Thursday, April 28, 2016

Rilke and Rodin: How the Musée Rodin Came into Being

On August 31, 1908, the greatest German poet of his time, Rainer-Maria Rilke, moved into a studio in an 18th century mansion in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.  He was immediately inspired to write this note:

“Dear Great Friend,
You must see this beautiful building and the room I have been living in since this morning.  Three bay windows open prodigiously on an abandoned garden where from time to time we see naïve rabbits leap over the trellises as in an ancient tapestry.   If you are in town one of these days it would be my greatest joy if we might lunch together…”

The “dear great friend” was none other than Auguste Rodin. This note marked the first time Rilke had communicated with Rodin in two years, since the great sculptor had abruptly fired him from his job as his secretary.

This is the story of the on-again/off-again relationship of these two geniuses and how it ultimately led to the existence of the Musée Rodin. This magnificent property includes not only the handsome 1730 mansion the Hôtel Biron, but also the third-largest garden of any house in Paris (after the Elysées Palace and the Hôtel Matignon), dotted with one Rodin masterpiece after another –  The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell, and dozens of others.  But at the time Rilke wrote to Rodin it looked nothing like today.  It was an elegant dump, abandoned four years earlier when the convent school occupying it lost its government subsidy. Writers and artists began to move in. 

The Thinker
Auguste Rodin was Rilke’s artistic idol. The Prague-born poet first came to Paris in 1902 to write an essay about him. A generation older, Rodin took a liking to the gifted but emotionally and artistically immature poet, then twenty-six, and he loved what Rilke wrote about his work. So in 1905 he hired the young man as his secretary and brought him to live with his family at his home in Meudon, outside Paris, where his vast sculpture atelier was located. Rilke reveled in his chance to see Rodin at work every day, to feel the intensity of his work ethic, and observe his ability to make, as if by magic, solid material come to life.  At night Rilke would enter a room, lamp in hand, to look at the small sculptures: “As they wake up, one by one, like animals, life comes back into them, hesitantly, still heavy with dream.”  He was in heaven. But six months into the job, Rodin suddenly dismissed him without explanation. Devastating though the shock of being fired was, it set off a poetic explosion.  

In July 1907, Rilke wrote to his wife Clara that he had spent a whole morning watching three gazelles in the zoo of Paris’s Jardin des Plantes:  “As women gaze out at you from pictures, so they gaze out with something, with a soundless final turn.”  This became the inspiration for his poem “The Gazelle,” one of his so-called “thing poems,” heavily influenced by Rodin – but going the opposite way. Whereas Rodin made inanimate objects come to life, Rilke turned animate objects into things, sculpted by the words of his poems. Thanks to such poems as “The Gazelle” and “The Panther,” also based on his visits to the Jardin des Plantes, his two volumes of New Poems in 1907 in 1908 were tremendous hits. And they gave him the confidence to invite Rodin to lunch.  

Rodin accepted. He loved the place. He signed a lease for the ground floor right away and moved in a month later. Now on a relatively equal artistic basis, their previous woes forgotten, Rodin and Rilke were able to converse freely.  Their only disagreement was about women.  Rodin could not separate them from their sexuality (his “French temperament", as Rilke saw it), whereas Rilke defended the model of Nordic women, whose purity did not make them obstacles to art. 

In 1912 the government decided to demolish the Hôtel Biron. To prevent that from happening, Rodin offered to will a large body of his works to the French government if it would preserve it as a museum after his death. Thanks to a massive outpouring of support, the government agreed. And when he died five years later the Hôtel Biron and its grounds became the Musée Rodin.
But what about Rilke?  Does he get any credit? Take a look at the wall to the left of the massive wooden carriage doors at the entrance to the compound, and you will see a little plaque. It says:
In this mansion, to which he introduced Auguste Rodin, Rainer-Maria Rilke lived from 1908 to 1911.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Literary Pilgrim Goes to Paris

Four years ago during my first full year of literary walks Bill Collis and some fellow Aussies took the walk I call “A Band of Outsiders." This stroll takes place in the colorful Place de la Contrescarpe-rue Mouffetard neighborhood of the Latin Quarter, home to no less than the likes of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell in the 1920s and other very great writers earlier. Bill liked it so much that he wrote about it when he returned home.  His article ran in the Sunday Australian newspaper and subsequently Bonjour Paris.  He called it “A Literary Pilgrim Goes to Paris.”

Below is Bill’s article, accompanied by pictures that illustrate the walk. 

"A Literary Pilgrim Goes to Paris"
By Bill Collis
Walking along the boulevards of Paris, becoming a flâneur, is an essential Parisian experience – more so if you have a passion for the literary history of the city. For the ‘The Band of Outsiders’ Literary Walking Tour in Paris, I met the expatriate American writer, David Burke, with my fellow walkers at Place de la Contrescarpe. He began by explaining that just as writers were enriched by living in Paris, our appreciation of their lives and work is heightened by following them from place to place in our imaginations or, even better, in our walking shoes.

In spite of the snobbish idea that tourism is not really travel I was hoping, as I arrived in Paris, that it was still possible to have a life-enhancing, even life-changing, experience in a short time away from the humdrum world of daily life. Like everyone else interested in literature I had read that Paris in the first half of the twentieth century was a haven foreign writers and artists, attracted by its great artistic and social freedom. I read Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930, by Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle about expatriate American writers and artists living in Paris, which had inspired me to read Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many others. Gertrude Stein wrote: “Paris was where the twentieth century was.”

I also had a fascination with the vast series of novels, La Comédie Humaine, by Honoré de Balzac. When I started reading them in my twenties I found it all so different and foreign from anything else I had read. My acquaintance with this city seems to have spanned my whole adult life; in my dreams and in my reading.

So, now I stood with David and our group at the centre of the ancient Fauberg Saint Medard, an area which in the Middle Ages lay outside the city walls. He described how wine was cheap and untaxed then and this area teemed with traders and travelers. Francois Villon and later, Rabelais were known to have caroused at the taverns there.

In 1922 the young Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, moved into an apartment around the corner in rue du Cardinal Lemoine. The old building is still there with a plaque indicating their stay there. David reminds us of Hemingway’s character, Harry, in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, thinking about this area: “And in that poverty, and in that quarter…he had written the start of all he was to do. There was never another part of Paris that he loved like that.”

And it is a rich quartier. Down the hill a block from Hemingway’s we stopped at Valery Larbaud’s apartment where James Joyce finished writing Ulysses. Then we strolled on through the colorful market street Rue Mouffetard to Rue du Pot-de-Fer where George Orwell once was living a life of poverty that he described in such detail in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

It was beginning to rain as we stopped outside the house Balzac used as a model for Mme Vauquer’s pension bourgeoise in Le Père Goriot. For shelter we ducked into a nearby art gallery, and David took the opportunity to entertain us with the stories about characters Balzac used in his novels, like the young law student Rastignac and the evil Vautrin. Paris is a tangible mix of the past and present, and the longer we stay in Paris we will come to agree with Balzac when he claimed: “while searching the dead I only see the living.”

Our walk concluded at the 15th century church of Saint Medard, where Jean Valjean is pursued by the evil Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. We then adjourned to a nearby café where we relaxed over a glass of wine, un vin rouge, trying to absorb what our afternoon had given us.

That is where their true legacy lies.


I would like to give recognition here to Patti Miller, the literary mentor of my Australian walkers and an outstanding writer whose latest book is the memoir Ransacking Paris .

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Spring & the First Walks of 2016

April in Paris …

“Chestnuts in blossom,                                                                      
Holiday tables under the trees . . .”

And moi, David, I’m blossoming too, as I launch my season of literary walks in Paris in 2016. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, George Orwell, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and James Baldwin are among the Anglophone giants with me.  So are such world-famous French writers as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine for a few of these towering literary figures, every one with a dramatic personal saga to tell.

As one of my walkers put it, “It seemed that the writers’ spirits were walking along with us, pointing out their favorite haunts and whispering their stories in our ears.”   

View my Schedule of Walks and join me this beautiful Spring season.

Happy strolling with my writers in the most colourful neighborhoods in town!