Saturday, March 23, 2019

End of the Rainbow

"Between you and me is not only a rocket trajectory, but also a life."

When asked about my thoughts regarding Gravity's Rainbow, I responded that it easily has become one of my favorite books. Not my favorite, but certainly one of them. I mentioned that one of the things I liked most about the novel was that, like Moby-Dick, it created an entire universe, a world that could be recreated just from the science, technology, and mythology it contained. I liked how every detail, every character, every image responded to and activated that universe. Its rhizomic narrative structure is nearly perfect.

It's funny that Pynchon has been so little on my radar. I read The Crying of Lot 49 in graduate school, and I thought it was schlock lit. I had no interest in reading anything else by him.

Another aspect of Gravity's Rainbow that appealed to me was Pynchon's dialog with translation. There are a lot of languages used in the novel. And Pynchon does this interesting thing where he'll use a foreign word or phrase and then half-translate it a page or two later without ever calling attention to the fact that that's what he's doing. I say "half-translate" because his translation often employs an almost hyper-foreignized root that he leaves intact.

One example, when he directly cites Rilke: "These tall, these star-blotting Moslem angels ... O, wie spurlos zerträte ein Engel den Trostmarkt. . . ." And a paragraph and a half later: "coming to trample spoorless the white marketplace of his own exile. . . ." This was probably the first time I noticed what he was doing, and this example comes near the middle of the book. Spoorless jumps out because it's so weird. In German, it means trackless or without a trace. But Pynchon half-translates it as spoorless, which barely amounts to translation at all. This is not a common word in English. And the word is typically translated as completely in English translations of the Rilke. There are lots more examples.

Pynchon's manifesto of language can perhaps be summed up with this line: "Words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for." Or perhaps more forcefully: "The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple."

Pynchon's love affair with Rilke was beautiful and on display from early on. Rilke's name is mentioned seven times. The Duino Elegies, once. I would've liked to have translated The Duino Elegies to commemorate having finished Gravity's Rainbow. Or perhaps even Rilke's thematically related “How surely gravity’s law.” But because there are only so few hours in a day, I stuck with the shorter "Gravity." Here is Rilke's poem and my Pynchonian translation below.

Schwerkraft
by Rainer Maria Rilke


Mitte, wie du aus allen
dich ziehst, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Stärkste.

Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst
durchstürzt ihn die Schwerkraft.

Doch aus dem Schlafenden fällt,
wie aus lagernder Wolke,
reichlicher Regen der Schwere.

Gravity
by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Frank Garrett

Middle, how from all of us
you pull yourself, even from those flying off you
regain yourself, middle, you most strong.

Standing: like a drink the thirst
plunges him down by gravity.

But from the sleeper falls,
As from a stored-up cloud,
a generous rain of what’s grave.

See also: Half a Rainbow

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