THIS SUBSTANTIAL NOVELLA begins with t-shirts sold at a campus poetry reading that has printed on them “Rilke was a wimp.” Not a promising start, I thought. But the t-shirts revive a connection between the narrator and Charley, “The Man Who Loved Rilke.” Rilke himself, the early 20th Century German poet, hovers over every page. The story slowly picks up momentum and a lot more weight than one expects in only 61 pages.
Torgerson, a published poet, approaches prose with the poet’s goal of making few words carry a lot of freight. He quickly sketches an amusing insider’s view of campus poets and wannabes, their self importance, self doubt, competitiveness, the academic jousting, the time killing over small quarterlies, looking for the names of friends. This last is more than just amusing since it rubs the narrator’s nose in Charley and Rilke. The narrator, a prose writer by trade stumbles on Charley’s “Refusing The Dog” essay in The Ragged Review, about Rilke based on a letter of his written in the 1920s.
The discovery fully reopens the relationship that the t-shirts started. Charley and the narrator had been close friends in a college writing program. Charley had already made Rilke the template of a true artist, and his obsession grew until it took over his life . . . his poems, his teaching career and his role as husband and father. Rilke utterly dominated Charley’s being, destroying his marriage and ultimately killing him. The process, artfully revealed by Torgerson, is less bizarre and more tragic than seems likely at first.
The joyless but not unappealing narrator becomes Torgerson’s device for uncovering the roots of Charley’s collapse. This might have remained a quirky story about a weirdo who goes off the deep end, but Torgerson makes Charley an extreme example of the familiar. Like Charley, we all carry some baggage.
The image of Rilke is bulked up for the role he has to play. Rilke, we learn, was raised as a girl until age seven; the t-shirt displays a young boy in a dress. The endless self regard of a narcissist, and the poet’s obsessions about art that hypnotized Charley, emerge in letters that Torgerson, a Rilke scholar, quotes from liberally. They reveal a man always on stage as a self-conscious artist, a calling that trumps everything, particularly human relationships.
Charley is fired when a Rilke paper he wrote turned out to be based on his own forged Rilke letter. His life implodes. He leaves his family and goes into the woods to wrestle with the demon of Rilke not with the poet but with the arbiter of a true artist’s life. It’s not a fair fight, as Charley must have known. The narrator shows us the jiu jitsu Charley’s own life story measured by the standards of the Master he loved and hated that threw him to the ground.
With Charley’s retreat and subsequent death the pace picks up. The narrator visits his widow and children then takes a reluctant trip to the cabin where Charley died. Of hunger? Exposure? It doesn’t matter. A coroner would say he OD’ed on Rilke.
Torgerson writes appealing and transparent prose. For the most part, the surface story moves along nicely. Yet this short narrative sets off echoes that go beyond the story and artists, and raises questions about existence, trust and intimacy and the price we pay when we lose sight of universal human needs.