There are some people I will never read in anything but the language they wrote in. You don't not read Dante in Italian. I'm not a fan of double negatives but this one is somehow apropos. Plus, Italian allows for it. Nor do you mess with Goethe in something other than German. "To be or not to be..." Say it in anything other than Shakespearean and you'll fail. Incidentally, the only time when I felt a mild form of repulsion while having German words in my mouth was when I tried to crack a joke in a German conversation and I randomly translated a bunch of Shakespeare one-liners into German. "Sein oder nicht sein, das ist ja die Frage." Rght. Blerg!
Lyrical poetry can never be done in a language other than the one in which it was originally conceived. My colleague boyfriend would write poems. At the time, I found the habit difficult to support. I couldn't help it. I had been trained to be critical of language. So, the first time I received the first lyrical poem, I said, "what's with the rhymes? Hmm, gauche." The reason why I remember these words is because they were repeated to me, perhaps rightly so, for four entire years. The thing is, and maybe it's innate elitism speaking here, one shouldn't mess with lyrical language unless one can. The Goethes and the Rilkes of the world are few and far between.
Instead of being imitative of them, why not just focus on them?
Lavish only the few with attention.
Nothing dilutes quality faster than quantity.
I found studying philosophy and literature easy to do. It was easy to study others' words. I knew when I was a child that I wasn't cut out for fiction. I tried. And then I wrote my first full pager. I misused one word. I wrote, "Today I woke up feeling melanchony.' I had my sister read it. She said, "Melanchony? In order to write, you need to know words." Even though I was only 10, she had a point.
What I remember from that experience, however, was that I felt better afterwards. Just like I felt better after I drew badly for hours. Or after I played dodgeball outside, or after I swam till my bottom lip was black. Somehow, I felt lighter after purging the words even though the syntax lacked in elaboration and the vocabulary needed constant depositing.
I've thought a lot about Rilke recently. Mostly, when the occasion did not call for it. Often while discussing some very-now topic and other non-literary things. One of the memories that comes to me with the most frequency is agreeing to hold a lecture outside, on the lawn, on a Spring day. I taught a Rilke seminar. Rilke is not for the fickle. Or the lazy. Rilke is for the studious and the strong. And those who open themselves to authentic human experiences and honest introspection.
The book I chose for the syllabus was the oh-so-light The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The whole seminar revolved around the heaviness of Brigge's experience. The way I would try to interject some levity to the subject matter was by saying that Brigge was a 'fun version' of Sartre's Nausea. Both works are about heroes who are clearly aware of their daily decay. Yes, a bona fide stand-up show.
But, there is another dimension to Rilke. Few people lead one to introspection more adequately than Rilke. And a brilliant work to lead one to introspection is: Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters.
The work details the relationship between a 21-year-old Rilke and the 36-year-old and married Salomé, When the two were first each other's close friend, they started an epistolary relationship which continued till Rilke's death. The relationship saw them morph into lovers, colleagues, protegge-philosopher, and friends again. In a letter right before they first became lovers, Rilke wrote:
"I always feel: when one person is indebted to another for something very special, that indebtedness should remain a secret between just the two of them."
A few days after their explorations of love, he writes: "Songs of longing! And they will resound in my letters, just as they always have, sometimes loudly and sometimes secretly so that you alone can hear them… But they will also be different — different from how they used to be, these songs. For I have turned and found longing at my side, and I have looked into her eyes, and now she leads me with a steady hand."
So, during this upcoming Summer season, grab a copy. Read it. It will nourish you.