Any lover, I think, of Rainer Maria Rilke will love Stories of God. They are joyful, loving and, perhaps, surprisingly witty. Rilke scholars – and I’ve been fortunate to have visited with the Rainer Marie Rilke Literary Society in both Dresden and Wolfenbüttel – uniformly agree that Rilke’s poetry, particularly his later and best known works, Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, are his best works.
Still, I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. More about that below (if you’d like to skip straight through to the offer, click here).
Am I a Storm, or a Great Song?
When I first read them I was at a low point in my life. I was drawn to them by a man going through a somewhat public death – more about that at a more appropriate time. As I read them my sense of loneliness and anxiety about God began to subside and as I continued to reread and reread them something like joy and a sense of optimism, despite continued material and mortal difficulties, came to me. From a sense of passion for Rilke’s passion to a renewed passion for life came to me. And for that, to him and, perhaps to Him, I am forever grateful.
Yes, there have been many days where I woke and while still in bed read of the hands of God. Had breakfast with a stranger. Took time on park benches to read of God’s fascination with Michelangelo. Sat at table and took my evening meal with Death. Spent a quiet evening with a proud maiden. And, before shutting off my bedside light, closed the book on Rilke’s tale which he told only to the Dark. I would fall asleep with this notion of Rilke’s, this notion of the darkness which surrounds each of us and of all things. Awake to it and began again anew the very next day.
“These stories are not his best work…”
Perhaps you will be not so taken with these stories. The above quote I was told at the Rainer Marie Rilke Literary Society dinner at the Restaurant Luisenhof overlooking the Elbe River from its eastern bank, to the south of Dresden proper lying on the Elbe’s western bank. Still, I replied to the scholar, these stories give me much, much joy.
How could they not?
The overarching framework of Stories of God is that the narrator – the storyteller – Rainer Marie Rilke – will tell stories to various people in the town and they each in turn will tell the stories to the children of the town. The stories take us from Germany through parts of Europe, back in time and to the edges of the world.
- On a street in Schmargendorf-Berlin circa 1900, we first meet our storyteller as well as his neighbor, a woman – a mother. The tale he tells her is about God and Creation in which St. Nicholas appears, about His hands and the seventh day. Letters are exchanged with the children, setting the stage for the stories which follow.
- In a simple room at twilight with tea, a oddly familiar stranger is related another critical episode concerning God and His hands.
- On another street, a most modern and officious teacher is given an account of an encounter between God and a sculptor in a bustling German town of its day – an account in which our storyteller demonstrates why God would want there to be poor people.
- Our storyteller then greets his friend and neighbor, Ewald, a lame man. Ewald sits in his room at his window fascinated as he listens to a tale set in Russia in the time of Czar Ivan the Terrible and discovers how betrayal first came to Russia.
- Ewald is then related a tale set in the Russian Ukraine in the time of the Czars in which an old singer of epic songs and fairy tales dies singing.
- Our storyteller is rather partial to Ewald for he is a reverent listener and so he is told another tale. This one set in the Ukraine while it was ruled by Polish noblemen and at civil war with the Cossacks in which another ancient singer, sings a song of justice.
- Walking about, our storyteller meets Mr. Baum, a civic leader with an air of certainty about him. So much so that our friend the storyteller can’t help but smile kindly at him and then relate a tale set loosely in Renaissance Venice, which tells of an old Jewish goldsmith ‘confined’ to his ghetto, of his grand-daughter, Esther, of her child and of the sea.
- Our storyteller is a good natured man who, perhaps, has a bit of fun with his audience from time-to-time. Most of all though, he enjoys telling stories to his dear friend Ewald. One of the most powerful is a simple story about one who eavesdrops on stones, in which Ewald learns something about Michelangelo and God.
- Alone, as evening comes, our storyteller greets a group of evening clouds, both young and old, impertinent and wise, and relates to these clouds a tale of seven children and of how a thimble came to be God.
- With evening having fallen, our storyteller is startled by a gravedigger, they walk through the dark, together, and the gravedigger absorbs a tale of love and of death far, far away from clocks and the city; the tale has a strange postscript to it.
- On his way to the rail station, our storyteller is accosted by a young musician on a civic errand at the behest of Mr. Baum and, with a touch of humor, tells the young fawn instead a tale of three painters and their brotherhood called forth by an urgent, albeit somewhat self-important need.
- Our storyteller finds the teacher aghast at a town beggar and so relates to him a tale set in Renaissance Florence about an encounter outside a church between a beggar and a proud maiden.
- Alone, our storyteller finds comfort in the darkness surrounding him and tells of one man’s search for meaning and his encounter with his long-lost and only childhood friend.
- And, as a postscript not included in the original collection of stories – nor in either of the other English translations currently in print – lame Ewald has sent a letter to his ‘dear and distant friend’, our storyteller, Rainer Marie Rilke.
Rainer Marie Rilke – as Translated by
Each of these fourteen stories are translated by a different translator. And, each translator provides an essay on the art of translation and how they went about doing what they did. Each of these wonderful professionals have years of experience as translators, but their experience and cultural backgrounds are each quite different from one another. Part of the charm and purpose of this edition of Stories of God is to take in the resulting differences in tone and style and, well, how each story turned out in relation to the others. There is too much to say here about their qualifications. Some have a more literary background. Others a more technical or commercial background. All have an appreciation of Rilke – and an understanding of him that far exceeds mine. Each has a bio elsewhere on this site. You can check these out by clicking here.
A Unique Stories of God collection
I’ve read, in fact first read, two fine, earlier English translations of these stories. I recommend these to you as well. However, this edition has three unique attributes not found in either of those earlier translations. In this edition of Stories of God:
- Each story is translated by a different translator, enabling you to glimpse something of the art of translation, something of how different translators solve particular problems in different, interesting and valid ways – and compare with your own approach –
- A fourteenth story not found in either of the English translations currently on the market
- The original German work, Geschichten vom lieben Gott, so, you can read either / or, or in parallel
Aside from Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, Rilke, of course, left a great body of poetry. From Life and Songs to New Poems, there is a good number of reasons to overlook his prose, especially Stories of God, which he wrote at about the same time as The Book of Hours.
However, I encourage you not to pass over Stories of God. So much so that I’ve put together a special offer that will enable you to not only read the stories in English, essays about the translation process which led to them, and also Rainer Maria Rilke’s original text.
In the first story, Rilke’s storyteller says that these are stories to be told to the children. Perhaps, but they are certainly stories to be told. Elsewhere in Stories of God, Rilke writes that the story was alive when it passed many lips. In that spirit, I encourage you to also listen to the stories.
So, if you’d like to listen to Stories of God for free as well as read them, click here.
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