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READING RILKE by William H. Gass

READING RILKE

Reflections on the Problems of Translation

By William H. Gass

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40312-4
Publisher: Knopf

The American novelist probes the Austrian’s metaphysical poetry with exceptional clarity of mind, verbal grace, and shrewd skepticism. Apart from his five works of fiction, Gass has published five books of literary and philosophical essays (Finding a Form, 1996, etc.). By now there can be no doubt that he’s one of our foremost public critics of literature. This new book—dedicated entirely to Rilke and focusing special, superbly concentrated attention on the Duino Elegies—has the effect of a declaration of love. It comes as no surprise: readers of Gass know him to be in love with language; and Rilke, as Gass presents him, is the century’s supreme master of verbal dance. But Gass is also a professor of philosophy at Washington University and not much inclined to the kind of gushy imprecision that Rilke’s poetry has sometimes evoked in admirers. Gass may love Rilke’s poetry, but he also presses it with hard-nosed questions and demands. The result is as impressive as it is engrossing. He explores problems of translation in a workmanlike way. His German is evidently flawless, and his commentaries on the many translations of the Elegies are acerbic, generous, and revealing. In addition, he concludes the book with his own translations of these very difficult poems. Gass’s are certainly among the best renditions of Rilke into English. His gift for metaphor and his uncanny ability to mimic Rilke’s cadences (very different from his own) are striking. But perhaps most satisfying of all is Gass’s thought about poetry itself as an autonomous way of knowing the world. Rilke’s poetry “sets the mind free of the world. Free to see and feel afresh the very world it’s been freed from.” A book not only for people interested in Rilke or Gass, but for anyone who takes poetry seriously.