Ewald’s sunny little room

“Stories of God” is an early collection by Rilke (he was 23 when he wrote it) inspired by a journey to Russia and the religious sentiment and folk literature he encountered there. Rilke later called these stories “youthful fantasies,” in part because they were somewhat imitative, if not naive in the primitive sense — Tolstoy’s folk tales come to mind — but chiefly because he could no longer cling to the childlike faith they project.

In one of the stories, “The Song of Justice,” Rilke describes a favorite character named Ewald, a disabled man who sits at the veranda of his house all day, watching the passing scene and waiting for the narrator to come by and stop and share a story. Ewald ably compensates for his physical handicap with his simple insight, as when he is speaking with the narrator about how he does not get around much physically.

It is a long passage but full of a wistful sentimentality that affects many who were once religious, versus the harder edge of practitioners. The important theme here, however, is solitude — a room of one’s own, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase — which was to become one of Rilke’s thematic passions, even when he left these stories behind.

“Yes,” said Ewald with a strange smile, “I can’t even go to meet Death. Many people run into him when they are out going places. But he is afraid to enter their houses and draws them out into alien territory, away to a war, to a precipitous tower, to a wobbly bridge, out into the wilderness, or into insanity. Most people pick him up, at least outside somewhere, and then carry him home on their shoulders without realizing it. For Death is sluggish and lazy; if people were not eventually prodding at him, who knows, he might fall asleep.”

The ailing man thought a while about this and then continued with a certain pride, “But in my case, Death will have to come to me. Here, to my sunny little room, where flowers last so long, over this old carpet, past this cabinet, between the table and the end of the bed (it isn’t that easy to get by), all the way here, to my dear old roomy chair, which will probably die along with me, since it has, in a manner of speaking, lived with me. And he will have to do all that in a normal, accepted manner, without making a fuss, without knocking anything over, without doing anything out of the ordinary, just like anyone paying a visit. This makes me feel oddly close to my room. Everything will play out here, on this narrow stage, and for that reason even this final incident will not be very different from all the others that have taken place here and will in the future.”