Rilke’s White Night (a transcription from Things that happen while reading Rilke, Volume Two)Malte, the suffering poet, is magic-carpeted to an apartment block in St Petersburg... where Rilke passed some time (1899 and 1900):
‘Two of my neighbours don’t sleep One of them plays light music on the violin, no doubt looking out on the white night with the city before him clear as day. The other, Nikolai Kuzmich, recites Pushkin and Nekrassov, and the words spin a cocoon inside my head and heaven knows what vermin it will hatch… A student in the building knocks at the door and banishes the maggots of fancy swarming in my brain by telling me the story of Nikolai.
‘He is two people in one, but the one that you see is a poor clerk who calculated should he live another fifty years the precise number of days, hours, minutes, seconds and chalked them on the walls, ticking them off as time passes. Contemplating the wealth of time at his disposal, he sometimes wonders if he should have a time guard. It would be so easy to steal, particularly the seconds. But Nikolai, a wretched skin-the-goat who doesn’t even have a fur coat, tells himself I mustn’t allow this treasure throve go to my head. Out there, there are perfectly respectable people, even minor gentry and General’s daughters, peddling their possessions to buy time. His other self, who has not only a fur coat, but a fur hat and a leather jacket, would be benevolent and offer them the odd hour. But the Nikolai sitting on a moulting horse-skin chair isn’t going to let himself get carried away, and spends his Sundays bent over the accounts. Shocked at his extravagance - the time wasted – he resolves to make economies.
‘He runs instead of walking, never sits at table, drinking his tea on the hoof and does as many things as possible at the same time. But his Sunday accounts show it doesn’t make any difference. Someone is cheating him out his time savings, he thinks. His suave other self, with his confident swagger, and the right clothes, would track down the thief of time in no time, and negotiate a back-payment, at least, a reasonable number of hours. But he hasn’t seen him for ages.
‘Nikolai waits for his other self to visit but, when he doesn’t show up after a month (two and a half million seconds by his calculations), he wonders if this attentive gentleman in furs and leather is behind the time-scam and, having other victims, more important ones, has been caught, and is now behind bars? Thoughts of pursuing a charge, though, fell on thorns. He couldn’t remember his face for an identity parade.
‘It occurs to him there must be a public office responsible for administrating time, or a time bank dealing with its distribution and, if he borrowed a fur-coat and presented himself, he might get some minutes back. But, tortured by the possible betrayal by his other, he couldn’t leave his bed. Sundays were the worst. Unable to face his accounts or pour a vodka, he tried counting sheep and reached half a million before snoozing off. But his mood was redeemed by a dream. He dreamt that his other had come at last, and to cheer him up told him that he had been making too much of numbers. They were a waste of time, being merely on paper. ‘You were unlikely to encounter a 7 or a 25 at a social gathering’, he chuckled. ‘Moreover, you’ve fallen for the cliché that money is time. Money is just money. Time is something else, an investment that belongs to everybody.
‘On waking, he feels better. So, time is a universal problem. He is not alone. And, not being innocent of rejoicing in other people’s misfortunes, he laughs until it hurts at the thought that all the world is suffering from time-lag. He is just beginning to enjoy himself with the notion that the time he had been wasting was bad time, and the good times were ahead, when a wind sprung up and whirled around him, brushing his hair and hands, and, yet, his window is closed. It could be, he thought, that I’m feeling for the first time in my life time passing, the passage of time. Previously it was something abstract that was counted in units or designated by the hands of a clock. But time as a reality, rather than a calculation or a figuration, is a disturbance in space, and it could rage around him for months. It would be the death of him, having always suffered from draughts.
‘He tries to get out of bed. But the ground begins to give under him. Not epically like an earthquake, but mockingly like a jig. The floor is jumping. He knew from school that the earth could move. Though the teacher didn’t explain why or how. The fact seemed to embarrass him. Rather than counter the jigging, he decides to go with it. Everybody takes the earth’s motion for granted, takes it in their stride. Sailors are not deterred by being tossed around in storms; mountaineers cut their way out of avalanches. Nikolai, however, is of a delicate disposition, reluctant even to ride in a bus or tram for fear of being shaken about until his bones got mixed up. And so, he throws himself on the ground and clings to it with his hands. The jig reels into a rollick that he could have controlled, only, as he knew from the papers, the earth’s axis is at a slant. He grasps at anything at hand to avert a slide into the wall. In despair, he crawls back into bed and lets the rollicking do what it will. Time would tell if he would ever sleep again.
‘He lay there for days. The wind became more bearable with time. The rocking of the floor subsided into an occasional jerk, and then it settled at a tilt that made a sober man feel drunk and a drunk man feel sober. The student brought Nikolai books to read but he had no time for them. His way of passing the time, or letting time pass rather, was to spend his nights recite poems he had off by heart, with the emphasis on the end-rhymes. It stabilised him, gave his mind a fixed point, a centre to pivot around the earth’s rotation. The turbulence that had wreaked havoc with his life evened out. And his need to sleep disappeared.
‘The poems, without requiring a meaning, rested his mind. The flow of words with their echoes which conjured up images were better than dreams. And the discreet accompaniment of the violin of his next-door neighbour was like an aeolian harp in the wind. It was extraordinary how many poems he managed to recall. It was as though he had written them himself. He was Pushkin, or Nekrassov, a timeless poet…
‘Needless to say, these white nights of poetry made Nikolai Kuzmich Malte’s most inspiring neighbour.’