There aren’t as many titles by Rilke on the shelves of the bookstores I frequent—unlike, say, twenty years ago, when I made my first purchases of the remarkable Stephen Mitchell translations and it seemed that translators and publishers alike were fighting over the poet’s work. At Barnes and Noble this morning, I counted just three of Rilke’s works: Mitchell’s Ahead of All Parting in the enduring Modern Library edition, Macy and Barrow’s Book of Hours in a new paperback volume, and the 2013 translation of Letters to a Young Poet by Charlie Louth. There was nothing to buy. I have them all.
The paucity made me even more sad than usual, and I began to feel hungry in the way Hemingway described in his Paris memoir. The cappuccino I set on the shelves as I browsed increased my hunger, and I enjoyed the way the flavor mellowed as the liquid warmed my tongue. But it was no substitute for food, and no replacement for new books by old friends. How have twenty years passed since my first month-long dance with Rilke, when I picked up a Mitchell translation once a week before finally realizing how deeply and directly it spoke? Is Rilke out of favor now, or is his diminished presence merely indicative of the reduced inventories of bookstores today? I thought about asking one of the few booksellers, but I didn’t want to risk a possible lack of recognition. I was already sad enough.
But the grown man
shudders and is silent. The man who
has wandered pathless at night
in the mountain-range of his feelings:
I couldn’t help but note there’s a new run on Bret Easton Ellis. Now in new Vintage editions: Less than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama. Some kid is discovering Ellis at this very moment, and is probably thinking cocaine and the 1980s are very good things. I remembered the long-ago, imaginary competition between Ellis and Jay McInerney, and swam into even deeper sadness. I found both of them in my early twenties, when they were both new authors and the novel of youthful dissipation seemed something to strive for. Have I mentioned yet that this whole thing made me feel very, very tired and very, very old?
Like you, perhaps, bookstores are my sanctuary. Even if, as I suspect, they’re not quite what they used to be. Suddenly, though, I didn’t want to be in the bookstore. It felt like returning to a city you love after an absence of many years, to find your favorite restaurants closed, buildings you treasured now razed, entire blocks shuttered, all inhabitants menacing, all gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.
Yes, I glanced at the Fitzgeralds on my way out. I long ago gave my first edition of The Last Tycoon to my youngest son, and I’ve been wanting a replacement copy ever since. I found two Gatsbys in hardcover, multiple copies of The Beautiful and Damned, and—something entirely new—I’d Die For You And Other Lost Stories. There were three copies. My heart beat faster; somehow I didn’t know they were being published. How could I not know? I examined each of them by habit, looking for the comfort of the Scribner imprint on the spine, looking to the copyright page to see whether they were first editions. They were not. Even the dust jacket seemed to miss the mark somehow, with the obligatory art deco flourish around a rather grim-looking photo of Scott. For a moment I fancied stretching out my arms towards the green light; instead, I walked out of the bookstore, deep in my sadness, head down against the rain.