I’d always thought it a shame that Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kappus never met. Now, I’m sure that it was a small mercy.
I discovered My Literary Hero when I was fifteen years old, handed his first book by an English teacher who thought I’d like him. Like MLH? I loved MLH: immediately, completely, and obsessively. It wasn’t a romantic crush; it was a writer crush, and it endured. Over the next thirteen years, I read and reread everything he had written, toting all of his books—essays, novels, short stories, what couldn’t the man do?—from my childhood home to my college dorm to my first apartment to my second, third, and fourth apartments. I read him on road trips, on airplanes, in foreign countries. I scrawled his best lines (poetry!) in my journals. I insisted that friends, family, acquaintances, and random passersby read MLH’s work. I insisted they recognize its excellence. I was a one-girl, and then a one-woman, fan club. MLH was my idol.
I eventually started to write a book myself. One day, as I was struggling with a passage, I thought, “I bet MLH would know what to do. If only I could ask him.” And then I thought “But could I ask him?” Sure enough, his e-mail address was there for the taking—one just needed to be willing to pick through the Internet obsessively for three hours and voila! Access!
I wrote (and revised and rewrote) an e-mail to MLH. Shockingly, MLH wrote back the next day. He’d be glad to help. Our correspondence commenced. It was my condensed, digital version of Letters to a Young Poet. Only he wasn’t advising me on how to write lyrical German poetry; he was advising me on how to appropriately market a non-fiction book about a dog. It seemed similar enough.
If MLH and I got along famously over e-mail, I figured, we could potentially be best friends in real life. So when I took a cross-country trip several months after my first e-meeting with MLH, I wrote to tell him I’d be passing through his outpost and asked if I could buy him a drink. By “passing through” I meant “driving thirteen straight hours out of my way.”
Instead, MLH invited me over for dinner. He was significantly older than I and decidedly non-sleazy, but he lived in the bar-free boonies. That’s how I ended up at his kitchen table.
That’s also how I made MLH wish we’d never met.
Soon after I began to speak, I saw regret flash across MLH’s face. Had I said something offensive? Ridiculous? Boring? But I had been on my best, most nervous behavior. I hadn’t made any gaffes. But I was a little loopy and he was a little serious. I was a young woman and he an old man. I was urban and he liked to climb mountains. And so it dawned on me that practically upon meeting me, MLH had decided that he simply did not like me. I was not the type of individual he wanted to spend time with. Too late: dinner was on the stovetop, so we were captive to decorum.
I hoped desperately to recover the situation. As I tried to turn the evening around, I suddenly knew what it was like to be an awkward teenage boy in the presence of a cold and curvaceous girl. The more I tried to impress MLH, the less impressed he was. The situation spiraled downward rapidly: My mounting insecurity obscured any charm I might have mustered. I blathered. I blabbed. I prayed for the power to shut up.
I counted the prongs on the fork. Still four. Had I mentioned I liked his house? He served me my food. How had he learned to cook? How were his parents? His plants? Nice shoes! Pretty pillow! I couldn’t stop! After I’d exhausted everything in my conversational arsenal, the room went silent. I panicked.
“If you had to kick one state out of America, which would it be?” I asked.
“I don’t think of the world in those terms.”
“Missouri!” I blurted. “Missouri is the worst!” Wait—what did I have against Missouri?
He angrily cut a piece of fish. I wracked my brain: Was MLH from Missouri? Was his mother from Missouri? Had he set a book in Missouri?
“I’d love to talk to you more,” MLH said, unconvincingly, as soon as our plates were clean. “But I need to start packing for a trip.”
In the morning, I wrote a fawning thank you note and added, helplessly, “An unscientific survey revealed that if most people had to kick out one state, they would kick out North Dakota. Nebraska was a contender but the Springsteen album saved it!”
I heard the chirps of virtual crickets. Now, I knew what it was like to be both a teenage boy and a bombing stand-up comic. I never heard from MLH again, except for a short exchange when I asked if I could send him my finished book. I couldn’t, he told me politely.
I’d always thought it a shame that Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kappus never met. Now, I’m sure that it was a small mercy. The allure of a literary idol is, in large part, the unspoken conviction that you and this brilliant stranger understand each other. MLH’s prose used to open up new worlds. Now it just brings back the withering memory of MLH rolling his eyes at me over a plate of salmon as I relentlessly insulted the Midwest.
Justine van der Leun is the author of Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love.
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