The Absence of a Writing Table and Other Bogus Complaints

Vsevolod Garshin, by Ilya Repin. 1884.

 No, this post won’t be about old Vsevolod. He’s already had more than enough great press lately, I imagine. Just thought his visage captured a certain weariness, bafflement and astonishment at the task of reading and writing, and that this was apropos of other things. The artist Repin was apparently good at that, too–good at painting moments like this, having tackled Tolstoy as well as the composer Rimsky-Korsakov in other portraits. And, of course, old Vsevolod looks like a 19th century Spiderman, lost in a Bohemian funk. But that’s another story altogether.

Wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post about Rilke, and elaborate a bit on my translation of The Panther, on what went into it, and how it came to be. In short, I did it in less than a half-hour, at the end of a long, long day, so it was hardly a work of endless preparation and seasoned depth. It was a translation born out of the medium at hand, and the way blogging is done. Blogging about the arts on a near-daily basis prevents extravagantly detailed, sculpted, indepth writing. Though there have been some writers in the past who could churn out works with amazing alacrity, like Georges Simenon. I think it was Hitchcock who famously called his home and got Simenon’s wife instead:

“Georges is in the middle of writing a novel,” his wife said, hinting with her tone that Alfred should probably call back.

“I’ll wait,” Hitchcock said, remembering how fast his friend typed . . . .

Simenon would probably make a great blogger.

Anyway, back to Rilke. He wrote the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus in a white heat of inspiration, incarnation–possessed. He took dictation, he told us. Much like Kafka when filled to the breaking point with the story “The Judgment,” Rilke couldn’t help himself. Much like Picasso, he couldn’t stop making art until it was released. Two surges in time. First one in 1912. Second in 1922. Primarily concerning the Elegies, and the overflow gave us the Sonnets.

Again, not speaking a word of German, I sought out the best translations in English . . . A. Poulin, Stephen Mitchell and Galway Kinnell, to name three of the books I have in my possession now. More than twenty years ago my own Rilke period began. As in, I really became enthralled with his poetry at that time, and attempted to understand more than could be gleaned through single readings and intros. Prefaces. I know that poetry is virtually untranslatable. Still, I can’t deny the world.


Sonnets to Orpheus, Second Series, Number 13


To be ahead of all parting, as if it were behind
Us, like passing white winters on a train.
For within those winters is the supreme
Winter that only the strongest hearts can overcome.

Be forever dead with Eurydice–, sing and move back,
Celebrate and move back into pure connection.
Here, among the disappeared, in this fading realm,
Be a ringing sheet of glass that shatters in its own noise.

Be–but encompass the sense of non-being,
And vibrate with infinity, with your own eternal
Essence flowing toward completion.

Then, facing the extinguished, the dull and silent
Reservoirs of all nature, those countless sums,
Add us, exult and cancel the last debt.


— Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by Douglas Pinson, after Galway Kinnell.


The Absence of a Writing Table and Other Bogus Complaints
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