Walking across Paris in 1902, the aspirant poet Rainer Maria Rilke fell into step with a man suffering from the neurological disorder known as St Vitus’s Dance. Transfixed by this involuntarily jerking body, and feeling the other’s limbs “no longer distinguishable from mine”, Rilke found himself “will-less”, following the man through the streets, his own route to the library forgotten. “There is nothing real about me,” Rilke later wrote to his former lover, Russian-born philosopher Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Insecure and plagued by self-doubt, Rilke had an extreme propensity to identify with others that was “both his greatest poetic gift and probably his hardest-borne cross”, concludes New York-based arts writer Rachel Corbett in her enjoyable biography of the brief, intense relationship between Rilke and Auguste Rodin.

Aged 26, Rilke had come to Paris to write a monograph about the 61-year-old sculptor who, he considered, “has no equal among all artists now alive”. In a desperate letter written shortly after they had met for the first time, Rilke revealed to Rodin the depths of his existential confusion, and the store he set by his hero’s example: “It is not just to write a study that I have come to you, it is to ask you: how should I live?”

Neither Rodin nor Rilke took straightforward paths to the life of a successful artist. Born in Paris in 1840, Rodin was withdrawn from school at 14 and sent to train as a commercial craftsman. He was three times rejected from the École des Beaux Arts, and was shunned by the establishment when he first exhibited his exuberant, kinetic sculptures in Paris. Even when he became the world’s highest-paid artist, thronged by admirers from Isadora Duncan to George Bernard Shaw and receiving prestigious public and private commissions, he attracted opprobrium for the preponderance of nude models in his studio and for his unconventional working methods (he would lay out food and wine and watch the models wander freely, until a chance movement caught his eye).

Rilke, born in Prague in 1875, was cosseted by a socially ambitious mother, then bullied and isolated at military academy and business school. At an artists’ colony at Worpswede in Germany, where he stayed in 1900, he met his wife Clara Westhoff, herself an artist and a former pupil of Rodin’s; two years later, when the opportunity to visit Rodin in Paris arose, he left her behind with their young daughter Ruth.

“How should I live?” The question resounds throughout Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, sent to his correspondent Franz Xaver Kappus, a military cadet torn between the army and a literary career, between 1903 and 1908, at the height of Rodin’s influence on his malleable disciple. Utterly single-minded in his dedication to his art (“Work, always work” was his mantra), Rodin shunned all distractions, including the increasingly pressing claims of those dependent on him. To his wife, somewhat callously, Rilke passed on Rodin’s response when asked how best to balance art and family commitments: “One must choose either this or that. Either happiness or art.”

Corbett draws out a fascinating subplot in the friendship between Clara Westhoff and her fellow artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, both attempting to negotiate marriages without renouncing their own talents and ambitions: their failure casts a sober shadow over the romantic figure of the uncompromising male artist in the foreground of this book.

Corbett’s narrative is pacy and vivid, though her breathy writing (“if Rodin was a mountain, Rilke was the mist encircling it”) can occasionally grate. Her interrogation of the artistic process is nuanced, and she subtly traces the ways in which Rilke’s examination of Rodin’s technique stirred a shift in his poetry from work centred on interiority to his celebrated “thing-poems”, inspired by concrete objects and external experiences (both men found inspiration in trips to the zoo).

Neither subject comes off especially sympathetically. Rilke eventually rebuffed his former idol, and the elderly Rodin strikes a pitiable figure, increasingly paranoid and isolated from his family and the younger generation of artists. Even sadder is Rilke’s late realisation of the sacrifices that following his mentor’s uncompromising method had entailed. When Kappus admitted in 1908 that he was planning to join the army rather than focus wholeheartedly on poetry, Rilke did not attempt to persuade him otherwise: “art too,” he wrote, “is only a way of living.”

You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett, WWNorton, RRP£20/$26.95, 320 pages

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