Never before translated into English, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Painter is a surprising companion to his earlier and far more famous Letters to a Young Poet. In eight intimate letters written to a teenage Balthus—who would go on to become one of the leading artists of his generation—Rilke encourages the young painter to take himself and his work seriously. Written toward the end of Rilke’s life, between 1920 and 1926, these letters paint a picture of the venerable poet as he faced his mortality, looked back on his life, and continued to embrace his openness toward other creative individuals. We have excerpted one of the letters below.
Château Muzot-sur-Sierre, Valais (Switzerland)
February 23, 1923
In a few days you will once again celebrate the outward absence of your rare and discreet birthday. Many happy returns, my friend: let this year of your life about to commence be a happy and prosperous one—despite everything, I have to add, since it seems we have fallen back into the worst of the political turmoil that has already ruined so many years and that little by little deprives those of my generation of any reasonable future. It’s different for you, you will see the dawn to come after this night engulfing our world; you need to see it and call it and prepare for it with all your strength.
Now that you’ve been to Muzot and seen the shops we have in Sierre, you will understand perfectly why I have no choice but to come to your party empty-handed … Frida baked you a cake, but it won’t be able to come, poor thing. She just showed it to me and I had to agree it was neither transportable nor presentable. It’s more of a ghost story than a cake! Frida told me in a toneless voice, eyes still wide from her doleful vision: “At midnight, on the stroke of midnight, it half-collapsed!” Indeed, it is now a lunar cake, since if you look at it from one side only it admittedly looks magnificent, but that is not enough for a real Bundt cake, especially if you have to travel with it! She’s planning to make another one, but I’m afraid the mail is too slow, it probably won’t reach you in time for the party.
And here comes Minot to wish you a happy birthday, my dear Balthus. She’s an almost full-sized cat now, very smart, extremely sweet, and a big sleeper. The swipes are all used up, every last one, as we might have known they would be, and now she shows you her slow and empty paws with distracted caresses sleeping deep inside them.
Her kittenhood ended with a remarkable exploit: One night, a very cold night—I think it was still December—Frida (whose heart is not the most steadfast) had forgotten her out in the snow. At around midnight, practically the very moment when cakes half-collapse, what do you think this little creature dreamed up? She must have been circling the house trying to find some hole she could slip in through, then, not finding any, she climbed (just think, she’s so young!) up the tree next to the house, the plum tree, ventured all the way up to the top, then dared the magnificent leap onto my little balcony. From where, since the door is always open, she could come into my bedroom. I was woken up by her little voice, half plaintive, half angry, and at first I had no idea what she was doing there in the middle of the night … A “promising” display of intelligence, don’t you think?
Lately she’s been sleeping all night, every night, on the large woodburning stove in the dining room. As for her “job,” mice hardly interest her at all, she chases flies and wishes she could chase birds. But luckily for them, they learn in their schools that cats don’t have wings.
And you, my friend? How is the Academy of Art? You’re going there now, right? And do they like your Oriental piece? Or are the events of the “Ruhr” preventing all that? (As they are everything … )
Be strong, have courage, my dear, and be in good health, that’s all one can hope for when one is waiting. Very, very best wishes to Pierre and to your dear mother and your father, Balthus my dear.
Excerpted from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Painter, translated by Damion Searls and published by David Zwirner Books.
Damion Searls, a former language columnist for the Daily, is an American translator and writer. He has translated thirty books from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch, including The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams (2010), a selection of writings by Rainer Maria Rilke. He is also the author of three books, most recently The Inkblots (2017), a scientific and cultural history of the Rorschach test and biography of its creator, Hermann Rorschach.