Known primarily as a poet, Rilke’s most renowned work of prose is his novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” which can most certainly be described as lyrical prose. Few know that Rilke wrote many short stories, especially during his adolescence. Rilke wrote the story “Gym Period” in his journal on the evening of November 5, 1899, when he felt that: “…the military novel suddenly became so pressing that I believed, that I would have to begin to write it—if not right away—then at least today,” as he mentioned in the entry preceding the story. Rilke planned on writing his experiences from the military academy he attended during his youth. But his plan to write the “military novel” never materialized, because he felt he simply he couldn’t do it. The storyline is rather simple, focusing on one episode, a single frame from the lives of the academy cadets. The story zeros in so sharply on its subject matter that the first lines are read like stage directions of an opening scene of a play. But the conflict at the center of the story is not simple at all. In a mere few pages, Rilke manages to illustrate one of the modern world’s most distressing and problematic conflicts—the suppression of the individual by the collective. To amplify the image, Rilke chooses a collective whose strict authority and discipline only further erodes the humanity of the individual. And when the individual attempts, only once, to overstep the boundaries of military conduct, it ends tragically, as if Rilke wishes to convey that only death can release us from the loss of individual identity that occurs in militaristic environments. The fact that after Gruber’s death, the teacher-officers continue to maintain the strict discipline without loosening the iron fist with which they preside over the class, only intensifies the sense of the individual’s erosion in the militaristic yoke. The story’s ending shows just to what extent the military academy stripped the cadets of their humanity. Even when one of their own dies, his fellow classmates are able to respond only in a joking manner, unable to grasp how far gone they are, indoctrinated by the military machine.
The military school of St. Severin. The gymnasium. The class in their white cotton shirts stand in two rows under the big gas lights. The gym teacher, a young officer with a hard, swarthy face and contemptuous eyes, has given the order for exercises and is dividing the class into sections. “First section, horizontal bars; second section, parallel bars; third section, horses; fourth section, pole climbing. Fall out!” And the boys in their light, resined shoes scatter quickly. A few remain standing in the middle of the floor, hesitating and reluctant. They are the fourth section, the poor gymnasts, who do not enjoy playing on the equipment and are already tired after their twenty knee-bends, as well as somewhat bewildered and out of breath.
But one, Karl Gruber, ordinarily the very first on such occasions, already stands near the poles set up in a dimly-lit corner of the gymnasium just beside the lockers where the coats of boys’ uniforms now hang. He has seized the nearest pole and with unusual strength pulls it shaking out to the spot designated for practice. Gruber does not even let go. He jumps and grabs a hold rather high up. His legs, involuntarily wound around the pole in a position for climbing such as he never achieved before, cling to the shaft. He waits for the rest of the class and seems to be considering with peculiar pleasure the astonished anger of the little Polish sergeant, who calls to him to come down. But Gruber does not obey, and Jastersky, the blond sergeant, finally shouts, “Very well. Either you come down, Gruber, or you climb the rest of the way up. Otherwise I shall report you to the lieutenant in charge.”
And then Gruber begins to climb, at first frenziedly, pulling up his legs a little, his eyes raised, estimating with some alarm the incalculable section of the pole still to come. Then his movements grow slower; and as though he were relishing every fresh hold as something new and delightful, he pulls himself higher than anyone usually goes. He pays no attention to the excitement of the exasperated sergeant, but climbs and climbs, his eyes staring upward, as though he had discovered an outlet in the gymnasium roof and were straining to reach it. The eyes of his whole section follow him. And in the other sections too some notice is taken of the climber who had hardly ever been able to climb even the first third of the way without getting a cough, a red face, and a bloodshot eye. “Bravo, Gruber!” someone calls over from the first section. Many look up then, and for a while the gym is quiet.
But at this very moment when all eyes are upon him, Gruber, high up under the roof, gestures as though to shake them off; and when he obviously does not succeed, he rivets all their glances on the iron hook above him and swishes down the slippery pole, so that everyone is still looking up, whereas he, dizzy and hot, already stands below and gazes with strangely lusterless eyes at his burning palms.
Then one or another of the boys around him asks what got into him. “Do you want to make the first section?” Gruber laughs and seems about to reply, but he thinks better of it and lowers his eyes.
And then, when the noisy tumult has begun again, he retires quietly to his locker, sits down, looks about uneasily, and after two panting breaths laughs again and tries to say something. But already he is unobserved.
Only Jerome, also in the fourth section, notices that he is bent over like someone deciphering a letter in bad light again inspecting his hands. He walks over to him presently and asks, “Did you hurt yourself?”
Gruber starts. “What?” he asks in his habitual slobbering voice.
“Let’s have a look.” Jerome takes his hand and turns it toward the light. A little skin is scraped from the palm. “Say, I’ve got something to fix it,” says Jerome, who always gets sticking-plaster sent from home. “Come to my room when we get out.” But it is as though Gruber did not hear. He stares straight ahead into the gym as though he were seeing something indefinable, perhaps something not in the gym, perhaps outside against the window even though it is late on a dark autumn afternoon.
At this moment, the sergeant shouts in his haughty way, “Gruber!” Gruber remains as before. Only his outstretched feet slide gracelessly forward on the slippery floor. “Gruber!” roars the sergeant, and his voice breaks. Then he waits a while, and says in a quick gruff tone without looking at the boy, “Report after class. I shall see that you…” And the class continues.
“Gruber,” says Jerome and bends over his friend, who is leaning back farther and farther in his locker, “it was your turn to climb on the rope. Go ahead, try it. If you don’t, Jastersky will fix up some kind of a story against you. You know how he is.”
Gruber nods. But instead of getting up, he abruptly shuts his eyes and slips forward while Jerome is talking. As if borne by a wave, he slides slowly and silently, farther and farther, slides from his seat, and Jerome doesn’t realize what is happening till Gruber’s head bangs hard against the wooden seat and then droops forward. “Gruber!” he calls hoarsely. At first no one notices. Jerome stands helpless, his arms at his sides, and calls “Gruber! Gruber!” He doesn’t even think to pull him up.
Then he is given a push. Someone says, “Dumbbell!” Someone else shoves him aside, and he watches them lift the motionless boy to carry him off somewhere, probably into the next room. The lieutenant in charge hurries in. In a harsh, loud voice he issues curt orders. The commands cut short the buzzing chatter. Silence. Only here and there is there any movement: swinging on the bars, gentle leaps, a belated laugh from someone who doesn’t know what it’s all about.
Then rapid questions. “What? What? Who? Gruber? Where?” And still more questions. Then aloud someone says, “Fainted.”
And red-faced Jastersky, the sergeant, runs back of the lieutenant in charge and cries in his disagreeable voice, trembling with rage, “He’s faking, lieutenant, he’s faking.” The lieutenant pays no attention. He looks straight ahead, gnaws his mustache so that his strong chin juts out sharper and firmer, and gives an occasional brief order. He and four pupils carrying Gruber disappear into the room.
At once, the four pupils return. A servant runs through the gym. The four get a good deal of attention and are plied with questions. “How does he look? What’s the matter with him? Has he come to yet?” None of the four really knows anything. And then the lieutenant in charge calls to them that the class may continue and gives the command to Goldstein, the sergeant-major. So the exercises begin again, on the parallel and horizontal bars; and the little boys of the third section straddle the tall horse with their bowed legs. Yet the activity is not as before. It is as though everyone were listening. Swinging on the parallel bars abruptly stops, and only small feats are performed on the horizontal bar. The voices are less confused, and the hum is fainter, as though all were uttering just one word, “Ssss. Ssss.” In the meantime sly little Krix is listening at the door. The sergeant of the second section chases him away, lifting his hand to slap his bottom. Krix leaps back, catlike, his eyes bright and cunning. He has learned enough. And after a while, when no one is watching, he tells Pavlovich, “The regimental doctor’s come.”
Now Pavlovich’s behavior is notorious. As boldly as though he were obeying an order, he goes about the gym from one section to another, saying loudly, “The regimental doctor’s in there.” And even the noncoms appear to be interested in the news. Glances toward the door become more and more frequent, the exercises slower and slower. A small boy with black eyes remains crouching on the horse and stares open-mouthed at the door. The strongest boys in the first class exert themselves a little, struggle against it, whirl their legs.
Pombert, the strong Tyrolean, bends his arm and contemplates his muscles, which stand out taut and strong under his shirt. His supple young limbs even make a few more turns on the bars, and suddenly the lively movement of his body is the only one in the whole gym. It is a great dazzling circle, somehow ominous in the midst of great stillness. Abruptly the little fellow brings himself to a stop, drops involuntarily to his knees, and makes a face as though he despised them all. But even his dull little eyes rest finally on the door.
Now the singing of the gasjets and the ticking of the wall clock are audible. And then the dismissal bell rattles. Today its tone is strange and peculiar. And it stops suddenly, incomplete, interrupting itself when its message is only half spoken. Sergeant-major Goldstein, however, knows his duty. He calls, “Fall in!” No one hears. No one can recall the meaning these words once had. Once? When? “Fall in!” croaks the sergeant-major angrily, and now the other noncoms cry in succession, “Fall in!” And also many of the pupils say, as if to themselves or in their sleep, “Fall in! Fall in!” But actually, all of them know there is still something to wait for.
And at this very moment the door is opening. For a second nothing happens; then Wehl, the lieutenant in charge, walks out, and his eyes are big and wrathful and his pace is decided. He marches as though he were on parade and says hoarsely, “Fall in!” With astonishing speed ranks are formed. Then no one moves. It is as though a field marshal were present. And now the command, “Attention!” A pause, and then dry and harsh, “Your friend Gruber has just died. Heart attack. Forward, march!” A pause.
And only after a little while, the voice of the pupil on duty, small and weak, “Company, column left! March!” Slow and unready, the group turns to the door. Jerome is the last. No one looks back. From the corridor chill, damp air blows against the boys. One of them suggests that it smells of carbolic acid. Pombert makes a vulgar joke about the smell. No one laughs. Suddenly Jerome feels somebody grab his arm, as though for assault. Krix is hanging on to him. “I saw him,” he whispers breathlessly, and squeezes Jerome’s arm while an inner laughter convulses him. He can hardly go on. “He’s stark naked and caved in and all stretched out. And he’s got a seal on the soles of his feet…”
And then he giggles shrilly, as though someone had tickled him, giggles and bites down through Jerome’s sleeve.