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NewCityNet Rilke Got Me Going

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass (Knopf), $25, 233 pages

If a poet is alive only in language, Rainer Marie Rilke lives doubly in "Reading Rilke": in reflection and in William H. Gass' splendidly parsed appreciation. Gass is a novelist and critic whose work has always fascinated, but beyond the critical essay, seldom captivated. In critiques and occasional pieces in collections like "The Habitations of the Word" and "Fiction and the Figures of Life," Gass' language rings clear like a bell. (It clots in ambitious novels such as "The Tunnel" and "Omensetter's Luck.")

But he approaches the poet with the rigor of a philosopher and the vigor of a gifted maker of sentences. Like Rilke, Gass is simply language's lover. He loves. Hard. And he doesn't miss a trick. First, Gass makes the most of Gertrude Stein-like tics. Hard, simple repetitions and flip-flops of sense with the sure hand of a comic in a fast-talking routine: "Poverty eventually disillusioned Rilke about poverty."

Part of the project is to approach a translation into English of Rilke's "Duino Elegies" that will ring the way it does in the original German. Gass approaches the task as one might science fiction, a transposition of time, space and punctilious investigation. Such erudition comes from his philosopher's training: his need to conjure a "thing" by the space it occupies.

Gass describes the timelessness of finished bodies of work, how we can move effortlessly through the drops of wine and blood that have been shed in extracting verse from the poet's practice. "Every line which Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in early life is there in later life: [books] may stand beside one another like two parked bikes, and I in fact did read the so-called later poems before I read their many predecessors... I may, if I wish, travel back or go forth or leap ahead..." But Gass argues that "the world can be taken out of time and given a place. A place in permanence."

"Singing is Being," Gass writes. "This is what Rilke knew to the inner marrow of his bones." There are these words and more: there are Rilke's, too. Shorthanded biography and romantic misadventures are taken up, but more importantly, Gass' surmise is accompanied by line after line of collaboration between Rilke's German and his own English.

Gass keenly etches a poet's youth as tumult tantamount to a storehouse of analogy and metaphor, as much as experience that will cohere one day as theme and variation.


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