Rilke: A Life by Wolfgang Leppmann (Translated by Russell M Stockman) - review by Michael Hamburger

Michael Hamburger

Artistic Monomania

Rilke: A Life


Lutterworth Press 419 pp £17.50 order from our bookshop

Rilke’s life has been written about so often, variously and minutely that my first response to this book was cautious, if not niggling. Even in English, the literature about Rilke has long been more prominent and copious than the work to which he devoted his life, so exclusively as to have little time for what most people think of as 'living'. Though he wrote no autobiography, he did authorize the publication of his letters; and these not only remain the primary source of biographical studies but have the great advantage of being part of his work, in a sense in which most poets' letters are not part of their work, as he acknowledged by allowing three books of such letters to be published in his lifetime. A second, and far less reliable biographical seam is the many books of reminiscence, confessions and tittle-tattle published by his friends and acquaintances after his death. Biographies proper, therefore, become not 'secondary literature', but tertiary literature in his case. What is more, biographies of writers are receiving so much attention in the media – this one is advertised as already having a best-seller in Germany and the USA – that it may soon be unnecessary for publishers to take the risk of making the work of those writers available at all. (Only one minor work of Rilke's, and a prose work at that, was a best-seller in his lifetime.) One doesn't need to feel as strongly about the impersonality of art as T S Eliot or Stefan George or Hofmannsthal – who advised Rilke's heirs not to publish any biographical material – to have misgivings about the present trend. A shorter Rilke biography, J F Hendry's The Sacred Threshold, appeared little more than a year ago; and another full-scale biography in English is on its way. Even if most of Rilke's verse and prose were available in English translation, as is not, one cannot help wondering whether all these biographies, however excellent, have not become a distraction and a surrogate for the reading of difficult, demanding texts.

It was over the early chapters of Professor Leppmann's book

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