A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Rilke At Muzot

For the last five years of his life the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) lived at Castle Muzot — barely a castle, more a castellated house — which impressively overlooks the broad, high-sided valley of the upper Rhône. Rilke had been looking for a permanent place to stay in Switzerland since the summer of 1919. After two years of unsettled and fruitless searching he finally chanced upon a photo of Castle Muzot in a shop window in Sierre, and immediately fell in love with the place. It was available for rent. Thanks to the patronage of Werner Reinhart, who subsequently bought and renovated Muzot, Rilke was able to live there rent-free and relatively untroubled till the end of his life. It was here that he spent his most intensively productive years — completing The Duino Elegies which he'd begun in a gifted trance at Castle Duino near Trieste; writing The Sonnets To Orpheus in rapid bursts of frenzied inspiration; composing nearly four hundred lyric poems in French (many of them evoking the beauty of his beloved Valais, the Swiss canton where he now lived); and translating the works of Paul Valéry, his favourite French poet.

On Thursday 5 January I stepped from the railway station at Sierre in a quest for Castle Muzot. According to the girl in the tourist office it was easy to find — though she seemed rather surprised I was going on foot. Armed with maps, I set off uphill in the direction of Veyras. The rain poured down. Remnants of hard-packed snow made some sections of the pavement tricky to negotiate. After three-quarters of an hour I'd reached the village of Veyras, on the north-western slope above Sierre. I headed up the Route du Moulin. There, suddenly, on my right-hand side, behind a small vineyard, was Muzot! Smaller than I'd envisaged, more compact, more hemmed in now by the houses and chalets which had sprung up over the last fifty years. But it was Muzot nonetheless — despite the 'Private' sign at the gate, despite the cold and the rain, despite the mist partially obscuring the superb view down the Rhône valley. And there still, in the garden, stood the poplar tree about which Rilke went into such ecstasies!

Here's Rilke at Castle Muzot with the lover of his final years, the painter Baladine Klossowska (1886-1969) — or 'Merline', as he affectionately called her. She was married to the art historian Erich Klossowska, but they separated in 1917. Baladine was the mother of the artist Balthus and the writer Pierre Klossowska.   

This is the fine eighteenth-century building of the Maison de Courten, Rue du Bourg 30, Sierre. It's home to the Rainer Maria Rilke Foundation, which was established in 1986 to promote knowledge of Rilke's work through exhibitions, lectures, conferences and publications. The museum is open to the public between April and October each year. And every third year the Foundation stages a Rilke festival. 

Rilke is buried in the churchyard at Raron/Rarogne, a little further up the Rhône valley. The self-composed epitaph on his gravestone reads, enigmatically:

 Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel

(Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight
of being no one's sleep under so
many lids.)

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)


am said...

Wow! For me, this is just like being there! Looks like a fine place for a writer to live. Rilke and Baladine look peaceful and joyful together. Thanks so much for this.

I remember seeing Balthus' distinctive paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City in 1982. Had no idea there was a connection to Rilke there. Had never heard of Balthus before seeing his paintings. His paintings are unforgettable. In my memory, they are larger than life, with rich color and enigmatic people.

Herringbone said...

Cool SW. I'm a newbie to Year with Rilke. Pretty wild you're there! "...Runnin' down a dream..."

Susan Scheid said...

You go to the most wonderful places and do the most wonderful things. Thanks for sharing a bit of it. As for Rilke's headstone, fascinating--what, indeed, does it signify? Enigmatic, indeed, but rich as well.

George said...

A fabulous, informative post, Robert. Perfect for the armchair traveler. While I prefer the real thing, armchair travel helps to fill the gaps when I can't be on the road. As for the epitaph, I have no idea what it means. I'm willing to assume, however, that it's profound in a way that is beyond my grasp.

Dominic Rivron said...

There ought to be a word for the momentary sensation of wonder we feel when we come across something we know to exist but have never seen. It's very intense and more or less the same every time.

I went to the Lakes today and -yet again- drove through Ambleside forgetting to go and look for the empty grave of Kurt Schwitters.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, am. I don't know the paintings of Balthus at all well, so must investigate further!

Cheers, Herringbone!

Susan and George — my interpretation of Rilke's epitaph is this: the petals of a rose in bud can be likened to so many closed eyelids with a little imagination, i.e. symbolic of sleep, or death (when someone dies, the eyelids are drawn down). However, the closed, budding rose then opens its 'eyes' and blooms. Soon, of course, it dies. But blooms again another day.

The rose is a perfect image for the contradictions and paradoxes we all face in life: it sleeps, it awakens, it dies, it awakens again; it blooms and withers; it gives off the most gorgeous scent, and displays the most wonderful colours, but these too decay — then return in the spring; it conceals thorns amongst its blossoms, pain and suffering amid the beauty.

Rilke used the rose as a symbol all his life, and it is dense with significance for him. It has also been pointed out somewhere that 'Lider' (eyelids) also sounds and looks like 'Lieder' (songs) — so perhaps Rilke is saying that his songs or poems will outlive his physical body, will never sleep or die, are eternal. 'Ars long vita brevis.'

Though what this masterpiece of poetic compression really means is anyone's (or no one's?) guess!

Thanks, Dominic. How about 'déjà rêvé' (as opposed to déjà vu) to describe that state?

Goat said...

Love those little pilgrimages to places for which you feel some affinity. They seldom disappoint. I did a little tour of places connected to the Kerouac story once in NYC, and various Beats in SF. Also a room in Izu, Japan, in which Mishima had written a 60s novel - I stayed there the night. So satisfying and moving.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for that, Goat. Yes, I love those literary pilgrimages too. My two favourite literary haunts near to here are Tennyson country and DH Lawrence country. Also Lord Byron is associated with Newstead Abbey, which lies not far away.

Ruth said...

Oh magnificent! To know that you were there is just incredible. Thank you for this information, much of which I did not know. How thrilling.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Dear Robert: Though my silence may lead you to think otherwise, I am still around and reading you here, and I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed this series of posts on towers and soulful bastions of these great writers and thinkers.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, Lorenzo!