Translated by Robert Vilain
Reviewed by Karen Langley
Back in 2013, I read a really lovely book called Rilke in Paris, which focused on the life of the great German poet while he was based in the city. Rilke has been an author I’ve long wanted to read, and his only novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge has been on my wanted list for decades – yes, really! So when Oxford World’s Classics were kind enough to offer me a review copy of their beautiful new translation, I was very, very pleased.
Rilke, of course, is probably best known for his poetry and online sources say of him that he was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist, ‘widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets’, writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently ‘mystical’. In fact, as well as poetry, he wrote plays and shorter prose, but this is his only extended work of prose.
Notebooks is a slim book, but very intense. It takes the form of diary-like entries, varying in length, in which the narrator (our eponymous Brigge) reflects on his current existence in Paris, his past and life itself. As we read on, his background is gradually revealed: from a noble Danish family, he’s been orphaned young and is living penniless. However, all of this is let slip a bit at a time, and the structure of the book is anything but linear. Instead, we’re treated to a sequence of impressions, reminiscences, historical facts and stories, all of which are told in with startling imagery and a vivid narrative form.
There were certain corner windows there, or archways or lamps that knew a great deal about me and used it to threaten me.
Brigge is of sensitive temperament and seems obsessed with the darker side of things. Particularly in the earlier sections of the book, he records his impressions of the sick and poor, haunting the precincts of hospitals and at one time being sent to the Salpetriere himself because of his nerves. The tales of his own past are laced with images of ghosts and strange manifestations, and he develops a strong love for his aunt, Abelone, which recurs through the book.
Actual facts about Brigge are revealed here and there, but we never build up a complete picture of him. We hear much of his grandfather’s death, less of his mother’s and father’s, and we know that all that remains of his possessions are in storage somewhere, rotting away, while he spends his time in Paris attempting to become a poet. He has visited many other countries in the past, but again these visits are dropped into the narrative with no real explanation.
It is as if the image of this house had collapsed into me, plunging down from an infinite height and shattering on my ground.
Reading Notebooks had a strange, dreamlike effect on me; the lines between past and present, real and unreal seemed blurred and it’s a book that in many ways is hard to get a handle on. If I’m honest, after this first read I couldn’t tell you exactly what it’s *about*, but it contains some wonderfully evocative passages of real beauty and I’m sure would reveal more on a second (or third!) reading.
That day had never really got properly light. The trees were standing as if they didn’t know what to do in the fog, and there was something high-handed about driving in amongst them. Now and then it began to snow again silently, and now it was as if every last mark were being erased and if we were journeying into a blank page. There was no sound but the bells, and one couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It stopped for a moment, as if the last sleigh-bell jingle had been sounded, but then it composed itself, came together, and gave of its all once more.
Notebooks is not an easy read – the book is scattered with numerous historical references, and I was really grateful for the excellent notes provided in the Oxford World’s Classics edition courtesy of translator Robert Vilain. As usual with Oxford’s books, this one had all the supporting material you could need – introduction, textual notes, bibliography, chronology, and appendices. These latter were particularly fascinating, containing as they did some alternative openings and endings for the book; the most interesting section for me was a sequence where Malte visits Tolstoy at his estate (which presumably mirrors Rilke’s real life visit to the great man).
So is Brigge a self-portrait of Rilke? That’s a difficult one to answer – I’ve seen this book described as semi-autobiographical and as the excellent notes to this edition show, certain events in the book relate to real events in Rilke’s life. However, I think the danger of conflating author and character here is very strong and I found myself thinking of them as very different. In fact, as Malte was flaneuring his way around Paris, he reminded me at times of the protagonists of Sartre and Camus, with their constant searching for meaning and explanation; although as the book was first published in 1910, it would be Rilke that influenced the existentialists, and not the other way round! Despite my occasional struggles with the historical detail, Notebooks was an absorbing read, with the often beautiful and evocative prose making the effort worthwhile, and I’m keen now to read some of Rilke’s poetry,
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings where this review first appeared.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Robert Vilain (Oxford World Classics, 2016). 978-0199646036, 272pp, paperback.
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