Rainer Maria Rilke had written 14,000 letters by the time of his death in 1926, aged 51. This slender book, a selection of letters of condolence, available for the first time in English, is a treasure.
One of the pleasures of this book is in the shifts of tone that reflect Rilke’s sensitivity to his correspondents. He is courteous, sometimes urgently effusive, his writing occasionally borders on the starchy. He recognises that the process of mourning is individual. But he tends not to focus on the person that has died ... In a sense, the contents of this book should be relabelled letters of non-condolence. It was Rilke’s fresh, courageous, undeceived approach that ensured that recipients held on to these letters as keepsakes and that we can now do the same.
The letters included in this brief but dense collection are...taken from correspondences that Rilke had with friends, relatives, and acquaintances in light of the deaths of various individuals, these letters provide a space for ruminations and a careful study of our relationship to death. In each letter, Rilke addresses the death of the person in question, but he also uses it as a steppingstone to offer his own perspective on the ways in which humans are conditioned to die ... Though these letters are an important contribution to Rilke’s archive, they don’t offer enough context for general readers to truly latch onto them. For those knowledgeable about Rilke’s work, these letters will serve as fresh reading material, new modes of understanding his practice, and demonstrations of his thinking about writing and existence. But for those just now discovering his work, the letters might serve as a disservice to the colossal beauty of his poetry ... A slim, mildly intriguing glimpse into Rilke’s daily life.