The greatly esteemed essayist, novelist, and philosopher reflects on the art of translation and on rainer maria rilke's duino elegies-and gives us his own translation of Rilke's masterwork.
But Rilke is not only a brilliant poet, one of the greatest of the twentieth century, he is also difficult to approach. I read him on and off for ten years before I could see beyond what I thought was pretentious esthetic posturing. (Now, like so many others, I see Rilke as one of the great meditators on art and life, someone who reveals us to ourselves with a depth and clarity that few -- if any -- can equal.)
Here, in sum, is why this book is so wonderful. William Gass has read, and struggled with, and been guided by, Rainier Maria Rilke all his life. In many ways, he tells us, he has been clolser to Rilke than any other human being. And now, after a half century of that intimate relationship, he tells us who this literary 'friend' is, what his life has been, what he has gone through, what he has achieved -- and why we should care. There can be no more important book for any of us to write: 'this is what I cared most about in my life, this is what I learned from that caring.'
This is what Willam H. Gass, a major American novelist, does in his book:
-- He provides a brilliant short biography of Rilke
-- He explicates, effortlessly, some of his shorter lyrics, so that the reader can understand what Rilke does and what is at stake in his poems.
-- He teaches us, through a long but not boring chapter on translation, just how complex and apt Rilke's language is. That is not small accomplishment, since Rilke seems to sing so effortlessly that it easy to overlook how much is going on in each phrase.
-- He knows what is best in Rilke, focusing on the revolutionary "New Poems," the amazing "Requiem" to Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Rilke's towering achievement, the "Duino Elegies."
-- He, by following Rilke's artistic career with all its hesitations and confusions, helps us to understand how the "Elegies" are discovery and revelation: not just for us, but for the poet himself.
-- He provides us with fine translations of many Rilke poems, including the "Elegies."
The book Gass has written is a rich and satisfying way to enter into Rilke's poetry. It is as if one's grandfather sat down under a shady tree one bright and sunny summer morning, and began, "The love of my life has been...." and then spentthe rest of the day speaking in warm and intimate ways about that love and what it has meant to his life.
Just as that would be a marvelous day, so this is a marvelous and unforgettable book