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.