by M. Allen Cunningham
Published by Unbridled Books
478 pages, 2007
Buy it online
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Rainer Maria Rilke, I hope that your spirit is hovering somewhere close to earth so that you've been able to absorb this meticulous, respectful and gentle book on your life and poetry.
M. Allen Cunningham took almost as long crafting this work as you frequently did with your own famous publications. His treatment of you mirrors in many ways one of your own great and difficult works. You know the one I mean: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. There are other similarities as well: both of you are so willing to go into the dark places to try to illuminate them, and both of you write such intricate analyses of relationships, feelings and your place in the world.
If this use of the second voice is irritating to you, reader, be warned. The author uses it lavishly. (More on this later.)
A second work by this self-taught American author, (his first being The Green Age of Asher Witherow), Lost Son is hugely ambitious. Creative non-fiction is an expansive and liberating genre, opening up new doors to writers, one of them being the writing of fictional biographies of real people. The extent to which it's fictional varies wildly, of course, depending on how much research the author has done and his own preferences. I'd call this work pretty biographical.
Quoting from much of Rilke's poetry and journals, his letters to his wife, Clara; to his mentor and one-time mistress, Lou Andreas-Salome, and to various friends and patrons, including Rodin, with whom the poet had forged a deep relationship, Cunningham succeeds in the goal he set out in his author's note. "My driving ambition," Cunningham writes, "... has been to give readers an entirely human rendition of Rainer Maria Rilke, the man and artist. While I've sought to render the poet's remarkable life as accurately as possible, I've been constantly in service to the narrative demands of a novel."
Rilke is claimed by Germany to be one of its greatest 20th century lyric poets, although he himself felt that he was a man without a country. He was born in Prague but spoke German, and his nationality was Austrian. Later in life, the itinerant poet called Switzerland his adopted country.
Famous as he was, I'm willing to hazard a guess that most North Americans will know little of his work. I doubt, however, that Lost Son was ever intended to reach a wide readership. It's a private work; in some ways almost a homage to the poet. This reverential tone is enhanced by the frequent use of the second voice. Stylistically, I take umbrage with the constant switching from the third to the second person, and at the end, even the addition of the third person voice. It's confusing, but more dangerously, it excludes the reader, making her feel she has blundered into a private dialogue between the writer and the poet.
The frequent jumps in time, from Rilke's bizarre childhood, to his marriage, his affair with Lou, his sojourns in Paris, his infrequent homecomings, and his frequent retreats, are very difficult to follow. Stylistically I believe Cunningham wants to convey the idea of the rootlessness and unpredictability of Rilke's life. However, showing the confusion of a confused life inevitably leads to confusion.
And meticulously reflecting the thoughts, the anguish, the reflections and insights of a gifted and introspective poet can become tedious. Many readers will want to reach through the pages to shake this slight little man, a giant in reputation and art, but in life always in retreat. Rilke put art well ahead of relationships, and how can we fault him when he has produced such a literary progeny? However, when it comes to the work itself, we are within our rights to voice this frustration. It's just too much of the same thoughts over and over again. We need more creative culling.
From 1875 to 1917, this slice of Rilke's life bounces the reader from place to place as the poet, forever poor, forever aware of his unfulfilled obligations to wife, child, in-laws and parents, nevertheless travels from one lodging to another, wherever there might be a commission, or a patron, forever separated from his wife and daughter, forever without a home.
Ultimately, Cunningham is a skilled writer. Lines like this kept me reading on where I might otherwise have been tempted to give up:
So, Rainer thinks, that day of arrival, remote as it seems, lies not at all distant from this present moment. Yes, for every moment is a patch of eternity. Nothing that has happened ceases to happen; none of it goes away; we are but leached through one and another translucency as through planes of thinnest glass till at last we come out on a different side.
Can a work is both tedious and tantalizing? | June 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.