(extract from Rilke Volume Two, The Making of an Alter Ego, work in progress)
But our Fred Flintstone-like Lothario appears out of nowhere, and puts a hairy arm around the old girl, and says brusquely to me, ‘what do you want?’
‘Une café normal et un boule de vanilla’.
‘Impossible. The electricity is off. But I can give you a cognac Camus. Entrée’.
High winds forecast; the terrace of Bruno is opaquely enclosed in its rhinoceros’s condom. Inside it the usual customers peer at each other’s text-messages, smoking furiously and laughing inanely. I consider the absence of public time. Maybe the clocks are trying to tell me something. ‘It’s no time at all in here’, I say to Bruno, nodding at the stopped clock above the bar. His great paws dance delicately on the keys of his laptop, and he shows me the screen. It’s exactly six o’clock. ‘Time’s up. Everybody out’, he grunts. Those who haven’t paid leave. Welsh is the first to the door and winks at me,
‘La vie mange le Temps’.
‘Shouldn’t it be ‘Le Temps mange la vie’?
‘No, I’m not quoting Baudelaire’.
There are no signs of festivities in town. Fathers are the loose cannon in childbearing, at least in Bras de Venus, where young women in droves come to have babies. Bras de Venus receives them with open arms. Midwives abound, the mayor’s wife runs the creche, and they are on the priority list for social housing. Motherhood’s a good career move. Social benefits will support you until the child is old enough to be absorbed into the educational system. But forget about husbands and male concubines. Once pregnant, the young mothers tend to show them the door, and group settle in the council estate. They trust in one another to see the child gets a good start. It’s not unlike the cat colony. The toms are errant.
There are exceptions. Occasionally a young mother finds child-rearing is not to her taste, and goes on a training course, or finds herself a paid-job. The infant is farmed back to the father who, being unemployed, profits from social benefits. These house-papas are the saints of the town, but gain scant respect as men doing a woman’s job. Bobard is one of them. On Father’s Day, he tells me, the children make him a papier mache crown, and insist that he wears it on the school run. Even the mother’s collective acknowledges the single papas, and talk about including them in their afternoons in the terrace of Bruno’s bar. It never materialises. The dedicated fathers prefer their pathetic status. Teachers see the screw-top wine bottle in their shopping-bags, and report back on progress to the birth mothers. But the children love them anyway, so Bobard says.
Of course, there are bourgeois families who celebrate Father’s Day behind closed doors. The exemplary parents and their well-spaced out (sic) off-springs can be seen coming out of Mass on Sundays, as they disappear off into their well-regulated lives. When I see them playing happy families, I think to myself that one day perhaps they will make Le Journal’s faits divers, like the perfectly respectable Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes, who after Sunday lunch knifed the wife, strangled the four kids, paid all his bills and disappeared like Lord Lucan (ten years on he is still being falsely sighted).
Rainer Maria Rilke as a father was beyond reproof, except he was absent. He provided for his wife and child by returning them to her family. He kept up with little Ruth by promote her education, giving her reading lists (at four!). He visited Clara’s family from time to time in Lower Saxony, behaving impeccably as usual, but sloped off to Treseburg in Upper Saxony when Lou Salome was in residence, and came back with baskets of fruit from her garden. As a prodigal parent he had reason to think of the Prodigal Son, and his reading of it climaxes in his only novel The Notebooks of Malte.
‘I distrust their welcoming arms. It’s a trap set by her family to make me feel guilty…Love isn’t love when it’s born of habit and custom, and thereby subsumed into duty.’ Indeed, duty is what Clara and him have in common. His to make a name for himself and, by refraction, them (Ruth would be proud to have a famous father). Clara’s duty was to keep the home fires burning in a marriage by proxy. As for Rilke’s paternal instincts, he could tolerate being a paterfamilias at one-remove. He has been looking for a father himself all his life but, not being able to be his own father, made playing a letter-and-visiting-daddy a poor substitute.