of the Duino Elegies, which is a landmark of Modernism comparable to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), much of which the English-American poet worked on in Switzerland during his wife’s breakdown.

The first translation of Duineser Elegien into English was done by Vita Sackville West (Cranach Press, 1931). She had begun the translation with the assistance of Margaret Voigt, an American living in Berlin, with whom she had started a passionate love affair early in the spring of 1928.

Being in love always helped Vita to write. In a relationship lasting five months the two established their fantasy love-world at Long Barn (in which Margaret played the ‘peasant’ to Vita’s aristocrat, and Vita was ‘David’ to Margaret).

The translation was completed in collaboration with Edward Sackville-West, fifth Baron Sackville (1901-1965). It was a luxury edition printed in red and black with text in English and German. Its 20 woodcut initials were heightened with gold designed and cut by Eric Gill.

Later Vita approached Hogarth Press, which was run by Virginia Wolf and her husband Leonard. However, it was a poor translation. Just a handful were printed and then only in deference to Virginia, her friend and lover. H.J. Leishman and Stephen Spender later delivered a good translation, published in 1939. The book went into several editions until the 1970s.

Stephen Mitchell in 1995 produced a fully annotated selection of Rilke’s poetry and prose: Ahead of All Parting (The Modern Library). The U.S. poet W.S. Merwin wrote of some of his translations: “Rilke’s voice, with its extraordinary combination of formality, power, speed and lightness, can be heard in Mr Mitchell’s versions more clearly than in any others.”

A bilingual edition with the H.J. Leishman and Stephen Spender translation.

Pushkin Press has reissued the original translation with an introduction by Lesley Chamberlin, but this only muddies the water of English Rilke studies.

In her introduction to the Duino Elegies by Pushkin Press Chamberlin describes Rilke as the greatest poet in German. This is the equivalent of toppling Wolfgang Goethe from his throne and Friedrich Schiller from his pedestal.

Then she takes a swipe at the Cambridge Companion to Rilke (Editors K.Leeder and R.Villain), describing him as being not-quite-a-modernist poet. This is contrary to their description of Rilke being “one of leading poets of European modernism comparable in importance and influence with American-born T.S. Eliot and the French poet Paul Valéry”.

Duino Castle. (Photo Rilke Foundation, Sierre)

As an example, here’s Rilke’s first line of the Duino Elegies which comes across as the roar of a lion (translated by J.B.Leishman and S.Spender): “Who if I cried out would hear me among the angelic / orders.” Compare this with the croak of a frog by the Sackville-Wests: “Who would give ear, among the angelic host, Were I to cry aloud.” Mitchell’s version: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” His note explains that in 1925 Rilke wrote to his Polish translators: “The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible […] already appears in its completion […] ‘terrifying’ for us because we [..] still cling to the visible.”

A mammoth German book of 1,450 pages with 1,100 illustrations was published by Nimbus in 2022. It consists of 800 eyewitness reports on the poet collected by Curdin Ebneter and Erich Unglaub.

In it, you will find a lot of surprising statements. Notably, among them unkind or puzzling remarks made by lovers such as Lou Andreas-Salomé and Claire Goll, Thomas Mann and the housekeeper Frida Baumgartner.

In addition to texts that sing his praise, included are words from those who disliked or openly despised him (Benno Geiger, Marcel Jouhandeau, Agnes E. Meyer, Georg Heym and others).

Some other people, not too many, remained indifferent (for instance Ricarda Huch). More than one eyewitness found him ugly — even his greatest supporter, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis and his first girlfriend Valerie von David-Rhonfeld.

Rilke’s gravestone in Raron (Photo: Rilke Foundation, Sierre)

Others called him beautiful and charming, especially his eyes and his voice, from the evidence of the dancer Alexander Sakharoff, Antonina Vallentin and many others.

One entertaining example come from Harold Nicholson’s Diaries and letters, concerning Bernard Berenson and his wife Vita Sackville-West.

“They visited him in Florence on a glorious hot day on September 23, 1950. At dinner B.B. is the gracious host. He talks well. He tells us about Rilke.

‘He must have been a very small man,’ said Vita.

‘Small?’ said B.B. ‘Not in the least. He was my size. But I suppose you would call me small.’ B.B. is neat and tidy, but only about 5 ft. 3, she wrote.”

bio novel

Another striking anecdote comes from the famous pianist Harriet Cohen. The poet Rilke was also enamoured of a woman of marvellous beauty, Nimet Eloui Bey, and he had come down to Lausanne-Ouchy to be near her a few months before his death.

“Shall I ever forget those wide bright-green eyes, the thick loops of hair – almost like rolls of black cotton wool, the small perfect features of that sometimes gentle, sometimes arrogant face,” the pianist recalls.

“Rilke was very interested indeed by the story of D.H. Lawrence writing verse in my autograph album and pulled out a sheaf of poems from his pocket as a man might pull out unpaid bills.

“This was a habit of his, according to my old friend the poet Georgina Mase. Whether it was the Lawrence story or not, he selected one for me there and then, copying it onto an old envelope. It fitted everything so, especially the lines (in Mason’s fine translation): “I do not know what sounds delight you” — for he had never heard me play. Everything in the poem tallied. Later I learned that these verses had been written in 1914. Very strange.”

The poem was published several years later, in 1927.

Farrol Khan
Biographical novelist. organizer and activist journalist Farrol Kahn

Farrol Kahn is the author of a bio-novel about Rilke and an investigative journalist with books on aerospace medicine and fashion. He is also the organizer of the Swiss World Art Forum and the Gstaad Concours d’Elegance 2022 for classic cars.

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Rilke’s Valais: ‘I have this country in the blood’ (LINK)