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The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Robert Vilain

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.

brigge

Rilke, of course, is probably best known for his poetry and Wikipedia says 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.

rilke

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 a particularly 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 extra 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,

Review copy courtesy Oxford University Press, for which many thanks!

Recent Reads: Rilke in Paris

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“Rilke in Paris” is another treasure from Hesperus Press, a slim volume that was published last year. Rainer Maria Rilke is best known as a poet and the author of one novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, and also for his intense friendships with other artists across different fields of work, from Rodin to Pasternak. Wikipedia describes him as “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”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.”

rilke in paris

He wrote in German but Paris was an adopted city for him, and this book covers his time in the French capital, which is where he conceived and wrote much of the “Notebooks”.

“Paris, of light and silk, faded once and for all time, as far as it skies and its waters, to the heart of its flowers, with the overpowering sun of its kings. Paris, in May, her white communicants who pass amidst the people, swathed in veils, like little stars, sure of their path and their hearts, for which they rise, set out and shine…”

The book is made up of  Maurice Betz’s essays on Rilke’s time in Paris (Betz was Rilke’s French translator) along with introduction and notes on the text by translator Will Stone. There is also a little gem at the end of the book in the form of a new translation of the prose poem “Notes on the Melody of Things” which rarely sees the light of day in other languages.

The essays are a fascinating insight into Rilke’s mind and way of working; they are generously sprinkled with extracts from his letters and Betz draws illuminating parallels between Rilke’s life in Paris and the way this ended up being portrayed in the “Notebooks”. Rilke lived through a turbulent era, including the First World War years, and left Paris several times only to be drawn back again.

Both Rilke and Betz use language which is rich and ornate and may not be to everyone’s taste. However, Rilke was definitely a one-off and this book is certainly a celebration of the poet as an outsider, a loner, which Rilke seems to have been, despite his numerous friendships and love affairs. He seems to have been constantly searching for the ideal state of mind to write, and solitude often seemed the solution.

“His life was a perpetual flight before social and human realities, towards that abstraction which is solitude, towards that preservation of the absolute that is infinite desire, nostalgia eternally unsatisfied, and towards those superior states of consciousness which give access, in the midst of the most beautiful and sorrowful landscapes of life, to the contemplation of death.”

The prose poem itself is very beautiful and dreamy, contemplating the human condition and the need for society versus solitude:

It occurs to me: with this observation:
that we still paint figures again a
gold background, like the early Primitives.
Before the indeterminate they stand,
sometimes of gold, sometimes of grey.
Sometimes in the light and often with,
behind them, an inscrutable darkness.

(on art)

It has proved that each lives on their island;
only the island are not distant enough that we might
live peacefully and in solitude. One can disturb another
or terrify them, or pursue them with spears – only
no-one cannot help no-one.

My one reservation with this book has nothing to do with the contents as such, but the fact that there is nothing in it about the translator! Normally Hesperus Press books have a little bit on the translator, but there was no indication at all as to who Will Stone was, apart from the fact that he wrote his foreword in Suffolk! This is all the more surprising as the final form of the book is very much dictated by him – his translation of the Betz and the prose poem; his notes on the places; and the fact that this volume is beautifully illustrated by photos taken by him. When I searched online it seems that he is a poet himself and also translates regularly. He has been very involved in the production of a lovely book here and should have had a little more recognition in it in my view!

rainer_maria_rilke

Despite this, I highly recommend this to any lovers of Paris and poetry. Rilke had an epistolary friendship with Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, the book of which is currently moving up my tbr – I’m looking forward to discovering more about this intense poet!

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