Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) was one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century, and his haunting, stylized, and often highly lyrical prose revolutionized the art of verse. Throughout his writing life, Rilke tended to focus on disbelief, solitude, and the profound anxieties that can shake the
frailties of human existence.
Lost Son, an exquisitely written homage to this famous artist, these themes of loneliness and isolation are bought to the forefront as
M. Allen Cunningham paints a portrait of a sickly, deeply sensitive man torn between the needs and disappointments of his parents,
who first desired a long dreamed-for daughter and then an obedient son.
Rilke's Papa wanted to secure him a clerkship in a Prague bank and a commitment to stable employment, but the young artist rejects his middle-class upbringing for the excitement of bohemian life in Paris.
It is here that he is commissioned to write a monograph of the famed sculptor Auguste Rodin, while also hoping to find the stimulation he so craves for his
Paris, however, proves to be anything but inspirational. Residing in a garret chamber, Rilke is appalled at the squalor that lies before him, "the pale consumptive children and the greased eyes of whores who loiter in doorways," their gazes hard upon him as he shudders by.
Rilke is almost overwhelmed by the city's oppressive and tyrannical atmosphere. "So quickly this grim city gets inside oneself," he writes to his sculptress wife, Clara Westhoff, who has stayed behind at their home in Westerwede to look after their infant daughter, Ruth, and to continue on with her own work.
Invited by Rodin to come to his home in Meudon to look at his sculptures, Rilke immediately feels himself afloat in the sculptor's sea of work. Rodin's vision of seeing beauty in everything seems clear.
Through this interpretation of what he sees before him, Rilke comes alive to all the possibilities of the artist.
While Rilke wonders how a poet could acquire such ingathering power, his life becomes a blur of railroad platforms as he travels between Meudon and his lodgings in central Paris. Still, Rilke manages to survive amidst the pain and beauty of this great
city, thanks largely to his prolific pen which produces a collection of poems astonishing in their power and flooding speed.
Although Rilke is irrevocably bound together with Clara, their love shared selflessly without attachment or demand, the poet is also alive to the delights of another woman when he is tugged under the gravity of the widely traveled intellectual and lady of letters Lou Andreas-Salome.
Despite Lou's criticism and her embarrassment at his fledgling and youthful ways, she welcomes Rilke into her arms and takes pleasure in his constant presence. "I want to see the world through you," he writes to Lou as every event pulls him back to the coiling streets of Prague, where there is just Lou and work and nothing else.
Moving from Rilke's birth in 1875 to his death in 1917, Cunningham delves deep into Rilke's personality and his development as a poet, in the process shaping a portrait of a man formed by his dark, unfinished past. Certainly, the deprivation and sadness experienced by Rilke as he travels throughout the great cities of Europe, battling his weak health and his timidity, contrasts vividly with the excesses of his romantic love for Lou.
For Rilke, the great puzzle was that of sorting out the complex enigmas that exist between art and life. For him, writing was the long road, the one that could hopefully lead one home to life in a world where the sacrifices for one's art leave no middle road.
Vivid, melodic, and retaining a lyrical beauty throughout, Cunningham writes with a passionate commitment to Rilke's poetry and life.
Meticulously researched and seamlessly infusing fact with fiction, Lost Son is a vast monument to the power of the creative spirit and a grand testament to the artistic avant-garde movements that swept across Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.