“You Must Change Your Life”: the friendship between Rilke and Rodin through the eyes of a Czech American

Photo: Bourdon publishing

In 1902 the 26-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke went to Paris to write a monograph of the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. By that time Rodin was in his early 60s and was already recognized as one of the great artists of his time. The highly sensitive young poet, who had spent his childhood in Prague, was convinced that Rodin could help him to understand how to live and work as an artist. Their brief but intense relationship is the subject of “You Must Change Your Life”, a lively portrait of the two men during those years. Its author, the American art historian Rachel Corbett, herself has a close connection to the Czech Republic, as David Vaughan found out when he met her at the launch of the Czech translation of the book.

Photo: Bourdon publishing
There is something irresistible about books that give us insights into friendships between great artists, and this book is so much the more appealing because Rilke and Rodin seem to come from such different worlds: Rodin, totally rooted in 19th century Paris, and Rilke, one of the great German-language poets of the century that followed. Rachel Corbett’s account of their uneasy friendship is lively and readable, filled with colourful detail and insights into the tangled relationship between art and life. Czech is far from being the first language into which the book has been translated, but the Czech launch at this year’s Bookworld fair in Prague had a special significance for the author. Like Rilke himself, she has roots in this country.

“I have several cousins here, who are Czech. My family came from a little town called Protivín. It’s about four generations ago for me. And they founded a town called Protivin in Iowa. It’s a little town and it has remained Czech for generations. My grandmother’s first language was Czech, even though she was born in the US, and I have a few Czech cousins here, near Plzeň.”

Did you grow up with any elements of this Czech identity?

“Unfortunately I never learned the language. My grandmother would speak it. She would say things like, ‘I’m only going to speak Czech for the next hour,’ but then I would just say, ‘Then I’m not going to listen to you for the next hour.’ Sadly, I didn’t have an interest in learning it when I was a child. But we grew up eating koláče and rohlíky and guláš. All of that.”

And did you visit the Czech museum in Cedar Rapids?

“Yes. My great-grandmother’s homesteader’s shirt was just on display there a couple of months ago. And they have a copy of my book there now in the library. My grandmother is a very active member of that museum.”

Another connection is the wonderful American writer Willa Cather who wrote about the Czech community in the Midwest.

“I loved My Ántonia. I remember that book well, though it’s been a while since I read it. But that was the same generation as my family when they came, and for whatever reason the Czech community really stayed together there and continues to thrive.”

The book that you are promoting at the Bookworld book fair also has a Czech connection – albeit indirectly.

Rachel Corbett in the Lapidarium of the Czech National Museum,  photo: David Vaughan
“It’s about the friendship between Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. Rilke was born in Prague and grew up here. He was a German speaker – it was during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He didn’t learn Czech that well, though he regretted that late. He left Prague after high school and moved to Germany from where he didn’t return. But his family was from here and he was influenced by that. He has a book Two Prague Stories, where he uses Czech names and street names, and the book incorporates a lot of his history in Prague.”

Rilke is famous for having written many thousands of letters and having corresponded with a huge number of people, but I have to admit that I knew nothing about his connection with Rodin.

“It’s fascinating, because they seem as if they are from totally different centuries or continents. They seem totally different, but when Rilke was in his early 20s and Rodin was in his 60s, Rilke was commissioned to write a monograph about Rodin. He was just a struggling young poet and art critic, and this was one of his first big breaks – to meet a major artist. So he went, and they got on really well. Rodin hired him later as his secretary. Over the course of about five years Rilke came and went, and really he was a kind of apprentice, in the sense that he wanted to learn how to see like an artist. He wanted to observe and learn how Rodin lived.”

At just before three o’clock on Monday, September 1, Rilke walked from his hostel along the Seine to Rodin’s studio in the Marble Depot to introduce himself to his new master. The courtyard of the building looked as rough and undeveloped as a quarry, with sheds lined around the edges to serve as the studios. Sometimes a sign hung on the door to Atelier J informing visitors, “The sculptor is in the Cathedrals.” Luckily that was not the case on the day that Rilke knocked. The door opened onto a dark room, “sparsely filled with gray and dust,” he noticed. There were a few bins of clay and a pedestal. The man with cropped hair and a soft gray beard stood scraping at a chunk of plaster in his hand, paying no attention to a model posed nude before him. His clothes were hardened with the splatter of earthy pastes. He was shorter than Rilke expected, yet somehow more noble-looking. A pair of rimless glasses balanced on his nose, which extended from his forehead like a “ship out of a harbor,” Rilke observed. When the artist looked up at his young visitor he stopped what he was doing, smiled shyly, and offered a chair. Next to the lionesque artist, Rilke looked even more like a mouse. His face gathered into a point right where his nose joined a few droopy whiskers. He was twenty-six years old, narrow-shouldered and anemic, while the stout Rodin, then sixty-one, plodded around heavily, his long beard seeming to draw him even closer toward the ground.

“It’s a dual biography in a way, but really it centres on the five or six years that they spent together in Paris – around 1902 to 1908. And this is really the point where Rilke has a big turn in his career. He loses the more sentimental, romantic style of poetry, and through watching Rodin’s practice as a sculptor, he learns to observe in a very different way. He starts writing about objects. He writes about statues that he sees, about worms and animals and everyday things rather than these dramatic, emotional ideas that he had been writing about. He goes back and starts at the beginning. And then he has a real break, a turning point.”

Rainer Maria Rilke,  photo: Public Domain
There’s a nice symbolism in the fact that the Czech translation of your book is being launched in the “lapidarium” of the Czech National Museum, which is the place where all the sculptures – these massive Baroque statues – are kept.

“Yes. I haven’t had a chance to walk around the museum yet, but it reminds me of Rodin’s old studio in Meudon outside of Paris. It’s just that old style of exhibition, with the statues lined up.”

And the book is coming out in Czech?

“Yes. It’s just been released in Czech. It came out in English in 2016 and it’s been translated into six languages so far. This is the latest one.”

Czechs are sometimes suspicious of outsiders who write about Czech-related subjects – although with Rilke as a writer in German it is a bit different. Have you had any feedback yet?

“It’s only been a couple of days so I don’t even know if anyone’s had the chance to read the book in Czech. Everyone’s been very nice and positive about it so far. But it is true that everyone claims Rilke. The Czechs claim him as Czech, the Swiss claim him, because he lived there for a while, the Germans claim him, the Austrians claim him. So everyone’s touchy. I have to be very careful with every group.”

Auguste Rodin,  photo: Public Domain
Do you think that in future you will return to this country as a source of inspiration?

“Yes. I’ve been coming here for many years. Because of my family I’ve been coming here since I was twelve, so certainly I’ll come back.”

And you have some family here with you today…

“Yes. I’ve got my cousins Štěpán and Tomáš and their wives, and I’ve just met their young daughter for the first time today. They came from near Plzeň.”

Do you feel that you are in some way kindred spirits or have too many generations gone by since your family emigrated?

“No. There is something. There’s something in the air, in the unconscious, the subconscious. I hear the words they use. We know the same names. They don’t speak much English and I don’t speak any Czech, but we have family in common and there’s something there.”