You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett. W. W Norton. $26.95, 320pp.
In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett writes a dual biography of monumental figures in the artworld, a book that feels comprehensive but that only requires under 300 pages (30 of which are notes). We get to know both the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the sculptor Auguste Rodin as persons and artists, as Corbett relates their marriages, major works, and personal crises. To add new dimension to these biographies, she illuminates how their relationship is at the heart of Rilke’s most famous book in the U.S., Letters to a Young Poet. So framing their story presents and questions the advice Rilke gives about the artistic life, its sacrifices and burdens, and its implications for love, marriage, and family life. Corbett also traces significant ideas about the new science of psychology, turn-of-the-century Europe, and artistic developments. And she does it all in such enjoyable prose that You Must Change Your Life is an intriguing network of ideas and movements, a companion that makes for hard parting.
In her Introduction Corbett says she was given Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when she was twenty, noting that reading his words was “like having someone whisper to me . . . all the youthful affirmations I had been yearning to hear.” Later, having established both artists’ childhood, she introduces Franz Xaver Krappus, 19, who picked up an early volume Rilke’s poetry and “settled into the grass.” This young cadet, disaffected by his military training, was attracted to the poet’s rebellious verse that subverted romanticism. After a former teacher informs him that Rilke had been a student at that very school, Krappus writes to the poet, enclosing a few of his poems and seeking advice on both writing and life. We nod along when Corbett observes that “Rilke was hardly qualified to give career advice at that point in his life.”
He had published but had not found his direction as a writer. He had submitted his monograph of the sculptor, though, and Corbett reveals just how much Rodin’s influence shaped the advice he passed on to the younger Kappus.
Rodin, on the other hand, was successful enough to erect a pavilion at the World’s Fair of 1900, filling it with 150 of his own sculptures, and Corbett’s dual biography shows just how different Rilke and Rodin were. She establishes this contrast early on, saying, “Rodin was a rational Gallic in his sixties, while Rilke was a German romantic in his twenties. Rodin was physical, sensual; Rilke metaphysical, spiritual. Rodin’s work plunged into hell; Rilke’s floated in the realm of angels.” When they first met, the sculptor in his studio is “lionesque,” while the poet comes off like a “mouse.” And yet, despite these difference, what drives the book is “how tightly their lives intertwined . . . and how their seemingly antithetical natures complemented each other.” Corbett successfully draws a portrait of each as an individual in alternating chapters, tracing the basic biographical outlines behind each man’s major works along the way. But she also unspools for us the knot of influence they had on each other and how their interaction went on to shape artists from John Paul Sartre to Henri Matisse, George Bernard Shaw, and Constantin Brancusi.
Corbett’s storytelling is outstanding. Not only does she offer minute details for great effect, she’s also sifted a daunting amount of source material and rendered only the most relevant elements for her purpose. Given the stature of each man and his work, this is no small task. She further paces these stories for greatest impact. For example, in 1905, the well-established Rodin and his 33-year-old friend, the painter Ignacio Zuloaga, visit Spain. A Basque, Zuloaga proudly showed the master some of his homeland’s masterpieces, but Rodin quipped that El Greco “doesn’t know how to draw” and so tries to talk the younger artist out of buying a painting of his. Such a detail reveals Corbett’s even-handedness, allowing Rodin to be a towering figure, but a flawed artist and flawed man. Later, her storytelling skills deepen the significance of this incident. She recounts how Picasso returns again and again to the apartment of his fellow countryman to view the El Greco. He said that The Vision of St. John “confirmed his ambitions for Les Demoiselles,” his own work that Corbett claims “came to define the end of one era and the beginning of another,” the introduction of Cubism. There’s a similar convergence when Rodin creates a bust of George Bernard Shaw, and the playwright goes on to create a story of a man who “sculpts” Eliza Doolittle into a lady.
With similar efficiency Corbett is able to trace complex interrelationships these two men had with women, despite the austerity of intimacy (Rilke called it an “ascetic covenant”) and even misogyny they displayed. Rilke would not have met Rodin had the sculptor Clara Westhoff not been one of his students at his Institute Rodin. (How he was able to open his own school, having been rejected as a young man by the Grande École and the Salon exhibitions for years is another story worth reading, marking an earlier artistic hinge-point in France.) She had returned to Germany, joined a group of artists living in the countryside. Through a different acquaintance, Rilke was brought to Worpswede. There he met Westhoff, whom he married, had a child with, and largely lived apart from for most of their lives; how Corbett handles these intricacies is interesting to read. He also meets the painter Paula Becker at Worpswede, and her tragic story is related as she reflects on the Rilkes and their devotion to Rodin. Again, by employing details that serve these stories, Corbett relates the essential influence of, among others, the sculptor Camille Claude and Lou Andreas-Salomé.
Andreas-Salomé is the remarkable hub of another cycle of dynamics. Not only was Rilke one of her lovers but the pair of them make a pilgrimage to Russia to visit Tolstoy, and even after their affair had cooled she remained his confidante and guide. Her advice is crucial to his development; having taken his practice of “inseeing” to a limit with objects, as directed by Rodin, he reached an impasse when it came to human suffering. Corbett portrays urbanization in Paris as an assault, as violent in its poverty, disease, and filth as the American tenements. Of course, this disturbs Rilke. Andreas-Salomé is able to reframe his despair so that he can redirect his energy into The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the book he is most famous for in France, and the one that influenced Sartre and “helped shape the language of Existentialism.” Later, she becomes a student of Freud’s, to the point that “Freud entrusted her with treating his own daughter, Anna.” The developments of this new science of the mind are a major theme in You Must Change Your Life, one that educates and illuminate these artists’ explorations. Later, when Rilke wonders if this talk therapy would help him, she initially counsels him to seek psychotherapy, but later shrewdly advices him to return to Paris, instead, and immerse himself in its harsh realities.
Rilke’s various sojourns in Paris are intricately entangled with his relationship with Rodin. He initially moves there to do a monograph of the sculptor, but his underlying motive is to find a mentor. He was adrift artistically, and Tolstoy had rebuked him and Andreas-Solomé twice. Rilke’s esteem for the sculptor bordered on devotion; he asked in a letter after Rodin agrees to be the subject of a monograph: “Does anyone exist, I wonder, who is as great as he and yet is still alive?” After the monograph was finished and finally translated into French so Rodin could read it, Rilke responded to Rodin that he was excited: “It is the need to see you, my Master, and to experience a moment of the burning life of your beautiful things that excite me.” Hired as Rodin’s secretary, the poet was happy to continue his apprenticeship with the master. When he is summarily dismissed over an incident that reveals Rodin’s pettiness, Rilke is deeply wounded. Years later they reconcile, and Rilke writes a second monograph of the sculptor; Rodin writes a treatise on Gothic Cathedrals, hearkening to the past as a model for the future. However, a wrenching World War redirects the European civilization, affecting both men directly and their communities profoundly.
It is Rilke’s ultimate reconsideration of the great man’s advice, which he had passed along to the even younger Krappas, that makes You Must Change Your Life a wise book. Not only does it unify the biography and context of Letters to a Young Poet, but as Corbett presents the evolution of each man, each artist, she allows readers to integrate the lessons for themselves.
Edward A. Dougherty is Professor of English at Corning Community College. He is the author of many collections of poetry. Visit his website for more information about him, where you’ll get the latest about his new books, Grace Street, a collection of lyric meditations, published by Cayuga Lake Books, and Everyday Objects (2015, Plain View Press).
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