JOYS OF UNREQUITED LOVE
Things That Happen When Reading Rilke
It’s not clear if Abelone is a poor relation and godmother, or the governess who was enthralled in the book she was reading when, as an infant, Malte dropped his drawing, scrambled under the table to retrive it and, after many adventures, banged his head. Books were the broker of their feelings for one another, a grand passion for him, and a game for her.
Early one summer’s morning when the rising mist gave the sun ‘a light spiritual appearance’, he came across Abelone sitting in an arbour with a book on her lap, stripping red berries from their clusters. ‘The glistening little globes with the seeds inside leapt mischievously from the fork to the bowl.’ The skill in her hands absorbed him. All he wanted to do was stand and watch, but knowing she was likely to tell him off for moping, he grabbed the book and began to read out loud without understanding a word.
The book that Abelone wasn’t reading was Bettina von Arnim’s letters to Goethe. Some time later in the library Malte recognised the cover, and skipped through it in a romantic haze. He came to understood Abelone’s remark to him when he started reading it out loud. ‘Not the replies.’ Goethe’s were perfunctory compared to the effusions of this famously ardent woman. As he read she came alive for him, more real to him than Abelone who had in effect prepared the way for her. But like all the women he fell for in his life she proved elusive. Loved but not possessed. A muse with another life.
After Malte’s many adventures with his memories of reading, he meets his first love Abelone again by chance at a soirée in Venice. She has been just asked to sing by the hostess, and is hesitating. He meets her eye and, as though no time has passed, they resume their game. Abelone mocks the mooning boy with a haughty put down. And then they both laugh like grownups.
It is evident that she is now a professional singer at the beginning of a serious career. Malte moves out of her sight line, not to embarrass her. But suddenly she’s standing right beside him, smelling of hothouse flowers. Her plaited hair and high neckline is so Copenhagen, he thinks, that he ought to address her in Danish. But before he says she shouldn’t sing in such unfavourable circumstances, the no-question look he knows only too well agitates her scornful lips. ‘I must sing’, she says. ‘I just must’, and then she’s swept away by the eager hostess.
Responding to the request of a teasing voice in the crowd, she dutifully trembles her way through a deadly dull but worthy song Malte does not know. A Mahler transcription possibly, given that it’s Venice, and Thomas Mann’s novel is rumoured. Though he thinks it’s in Italian. The applause is polite and Malte is mortified on her behalf. As he leaves the room someone says to him, ‘Will there be more?’, but Abelone has already launched into a Danish song about loving without being loved. The silence is as golden as her voice, the voice he knew, true and simple but ever ardent.
I lie weeping in the night lulled by your being.
You who do not know. We have not spoken.
I’m a child rocked in the cradle of your arms.
If the silence was broken we would tell lies
to each other like everyone. You are only mine
because I can imagine you.
In return I don’t need anything,
except the secret in my heart.
Malte doesn’t need to be told the lucky man isn’t him, and prepares to leave once more. But Abelone starts singing again. The final verse is a sublime expression of happiness in loving for love’s sake, and not spoiling it with the need to be requited. The beloved is consumed by eternal fire. She lights the flame, provides the fuel to last forever, tends the blaze, endures white hot heat. Clearly now Abelone has a life of her own, Malte thinks, one which he could never be a part of. But he wonders if there is indeed another man.
As he leaves the hostess smiles at him with teeth like melting sugar and says, ‘I’ll say goodbye to Abelone for you. She leaves tomorrow’. Malte is satisfied that he can stay in Venice. Not to enjoy its chaste beauty when the tourists have gone and winter imposes its mists and attendant miseries, but to hear the echo of her song along the canals.
It’s all too much and too little. The hopelessness of love that longs for nothing except itself. The love of the Rose of Lima, or Teresa of Avila, who can swoon with relief when nothing happens. God, the light of their lives, will send back the rays of love that radiate from their eyes, a mirage in a mirror, which preserves intact the dry kindling wood of their longing for eternity. But Malte knows Abelone is no saint, and is glad he isn’t God, if God is her beloved. More likely it’s a demi-god, who wishes he wasn’t one.
Maybe she sends him letters. Malte pities him. He will have known her long enough to be pained by how she’s changed, but not long enough to recognise her inner intransigence, which protects her from introspection and its doubts. Malte, who knew her from childhood, is sure that ghosts from the past will not impinge on her in the elevated sphere she is beginning to inhabit, as once books inhabited her. A world beyond his. He wouldn’t want to be noticed in it, except for a shake of the head and a knowing smile. That was enough for him. Loving and not being loved.