Let's start with a confession: I've never read anything by Rainer Maria Rilke. When all of the hip kids in graduate school were exchanging knowing glances and speaking the author's name as if it explained everything, I played along and pretended to know what they were talking about, but in all honesty, I didn't know. In fact, I didn't even know whether Rilke was a man or a woman, alive or dead. All I knew was that the author was apparently at the center of a sublime cult, the members of which were transfixed by the beauty of his (or her) work. They spoke as if reading Rilke was akin to being touched by the hand of God. Either you got it or you didn't. Unfortunately, I suppose, I didn't. Upon reading Michael Allen Cunningham's Lost Son (Ubridled Books, 2007), however, I'm beginning to wish that I had.
Lost Son is a work of historical nonfiction that examines the emotional and intellectual development of the author in question--and does so beautifully. From the opening pages, the reader is transported to turn-of-the-last-century Europe, and Cunningham does a wonderful job of depicting Rilke's world in a strikingly visceral fashion. When Rilke arrives in Paris on a cold and wet winter day, it's impossible not to feel a chill. More importantly, Rilke emerges from the narrative as a complex figure, and his early efforts at writing a biography of Rodin prove both amusing and insightful... At least to someone who's never read Rilke.
Clearly, this novel is well-researched and written with passion. Cunningham, in other words, is one of those guys I used to play along with back in grad school -- nodding and pretending to have joined the cult when I actually had no clue. And, I should add, I still have no clue. Maybe one day when I find the time, I'll read some Rilke. In the mean time, I have to content myself with Lost Son. All told, not a bad deal.