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.

 

 

William H. Gass at 90: Passages of Time

Posted in September 2014 by Ted Morrissey on September 28, 2014

I’ve just returned from Washington University in St. Louis where I attended “Passages of Time: A literary event marking the 90th birthday of celebrated author William H. Gass.” The reading and reception were held in Umrath Lounge from 4 to 6 p.m. After welcoming and introductory remarks by Jeffrey Trzeciak, University Librarian, and Dr. Gerhild Williams, German professor and vice provost, Gass read from several of his works for about 40 minutes.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

Gass, or “The Master,” as I call him, arrived via wheelchair and gave his reading from a chair, but while his mobility was impaired, he appeared sharp of mind and his voice was clear and  robust–not remarkably different from other readings of his that I attended in 2008 (AWP Conference in Chicago) and 2013 (Left Bank Books in St. Louis). For the most part, Gass read from his works in published chronological order, beginning with passages from the novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966), followed by selections from “Order of Insects” (in 1969’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), The Tunnel (1995), “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” (in 1998’s Cartesian Sonata), Middle C (2013), and concluding with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” (in Reading Rilke, 1999).

Between selections, Gass spoke briefly about each piece, often humorously. Upon finishing his reading, the large gathering gave the author an enthusiastic standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, Gass said, “Rilke is good.”

Watch the entire reading here:

Several of Gass’s books have been re-released and were available at the reading and reception in autographed editions. Unfortunately, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country had not arrived in time for the event. Gass has supposedly been working on a new story collection as well as a new collection of novellas, a form that he especially likes.  I hope to hear the author reading from those books at his 100th birthday celebration.

I recommend the following links to learn more about The Master:

Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections (the William H. Gass Papers and International Writers Center)

“William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence” (digitized manuscripts, photographs, readings and more)

And keep up to date on Gass events and happenings at ReadingGass.org

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass's reading.

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass’s reading. (Photo by my wife, Melissa)

TWP taking submissions and Beowulf book makes its way in the world

Posted in September 2013 by Ted Morrissey on September 15, 2013

I’m happy to announce that Twelve Winters Press, which I founded last year, began taking submissions today for its first anthology:  [Ex]tinguished and [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, slated for a spring 2014 release.  I’m also happy to acknowledge that I’ve been joined on the Press’s masthead by two of my oldest Benedictine University and Quiddity friends and colleagues, John McCarthy and Pamm Collebrusco.  In fact, John will be serving as editor of the anthology, while Pamm will be a reader and ultimately do what she does as well as anyone I know:  edit and proofread the book before it goes to press.  Pamm has generously edited and proofread my last three books, and is at work on the galleys of my latest novel, An Untimely Frost, probably even as I write this blog post.  (Her work on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, with all of its technical terminology drawn from a host of disciplines, copious citations, and its Old English, was nothing short of herculean — more on the Beowulf book in a moment.)

The anthology will consist of poems, prose poems and flash fiction (up to 1,000 words in length), and John is accepting submissions through November 30.  Please check out and share the submission guidelines.

My monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters:  A Trauma-Theory Reading of the Anglo-Saxon Poem, came out in March, but with the advent of the new academic year university libraries have started to add it to their collections (nearly every day a new library or two pops up on WorldCat — and, yes, I’m checking its progress, just like you would a child who’s beginning to make his way in the world).  To date, libraries that have added either the print edition or ebook edition to their collection include Notre Dame, Duke, Purdue, Pepperdine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Loyola Notre Dame, Lewis and Clark, Smith College, and Australian National University.

Beowulf Poet cover

The book actually grew out of my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2009 (Zeitgeist and the Zone:  The Psychic Correlation between Cultural Trauma and “Postmodern” Literature).  My primary focus was American postmodernism, but I included quite a bit of research on Anglo-Saxon history and culture, and the poem Beowulf in way of support for my thesis.  As almost an appendix to my dissertation I also wrote a trauma-theory reading of Beowulf; however, the Anglo-Saxon scholar on my committee wouldn’t accept my theory about the poem, so I ended up cutting that chapter.  Anglo-Saxonists are notoriously uncomfortable with post-structural criticism (they tend to prefer analysis of a more traditional philological nature), so it wasn’t a big surprise that she didn’t care for my reading.  Nevertheless, I’d put a lot of time and effort into it, and I felt it was valid (even revolutionary — hey, sometimes you have to toot your own horn).

Even as I was cutting the chapter, I had vague plans of bringing my theory out somehow or another (perhaps in an article). After successfully defending my dissertation, my mind switched gears back into creative writing, and I spent the next three years working on the novel that would become An Untimely Frost.  I teach Beowulf every fall, so I continued meditating on the poem and my analysis of it.  Then in late winter 2012 I met with an editor from Edwin Mellen Press who encouraged me to pursue writing a monograph about Beowulf and my trauma-theory reading.  I accepted a contract, and in May of 2012 I began work on the project in earnest.  I transported home from my classroom three copy-paper boxes of books and articles, transforming my bedroom into a Beowulf and postmodern critical theory library (it was a mess, and it was a good thing I was living alone because if I hadn’t been, I soon would’ve been).

I thought I could knock out the project in three to five months; I was wrong.  I pulled quite a lot from my dissertation, but it was now three years old.  An important book or article on Beowulf appears once a week or so, according to the University of Toronto, which is the epicenter of Beowulf scholarship, and to say I’d been keeping up only at my leisure would be putting it rather kindly.  So I had a lot of reading to do.  Also, I’d done a little translating of Old English for my dissertation, but for this monograph I felt that I needed to analyze the original language of the poem, so I set about translating numerous key sections.  Much of the summer of 2012 was spent with my nose in the poem, various Old English dictionaries, and translations that I admired.  I was often at my kitchen table entombed in stacks of books.

The project that I thought I could finish by September (2012) dragged on into the fall … and winter.  In the meantime, two of my three adult sons had moved back home for various reasons, and it became a running joke as nearly every day they’d ask me what I was doing, and I’d say that I was finishing my Beowulf book (or I’d ask them, “Guess what I’m doing today?” to solicit their groans of skepticism), as I was in the process of finishing it for about six months.  There were a thousand details to attend to to get it right.  I was not a known Beowulf scholar, at all, so I was determined to make it as solid a piece of scholarship as I was able to produce.  When I needed to procure supporting reviews before sending it to the press, I sought opinions from the most respected Beowulf scholars in the world, and I was grateful that James W. Earl and Robert E. Bjork, both of whose work I’d admired for years, agreed to review my manuscript.  I waited, a little anxiously, for their reviews — and was considerably relieved when they were returned so favorably.  (See my Beowulf book’s page to read blurbs of their reactions.)

It ended up taking ten months for me to complete the project.  Shortly after its publication, Edwin Mellen’s editor-in-chief awarded it the press’s D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship.  Considering I had to cut from my dissertation the chapter on which the monograph was based, I was especially pleased with Earl’s and Bjork’s good opinions, and then the Prize.  In fairness to the Beowulf scholar on my committee, my chapter paid little attention to the poem’s original language, and my analysis of the Geatland/dragon section of the poem, I knew, was undercooked (in writing the monograph, that was the section that received the most new material and most extensive revision — by the time I wrote the book, I had a clearer idea what I’d been wanting to say all along).  Also, her reaction inspired me to make my scholarship as airtight as possible as it represented what the mainstream of the discipline was likely to say about my rather wild reading of the poem.  I thank her in the book’s acknowledgements, and my thanks is sincere.

The press is just beginning to solicit reviews of my Beowulf book in scholarly journals, and I don’t know of any that have appeared so far. As I said, I’m gratified that universities are adding it to their collections, so hopefully some Anglo-Saxonists will begin to pay attention to it (as well as scholars and doctors in psychoanalysis and neuropsychology, which are also important aspects of my trauma-theory reading).

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