"Blinding Moment" by Gert Jonke, translated by Vincent Kling; reviewed by Hans Gabriel

New literary translations inevitably make several implicit assumptions. Aside from the artistic value, or at least the uniqueness or originality, of the original work, a translation implicitly assumes that there is an audience that would or should be interested in the sort of work being translated and yet remains unable to appreciate or even access it in the original language. And of course, there is the implicit assumption, despite the usual variety of acknowledgments of inadequacy, that the translator is able to capture enough of both the spirit and the letter of the original to make the endeavor worthwhile. Blinding Moment, Vincent Kling’s new selection and translation of Gert Jonke’s work (Ariadne Press, 2009), offers satisfying justification and support for each of these assumptions.

The volume is subtitled “Four pieces about composers.” The formal range of the selections alone from dramatic to lyric to narrative prose justifies the generality of the term “pieces,” but this designation also implicitly links Jonke’s “pieces” - his linguistic composition(s) - with the pieces of music they treat. None of them, in any case, “is [very] likely to be mistaken for a standard biography” (172), as Kling makes clear in his detailed discussion of these texts in the Translator’s Afterword. Instead, this designation prepares the reader for what Kling describes as “Jonke’s comic vision,” for his “resolutions [that] are often lyrically heightened apotheoses” (151). In other words, Jonke’s “pieces” unite his protagonists’ timeless, idealized musical composition(s) with strictly defined historical moments in their real lives. The resulting “madcap exaggeration” (151) reminds Kling of Bakhtin’s “carnival humor” (176). But the unabashed mixing of the sublime and/or ridiculous with a recognizable historical or biographical moment is perhaps more reminiscent of the preoccupation with the tragi-comic or “grotesque” of Jonke’s late European neighbor Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Or one could perhaps speak of a hyperbolic enactment of the Schillerian aesthetic state, in which the real and the ideal aspects of these composers’ lives and artistic productions are captured in an aesthetic moment of extreme interaction and coexistence in Jonke’s own blatantly artistic/artificial, musically structured literary composition(s).

The first such moment, “The Head of George Frederick Handel,” is the most difficult to categorize in traditional terms. Kling does well to characterize it as “transmuting more or less standard biography into a dazzling monologue of Handel’s last moments as woven around the facts of his life” (171). The second “piece” is lyrical, and is the only one that does not treat a biographical moment per se. Instead, the real and the ideal interact more broadly as heaven and earth, as nature / the gods and humankind. It is the birds, borrowed from Messiaen’s musical “catalogue,” that provide the aesthetic glue. Kling describes quite nicely how Jonke “transmutes” Messiaen’s original musical material into his own linguistic composition. But Jonke’s use of the birds for his “madcap” interweaving of ideal and real also has interesting literary echoes. Situated almost perfectly between the birds’ soothing reassurance of the wanderer in Goethe’s Über allen Gipfeln and the bird’s brusque rejection of the wanderer in Nietzsche’s Der Wanderer, Jonke’s linguistic (re-)composition of Messian’s musical “Catalogue D’Oiseaux” oscillates exuberantly and lyrically between these two extremes, ironically reversing the transformation of these two literary predecessors from written works to musical compositions by Schubert and Schönberg, respectively.

The final piece, and the one that gives the collection as a whole its title, illustrates just how integral a part of the fun this exuberantly ironic (re-)compostion is for Jonke. “Blinding Moment” not only recomposes the historical final moment of Anton Webern’s life as a musical one. It also simultaneously (re-)composes the opera Wozzeck of Webern’s close friend and fellow composer Alban Berg in narrative form. Thus, when Jonke’s narrator opens the “Novelle” with the words “Langsam, Raymond, langsam,” we are hearing the opening words of Berg’s opera as well. By repeating the words in this real biographical setting, Jonke’s text simultaneously intertwines real and ideal in exuberantly “grotesque” fashion and reverses the transformation by Berg’s opera of Georg Büchner’s play, itself a “grotesque” retelling (as the Captain acknowledges in one of Büchner’s scenes) of a real biographical moment from the life of the soldier Johann Christian Woyzeck.

In other words, Jonke appears to be striving for a sort of “real-ideal” “sympoesie” a la German Romanticism, a sort of formal synesthesia in which musical (re-)compositions of literary and real-life historical moments are themselves linguistically (re-)composed into literary and real-life historical moments, so that the formal distinctions are both upheld and transcended in a heightened euphoric aesthetic apotheosis, to use Kling’s description. This aim is perhaps most evident in the third of the four pieces, the “Theater Sonata” on Beethoven entitled Gentle Rage or the Ear Machinist. As the title already suggests and as Kling observes, “Synesthesia, the bewilderment of perception by the displacement of one sense function to another, becomes for Beethoven, as it does for Handel, a kind of higher awareness, not a confusing muddle” (182-3). “And if the watcher can watch the watcher in infinite regress,” Kling continues, essentially describing German romantic irony as it applies to Beethoven’s increasing deafness, “[…] then this potentially disorienting mise en abime […] becomes a means of heightened awareness for Beethoven, giving him additional resources to overcome impairment” (183).

One could argue after reading these four pieces that Jonke intends his compositions to serve the same function for his (ideal) readers. Of course, for these pieces to do so completely, such readers need to know not only their Messiah and their Messiaen, but also their Austrian and German literature. It is no small praise for Kling’s translation to add, however, that with the appearance of this collection, Jonke’s readers no longer have to know German. Kling’s translator’s afterword illustrates his critical sensitivity to what is at stake in Jonke’s pieces and to their musical, literary and political context. The intertextuality of Jonke’s work extends beyond the formal parallels to German romanticism and to the musical composition(s) they treat, however, to specific verbal connections such as the opening words of Blinding Moment and Berg’s opera and the title of Gentle Rage and Adalbert Stifter’s Gentle Law. Here, Kling’s Praxis matches the sensitivity of his theoretical treatment. His translation walks convincingly the fine line between forcing Jonke’s text into an unconventional English that makes these connections explicit on the one hand, and rendering the German into a completely unassuming and apparently self-evident English that effaces them on the other.

Jonke often seems determined in his writing to deny the possibility of any such delicately balanced translation. The fact that Kling is able to maintain this balance through the variety of prose, lyric and dramatic dialogue that he selects only adds to his accomplishment. Most notable in this regard are his renderings of Jonke’s gleefully exaggerated word agglutinations that, however improbable in the original, are still theoretically possible according to German word-formational convention. In these instances, Kling opts for an effective and playful variation as opposed to consistency. He sometimes follows Jonke’s lead with impossible but still comprehensible English agglutinations, but he also takes the more standard English route, and in some cases, he even opts for both. Perhaps the most extreme example, itself a sort of linguistic “Blinding Moment” from the piece of the same name, illustrates Kling’s skill in mixing it up. When Jonke’s exuberance produces Militärgetriebewindhosenüberlandverwirbelwinddetonationssprengstoffzerstörungsfanatikern, Kling counters with “world-subjugating vortexbylandproducing, military gearandmeshdriven, detonating explosivedevices outfitted fanatics” (111). This both is and is not English. But it is this very balancing act on the edge of the language that allows Kling’s translation to communicate the “grotesque” uniqueness and interest of Jonke’s original pieces. After all, they themselves are and are not German, are and are not merely linguistic texts, are and are not “standard biography.” Whatever one chooses to call Jonke’s “pieces,” Kling’s translation remains admirably faithful to their difficult spirit and letter. This collection therefore allows English-speaking audiences to experience the quintessential “entweder und oder,” to use a particularly Austrian turn of phrase – the quintessential “either and or”- of both Jonke’s composition(s) and of the composition(s) they treat.

Hans Gabriel
The University of North Carolina School of the Arts