12 Winters Blog

William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke

Posted in February 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 22, 2020

The following paper, “The ‘Movement of Matter in Mind’: William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held Feb. 20-23, 2020, University of Louisville. Other papers in the panel “Germanic Modernisms Then and Now” were “Exodus into Death: Effi Briest as the Other” by Olivia G. Gabor-Peirce, Western Michigan University; “The Meaning of Life–Thoughts on Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Die Frau ohne Schatten” by Enno Lohmeyer, Case Western Reserve University; and “The Ek-static Image: Tracing Essence of Language & Poetry in Heidegger” by Ariana Nadia Nash, University of Buffalo, SUNY. The panel was chaired by Brit Thompson, University of Louisville.


The “Movement of Matter in Mind”:
William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke

I would like to say a motivation for this paper is that one of William H. Gass’s least read and least appreciated books is Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, and I want to direct some much-deserved attention to this oddly beautiful and beautifully odd book; but in truth I don’t believe I grasped the breadth of the slight until I was absorbing material in preparation of writing. Of course, as a devotee of the Master I believe that all of Gass’s books are read too little and appreciated too sparingly. Indeed I’ve been on a mission for more than a decade to right that wrong.

reading rilke coverNevertheless, I didn’t realize just how invisible Reading Rilke was even among those cherished few who cherish Gass nearly as much as I. I was struck, for example, when re-reading Stanley Fogel’s otherwise excellent assessment of Gass’s work up to the point of its publication in the summer 2005 edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that Fogel doesn’t speak of Reading Rilke at all, even though it came out in 1999, and Gass’s translations of Rilke that it collects began to appear in print in 1975 (in North Country, University of North Dakota).1 Similarly, H. L. Hix’s useful Understanding William H. Gass (2002) is organized by Gass’s book publications, and there is no chapter devoted to Reading Rilke. In fact, there is barely a mention beyond Hix’s pointing out the strangeness of the Rilke book not appearing until 1999 even though “Gass reports having been preoccupied with Rilke nearly his whole adult life, indeed seldom letting a day pass without reading some Rilke” (4). One more example: Wilson L. Holloway’s fascinating book William Gass, which offers a mid-career assessment of “an emerging figure in contemporary literature” (ix), makes only a passing reference to Rilke as one of Gass’s chief influences. Granted, Holloway’s book appeared nearly a decade before Reading Rilke, but it also appeared five years before The Tunnel, and yet Holloway managed an entire chapter on the work-in-progress based on the excerpts that had been appearing now and again since 1969—interspersed with appearances of Gass’s Rilke translations throughout the same period.

It seems strange to me, now, that books and articles devoted to explicating William Gass wouldn’t spend more time discussing Gass’s self-identified greatest influence.

Gass and Rilke togetherI could go on referencing the lack of references in Gass scholarship to Reading Rilke, but, I suspect, my point is beyond made, like a bed piled high with a scaffolding of pillows. I think at the root of the silence regarding Reading Rilke is that writers tend to organize their assessments by genre (Gass’s fiction versus Gass’s criticism or Gass’s nonfiction), and Reading Rilke is a hodgepodge of a book: part Rilke biography, part autobiography, part criticism, part philosophical inquiry (into translation, into art), and part poetry collection—laced throughout with Gass’s insights, advice, and arid humor. Writers of Gass’s ilk have always written for a narrow audience (an audience which shrinks by the day), and the book’s various components appeal to even thinner subgroups of readers. Taken as a whole, however, I believe anyone who is interested in art, literature, and especially poetry—in aesthetics in other words—would find a book very much to taste, indeed, a book to savor.

I must admit that I came to Reading Rilke after partaking of the Master’s less hybridized offerings. Like many, I found the fiction first (In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, for instance, and Omensetter’s Luck); then the criticism (Fiction and the Figures of Life, On Being Blue, and The World Within the Word, etc.). But anyone who knows Gass at all knows of his Rilke obsession, something about which he made no bones.

It is clear in Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” in which he catalogs the (actually) fifty-one books/authors that shaped him as a writer and thinker. Four of the pillars belong to Rilke, and about the Duino Elegies in particular Gass writes, “[These poems] gave me my innermost thoughts, and then they gave those thoughts an expression I could never have imagined possible.” While discussing Sonnets to Orpheus, Gass acknowledges that “[i]t is probably embarrassingly clear by now that works of art are my objects of worship,” and, moreover, “works of art are often more real than we are because they embody human consciousness completely fulfilled” (WHG Reader 43). Heide Ziegler, a scholar and a friend of William Gass with whom he consulted on his Rilke work, describes the Gass-Rilke connection even more dramatically than Gass did himself, writing, “William H. Gass is Rainer Maria Rilke’s alter ego, deeply tied to him through like sensitivity, insight, giftedness. Deeply tied to him most of all, however, through their shared concept of space, Rilke’s Raum, Weltraum, the realm of all things, which denies any chronological sequence” (55). She goes further in describing their connectedness: “Gass the son attempts to provide that space for Rilke the father” (56).

We do not, of course, have to rely on secondary-source assessments of what Rilke meant to Gass and his work: we have Gass’s own analyses, especially in Reading Rilke:

The poet himself is as close to me as any human being has ever been […] because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through its lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words until the writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes; and, finally, because his work allows me to measure what we call achievement: how tall his is, how small mine. (xv-xvi)

Regarding the creative process as he learned it from reading Rilke, Gass writes, “In the case of the poet, the perception will have soaked for a long time in a marinade of mind, in a slather of language, in a history of poetic practice.” At which point the “resulting object will not be like other objects; it will have been invested with consciousness, the consciousness of the artist.” Done properly, those who experience the object “shall share this other superior awareness” (148). It is worth noting that Gass is using poet in a classical sense, as anyone who aspires to create art. Though Gass did not consider himself a poet per se (and in fact disparaged his own efforts), he aspired to make his fiction, especially, art objects via their poetic use of language.

The above quote references the word perception, and this is such a vital point in this discussion it warrants further attention. Gass believed that Rilke’s aesthetic philosophy grew out of his infatuation with the sculptor Rodin, about whom he wrote critical essays and was attached to as a secretary for a time. The lessons learned included that “the poet’s eye needs to be so candid that [… everything] must be fearlessly reported,” and that “exactitude is prerequisite to achievement.” Ultimately, then, it is “not the imitation of nature but its transformation [that] is the artist’s aim” (Reading Rilke 40). However, it is not the poet’s objective to describe everything encountered with candor and precision. Art only happens via careful selection. Gass writes, “Rilke proclaimed the poet’s saintly need to accept reality in all its aspects, meanwhile welcoming only those parts of the world for which he could compose an ennobling description” (31). The only means by which a poet—any writer—has to ennoble even the ugliest aspects of the world is though the artful use of language.

This lesson is perhaps the most profound one that Gass took from his literary idol. Throughout his career, Gass mixed the loveliest of language with the coarsest (even crudest) of subject matter, a technique that many critics criticized. Indeed, in Gass’s most ambitious novel, The Tunnel, his greatest ambition was to write about the Holocaust in a beautifully literary way via his first-person narrator William Kohler, whose correspondences with Gass himself were uncomfortably close for many readers. After a twenty-six-year gestation, The Tunnel appeared in 1995 and promptly won the American Book Award in ’96; however, it also quaked a tidal wave of negative reviews. Richard Abowitz, who interviewed Gass about his book in 1998, captured the controversy quite succinctly:

The Tunnel may well be the greatest prose performance since Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but only the most stalwart reader will be able to last the full trip [650-plus pages] through Kohler’s anti-Semitic, sexually depraved and bathroom-humor obsessed world. When The Tunnel was published, almost every major critic felt the need to weigh in on it. Many abandoned their professional tone and responded in ways that were shockingly personal. (142)

Gass claimed that he was prepared for the onslaught, saying, “I knew it would happen. The book does set a number of traps for reviewers, and that identification certainly occurred [that Gass and his narrator were practically the same person]. But the book in sly ways even encourages it; so that these people who don’t really know how to read will fall into the trap.”  He added, “[S]o when it happened, I had to suffer it. I had asked for it in a way” (144).

Returning to Reading Rilke itself, the opening chapter is a biographical sketch of the poet. In “Fifty Literary Pillars,” Gass calls Rilke “the most romantic of romantics” (WHG Reader 43), and in this first chapter Gass explains in detail this designation. He writes, “With a romantic naiveté for which we may feel some nostalgia now, and out of a precocity for personality as well as verse, Rilke struggled his entire life to be a poet—not a pure poet, but purely a poet—because he felt, against good advice and much experience to the contrary, that poetry could only be written by one who was already a poet: and a poet was above ordinary life” (23). Gass devotes several sentences to describing the concept of a true poet, and concludes by saying that “the true poet was an agent of transfiguration whose sole function was the almost magical movement of matter into mind” (24).

Gass’s reputation as a literary critic was at least equal to his reputation as a writer of fiction. Indeed, among the things that impeded the production of his fiction, which he preferred to write, were the unending requests to write reviews and to speak at symposia—requests that were accompanied by a paycheck and were therefore difficult to turn down. One of the joys of reading Reading Rilke is that Gass has collected and expanded on his insights into the act of literary translation, which, he says, is the highest form of reading: “Translating is reading, reading of the best, the most essential kind” (50). That is, to render something, like a poem, into your mother tongue from a language that you have learned through study, you must read carefully, deeply and slowly, meanwhile taking into consideration a plethora of contextual elements. Even still, the most successful of translations leave behind something important in the original: “It is frequently said that translation is a form of betrayal: it is a traduction, a reconstitution made of sacrifice and revision. One bails to keep the boat afloat” (51).

Gass elaborates on the idea of translation as essential reading by comparing his translations of specific Rilkean lines to those produced by other translators, organized chronologically from Leishman (1939) to Oswald (1992), and then Gass himself in 1999: fifteen translators of Rilke all together. Gass carefully critiques each rendering, discussing the choices each translator made, what they captured of the original and what escaped. His critiques are ruthless, but he is just as hard on himself. He refers to himself in the third-person as “a jackal who comes along after the kill to nose over the uneaten hunks, keeping everything he likes” to acknowledge his debt to Rilke’s earlier translators and his benefitting from their successes and their shortcomings. Elsewhere, still in third-person critique, Gass compares his effort in translating a particular line to someone “who flails like [he is] drowning here” (80). About the difficulty of translation in general, Gass writes, “The individuality, the quirkiness, the bone-headed nature of every translation is inevitable” (61).

Nevertheless, Gass obviously believed literary translation was worthwhile, and with proper care it could be done well. Even though something is always left behind, he says that “[t]he central ideas of the stanza, provided we have a proper hold on them, can be transported without loss” (51). Gass goes into detail about some of the pitfalls of translating, and perhaps chief among them is that “[m]any translators do no bother to understand their texts [because t]hat would interfere with their own creativity and with their perception of what the poet ought to have said.” He adds that such translators “would rather be original than right,” comparing their work to a type of thievery whereby “they insist on repainting a stolen horse” (69). In the final analysis, a worthwhile translation is one that “allow[s] us a glimpse of the greatness of the original” (53). Such a translation does not come easily, emphasizes Gass, who was known for his obsessive revising: “It will usually take many readings to arrive at the right place. Somewhere amid various versions like a ghost the original will drift” (54).

Gass’s translations of Rilke’s poetry (and some of his prose) are sprinkled throughout Reading Rilke, but the climactic section is a straightforward collection of Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies,2 without commentary. These poems began appearing in 1978 when The American Poetry Review published Gass’s translations of the first and ninth elegies, and they concluded the same year the collection appeared, 1999, when Conjunctions and The Minnesota Review published the seventh and fifth elegies respectively. Even though critics have been reluctant to recognize the significance of Gass’s translations of Rilke, Gass himself consistently gave them pride of place. At the celebration of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, the author read excerpts from his works over the decades, essentially in chronological order, with the exception that he saved his reading of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” for his finale—a dramatic conclusion to be sure given that the birthday celebration had to be postponed by several months due to Gass’s deteriorating health (see my post, which includes a link to a video of the entire reading). Moreover, Gass’s final authorized work was The William H. Gass Reader, published in 2018, a year after his death; however, Gass was able to see the book into press, selecting its contents and their order himself. The nearly 1,000-page reader opens with Gass’s translation of an untitled poem from Rilke’s The Book of Hours (“Put my eyes out”); and Gass ended the reader with an essay titled “The Death of the Author,” echoing Rilke’s poem “The Death of the Poet.”

To publish Reading Rilke, Gass had to force himself to complete his translations of the Duino Elegies, a project on which he’d been working nearly as long as he’d worked on his magnum opus The Tunnel—that is, more than twenty years. He said finishing the book was necessary to “get rid of [Rilke’s] ghost” (Abowitz 147), but the exorcism didn’t work, given the evidence of the prominent place Gass reserved for Rilke for the remainder of his life. As a disciple of the Master I of course believe there is too little attention paid to William Gass, period, but his translations of Rilke and the book Reading Rilke have generated almost no scholarly attention whatsoever—which translates to an inverse correlation given the primacy of Rilke in Gass’s world. Indeed, in “The Seventh Elegy” Gass discovered the core secret to living a meaningful life: to cherish, to internalize and thus immortalize “great things,” like poetry, literature and art. He writes, “Those few attainments which display the grace of great things, we must take into ourselves and save from an indifferent multitude. Because all our knowledge, even the gift of a pleasant life, comes to nothing if we know more, enjoy more, only to destroy more” (165).

I encourage you to take into yourself Reading Rilke and the Master’s masterful translations of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Notes

  1. The Acknowledgments page for Reading Rilke does not wholly agree with William Gass’s own vita (released to me by Mary Henderson Gass). For example, the vita lists the earliest published Rilke translations as “The Panther” and “Torso of an Archaic Apollo” in North Country, 1975; and then indicates that the latter was reprinted in River Styx 8 in 1981. North Country does not appear on the Acknowledgments page. Nor does Schreibheft 54, credited with first publishing “The First Elegy” in 2000; nor does The Eliot Review, credited with publishing “Marionette Theater” (undated but presumably between 1984 and 1998). I’m not sure what to make of these omissions, other than perhaps Gass forgot and did not consult his vita when preparing Reading Rilke.
  2. Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies are not available online, but other translations are accessible, including A. S. Kline’s at the poetry in translation site. An added bonus is that Kline’s elegies are illustrated by photos of Rodin’s sculptures.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 142-148.

Fogel, Stanley. “William H. Gass.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 25, no. 2, 2005, pp. 7-45.

Gass, William H. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Basic Books, 1999.

—. The William H. Gass Reader. Knopf, 2018.

Hix, H. L. Understanding William H. Gass, U of South Carolina P, 2002.

Holloway, Watson L. William Gass, Twayne, 1990.

Ziegler, Heide. “Three Encounters with Germany: Geothe, Hölderlin, Rilke.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 46-58.

 

 

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