Rainer Maria Rilke’s Stories of God

Those who know me well can guess that my feelings about this book are, but they might guess for the wrong reasons, so I’ll just come out and say it: I have nothing against fiction with deities in it. Hell, I’m reading Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and if you can find a modern English text (except perhaps by Neil Gaiman or N.K. Jemisin) more chock full of deities than that, I’ll be surprised.

I was on a Rilke kick back in 2009, when I was traveling through the US. While I’d read Letters to a Young Poet over a decade before — who doesn’t read it in youth? — a line from that book had returned to me after many years, and as a result I’d started reading him again. I’d plowed through his excellent Duino Elegies/Sonnets to Orpheus before leaving, and read Rilke’s Book of Hours while in transit. I even picked up a book of letters between Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé in Portland. While I was wandering through The Strand, in New York, I found Stories of God in the discount pile, and figured, hey, I’ll give this a try too. I’m not totally comfortable with Rilke’s constant theistic ramblings, but I’m not so uncomfortable that I cannot recognize some significant ideas and writing in some of the poetry. (Even if, to be very honest, my first brush with his work, in a Penguin selection of his poems I worked partway through as a graduate student, was really unimpressive. I remember not thinking much of the Complete Poems of W.B. Yeats I read back in those days, either; I stayed up all night in a Second Cup cafe, and got to the end of the Yeats, but found only a few poems that interested me much at all — almost all toward the end of the man’s career, when he’d connected with Pound.)

Well, anyway… yeah.

I read Stories of God to the end, but I found myself skimming and shrugging and wondering why I was doing it at all. There are a few, rare, very captivating moments — including one that has given way to the opening of a piece of writing of my own — but they’re mostly just isolated moments. I have a feeling the prose in the original tongue is more deft and beautiful, from all I know of Rilke, but then, people always blame the translator, and perhaps that’s unfair to the man (whose name is Michael H. Kohn). Maybe the fault lies in the twenty-three-year-old author that Rilke was when he wrote these tales. I honestly don’t know, except that this text came across as dry and somewhat bland in places, despite a playfulness struggling to shine through.

All I know is, if the book had been longer than it is (a mere 120 pages), I would not have pushed through to the end. I would have missed some really interesting moments, but I would have imagined (rightly) that there were few enough to be found to justify reading the whole thing.

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