The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Burton Pike
Dalkey Archive Press, 2008
235 pages / $13.95 buy from Dalkey
1. “So this is where people come in order to live, I would rather thought: to die.” Young Malte Laurids Brigge is talking about Paris. “I have been out. I have seen: hospitals. I saw a man who tottered and collapsed. People gathered around him, that spared me the rest.”
2. Published in 1910, this is Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel. He is considered one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century and is perhaps best known for Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies. I was introduced to him in an undergraduate poetry workshop, taught by Peter Gizzi. He wore a beret and smoked cigarettes in class. He told me: “Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet,” and so I did.
3. This is Burton Pike’s translation, issued by Dalkey Archive in 2008. It has been referred to as an “edgy” translation, a “refreshing” one that attempts to preserve the “strangeness” of the original German. Pike says: “Rilke’s prose in this novel is arresting, haunting, and beautiful, but it is not smooth…. It would be a mistake to translate his German into a smoothed-over literary English. That would be to overemphasize the existential element of Malte’s tribulations, and to obscure the radically experimental and daring nature of Rilke’s prose.”
4. The existential elements of this novel are hard to avoid, whether or not you consider this translation smooth. The preoccupations of Malte, destitute poet arriving in Paris to write, concern death and being and becoming. “The main thing was that one was alive. That was the main thing.”
5. In the city, Malte is becoming. He is “learning to see.” He says: “I don’t know why, everything penetrates me more deeply, and doesn’t stop at the place where it always used to end. There is a place in me I knew nothing about. Everything goes there now. I don’t know what goes on there.”
6. The novel is in two parts: Book One and Book Two. There are fragments and sketches and the idea of “notebooks” is apt. There are ghost stories and inanimate objects that are imbued with energy and life. Scenes from Malte’s childhood bump up against fabrications and medieval legends. It is a book that wanders and circles back on itself. It speaks of death and history and imagination. It concerns itself with fear and fever and art.
7. For the sake of poetry, Malte tells us: “One must be able to think back to paths in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one long saw coming; to childhood days that are still not understood…. to childhood illnesses that set in so strangely with so many profound and heavy transformations, to days in quiet, muted rooms and to mornings by the sea, the sea altogether, to nights travelling that rushed up and away and flew with all the stars; and if one can think of all that, it is still not enough. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which resembled another, of screams in the delivery room and of easy, pale, sleeping women delivered, who are closing themselves. But one must also have been with the dying, have sat by the dead in the room with the open window and the spasmodic noises.”
8. All this is necessary for poetry and Malte is in Paris to write. He is twenty-eight and “just about nothing has happened.” And so “it is still not enough to have memories,” he tells us. “One must be able to forget them, if they are many, and to have the great patience to wait for them to come again. For it is not the memories themselves. Only when they become blood in us, glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves, only then can it happen that in a rare hour the first word of a line arises in their midst and strides out of them.”
9. And so we are led through these scenes of memory and of historical texts and visions and legends that perhaps have become blood in him. Or are in the process of becoming.
10. In one of a series of questions Malte poses to himself and to his reader, he asks “It is possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? Is it possible that the past is false because one has always spoken of its masses, as if one was telling about a coming together of many people, instead of telling about the one person they were standing around, because he was alien and died?” “Yes, it is possible.” He asks these existential, unanswerable questions, responding to each: “Yes, it is possible.” If it is possible that there are no certainties at all, no universally accepted philosophies of living and dying, then it is incumbent upon him, though “young, irrelevant” to write “day and night, he will just have to write, and that will be that.” This is the young poet’s charge.
11. Malte remembers illnesses, fevers, and long afternoons in the spell of them. “Fever raged in me and dredged up from the depths experiences, images, and facts I had known nothing about.” And in fever, “bombarded with [my]self,” he explores himself and versions of himself. He puts on disguises and masks. He brings objects in his childhood home “out and into the light.”
12. I will admit it: I am always looking for love stories. There is not much here for one who seeks romantic love. (“As coming-of-age stories go, Rilke’s novel is often disappointingly chaste and ascetic,” writes Tim Keane in a review for Rain Taxi. I would have to agree.) But there is this, which provides a kind of respite for readers like me, who can grow irritable and weary when there is so much mind and so little body. Here is Malte, speaking of Abelone, to whom he has been sending letters: “I will never forget how it was when you looked at me. How you bore your looking, holding it up on your backward-inclining face as if, so to speak, it were something not fastened down.”
13. He is preoccupied with faces. “For instance, I never realized how many faces there are. There are lots of people but still more faces, for everyone has several.”
14. At times, Rilke addresses “you.” A draft of a letter within the text: “I’m trying to write you, although there is really nothing to say after a necessary parting. But I’m trying anyway, I think I must, because I have seen the saint in the Pantheon, the lonely, sainted woman and the ceiling and the door, and inside the lamp with its modest circle of light, and out there the sleeping city and the river and the distance in the moonlight. The saint watches over the sleeping city. I wept. I wept because it was all so suddenly, so unexpectedly there. I wept before it, I couldn’t help myself.”
15. This section, this letter fragment ends with an entreaty: “Please don’t believe that I am suffering here from disappointments; on the contrary. I am sometimes surprised at how readily I give up everything that was expected in favor of the real, even when it is terrible.”
16. This is followed by one of my favorite passages in the book. It spans two pages and begins: “The existence of the horrible in every component of the air.” It is concerned with light and darkness and fear, and the relentless passage of time. There is little narrative sense to be made of it, but it is evocative and the syntax is strange, so one is compelled to slow, to read it aloud, to hear the music of it. Consider: “Now you have gathered yourself together within yourself, you see yourself cease in your hands, from time to time with a vague motion you trace your face.”
17. And later: “There it emerges, there it exceeds you, rises higher than your breath, to which you flee upward as the last place that is you. O and where to then, then where to? Your heart drives you out of yourself, your heart is coming after you, and you are standing almost outside yourself and can no longer get back.”
18. And finally: “Who has the courage in the night to completely be shelter for what is afraid, what is desperate from fear. You strike a light, and are already the noise.”
19. Book Two begins with a description of tapestries that hang in an old castle. There is a discussion on the role of women and girls; the changing expectations of and for them. Malte criticizes these changes, stating that modern girls “have already begun to look around, to seek; they, whose strength has always consisted in being found.”
20. So there is not a lot here for a reader seeking love stories. Nor is there much to recommend Malte as a progressive thinker. But this is not Rilke’s project. What is here is strange and beautiful and haunting and offers a portrait of a particular moment in the artistic development of an influential twentieth-century poet.
21. More on Abelone: “The expression ‘to fall asleep’ was not right for this year of girlhood. Sleep was something that rose up with one, and from time to time one had one’s eyes open and lay on a new surface that was by no means the uppermost one.” Imagine sleep as rising up inside oneself. Imagine waking life as just one of multiple layers folded, one atop another.
22. Objects are knowing and can posses a dangerous knowledge: “There were certain corner windows or archways or lanterns that knew a lot about one and threatened one with it.” The aggressiveness of objects, whose scent can penetrate, “as if it were trying to awaken memories.”
23. “It will be hard to convince me that the story of the prodigal son is not the legend of him who did not want to be loved.” So begins the final section of the book, a meditation on this wandering man who leaves home, but what we know of him more than his leaving is that he returns. He leaves to embrace “the mystery of his life, a life that had never yet been,” and which “spread itself out before him.” He throws himself toward it, “his arms outstretched, as if in this openness he could master several distances at once.”
24. “In those years great changes took place in him.” He is talking about the prodigal son and he is talking about himself, Malte, and one can conclude, about the author too. Rilke too, who spent several years in Paris, poor and ill. These changes, undertaken in solitude and suffering and despair, come to him “in hours full of discovery in which he felt strong enough to dive into the earth in order to seize it and bear it up on the stormflood of his heart. He was like one who hears a glorious language and feverishly undertakes to write poetry in it. Still ahead was the consternation of discovering how difficult the language was.”
25. And the act of learning to write in this difficult language is not unlike the practice of learning to love; of maturing, of becoming. “Now he was learning to love, sorrowfully and with so much effort, it was shown to him how careless and insignificant all the previous love he thought he had accomplished had been. How nothing could have come from any of that love because he had not yet begun to work at it and turn it into reality.” Perhaps we can all recognize a bit of ourselves in this sentiment. Perhaps what Rilke offers is that learning to write and learning to love are ways of learning to live. Even with death inside us, “as a fruit has its core,” the resolute heart is “ready to accomplish the whole of love up to the end.”
Mary-Kim Arnold is a writer living in Rhode Island. A Korean-American adoptee, she was born in Seoul, Korea and grew up in Bronxville, New York. Her writing has appeared online at Tin House and HTML Giant. She is a contributor to Anobium. She lives with her family in a restored Victorian home in Pawtucket and tries to keep up with her garden. She maintains a personal blog at: http://mkimarnold.tumblr.com and spends too much time on twitter: @mkimarnold.