Monday, July 29, 2013
Recently, I picked up “Letters to a Young Poet,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, to read for the second time. I had fallen in love with the book when I was 17 and daydreamed about meeting the author, whom I imagined to be a kind, prophetic soul. Realizing now how little I knew about Rilke’s life, I Googled him.
I wish I hadn’t. A line from John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 3” popped up: “Rilke was a jerk.” I clicked on a link to a Washington Post review of “Life of a Poet,” a biography of Rilke by Ralph Freedman. “On page after page it portrays one of the most repugnant human beings in literary history,” the critic Michael Dirda wrote.
How could the kind prophet whose lengthy passages I’d copied into my teenage diary be a selfish, sycophantic, womanizing rat?
“One unexpected development of becoming a writer is meeting literary heroes,” Justin Torres, author of “We the Animals,” told me. “Unfortunately, sometimes they turn out to be asses, or they hit on you.” The novelist Jennifer Haigh agreed; she once had a famous poet invite her to sit on his lap. Haigh finds reading biographies equally disquieting; though she loved Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, she was saddened to find out how deeply troubled he was. “Learning about a writer’s life changes your relationship with him. It sort of destroys the fantasy,” she said. Laurie Halse Anderson, the author of “Speak,” also feels that biographies can make authors lose their luster. “A book is like sausage,” she told me. “You love the end product, but you don’t really want to know how it’s made.”
Falling in love with a book is a unique and sometimes strange experience; it’s not hard to make the leap from adoring a novel to adoring its creator. The writer Justin Cronin compares it to a celebrity crush: “When you read a book, you spend hours in intimate contact with the mind of another person — it’s an intense, but one-sided relationship. If any reader knew who we really were, it’s guaranteed they’d find us disappointing. The experience of a book is so much better than the experience of a person.” The author Elizabeth Gilbert agreed. “When I meet readers, I feel a responsibility not to disappoint them. But how do you not disappoint someone who’s invented you?” She said she avoids meeting some of her favorite authors. “I love Martin Amis, but I probably shouldn’t hang out with him. And I don’t think he wants to hang out with me either, and talk about our ‘Aha! moments’ and what we’re doing to become healthier, better people.”