The stereotypical view of a poet’s life is that of a tortured childhood/dysfunctional family, experiencing emotions all too strongly, a failed love life, and suffering for one’s muse which includes, of course, living a marginal economic existence. Taking that basic framework and running with it, Cunningham gives us the life story of the early 20th-century writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke’s life is interesting enough in its own right, but the basic facts can be gleaned from any quick reference source: born in Prague, lover of Lou Salome, member of the Worpswede artists’ colony, husband of sculptress Clara Westhoff, secretary to Rodin, and accomplished poet.
What makes this book a worthwhile read is the skill of the author. This is no dry biography. Rather, with beautifully expressive prose, M. Allen Cunningham is able not only to evoke the poet’s angst, but also to get the reader to empathize with it. My only complaint is that the ending was rushed, giving an uneven pacing to the final years of the story. It’s a relatively long book as is, so the rushed ending may have been intentional, but don’t be dissuaded by the length; you’ll want to savor every word. I found myself buying Cunningham’s previous novel and starting to read Rilke’s poems.