Monday, July 16, 2012

The (Dubious) Wisdom of Work

I'm still feeling disturbed after reading M. Allen Cunningham's fictional biography, Lost Son, based on the life of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. First, let me say that Cunningham has to be one of our most gifted modern American writers. Rarely has an author chosen such an unappealing protagonist, yet pulled me through his book on the strength of sensitive, mesmerizing--and poetic--prose. In an Amazon review, I gave the author five stars, while mentally assigning but one to Rilke himself.

M. Allen Cunningham
But why this pervading discomfort that refuses to fade days after closing the book? I believe it arises--or descends--from Rilke's personal mission statement: work is everything . . . all else comes second, a far and distant runner-up. The poet abandoned his only child, Ruth, for most of her life, seemingly for no other reason that he saw her as an innocent impediment to his life's work. Though married to the sculptress, Clara, whom he loved, he designed their marriage to be a celibate existence, even during those rare periods when they happened to be in the same European city at the same time. (Clara later filed for divorce.) 

But why does Rilke's strange way of being bother me so much that I want to ring his neck and tell him a thing or two. About what, though? Cunningham's portrayal of the famous poet picks at scabs in my own life, past and present. Early in my adulthood, I bought into a similar "work is everything" philosophy. And I was miserable. I have learned that old ways die hard. After marrying and knowing the joy of children, and now an adored grandchild, I still struggle to fend off the beast of 'work-first.'

Cunningham has given a wonderful portrayal of a flawed literary genius. In doing so, his novel will continue to haunt me for the rest of this summer, at least, and perhaps beyond.
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Alfred J. Garrotto is the author of the novel, The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story

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