Eric's Reviews > The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
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's review
Jul 31, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: ficciones, favorites, hearts-laid-bare, men-of-letters, shouldreread, unexpected
Read in June, 2009

Rilke’s semiautobiographical surrogate Malte Laurids Brigge is a young Dane, a noble scion adrift in early twentieth century Paris, trying to become a poet. He corresponds rather well to Anthony Burgess’s description, in his charming study ReJoyce (1965), “of the type of student Stephen Daedelus represents, poor, treasuring old books with foxed leaves, independent, unwhining, deaf to political and social shibboleths, fanatically devoted to art and art only.” Malte and Stephen hang out at the Bibliotheque Nationale, worry about how incidents of shabbiness in their wardrobes may effect their dignity, and are nuts about Ibsen (or was that just Joyce himself? Did he lend that admiration of his to Stephen? I’m not near my bookshelves.) Malte doesn’t have anything like Stephen’s confidence in ultimate triumph—like the Camus and Sartre heroes for whom he is said to have provided a model, Malte is pushed pretty hard up against the wall by metaphysical doubts and a general terror before existence. But even so, they both have high-caliber minds that relish the lyrical-gnomic fragment and eschew exposition or transition (in the very best badass tradition of high modernist narration) in the telling of eerie tales from their unhappy childhoods (Malte’s mom is dead, too) and in excursions through their daunting hoards of philosophical and historical arcana (Stephen likes scholastic philosophy; Malte has a thing for famous female anchorites and fanatical mystic nuns, plus, and this is a big one for him, the deathbed agonies of medieval French kings as encountered in Froissart’s Chronicles); and Rilke is -- like Joyce, and like Baudelaire their mutual master in this respect -- profoundly attentive to the crushing squalor and pathos to be glimpsed in the “sinuous creases of old capital cities”:

Or that time in Naples: that young creature sat there opposite me in the street car and died. At first it looked like a fainting spell; we even drove on for a while. But then there was no doubt that we had to stop. And behind us vehicles halted and piled up, as though there would never be any more moving in that direction. The pale, stout girl might have quietly died like that, leaning against the woman beside her. But her mother would not allow this. She contrived all possible difficulties for her. She disordered her clothes and poured something into her mouth which could no longer retain anything. She rubbed her forehead with a liquid someone had brought, and when the eyes, at that, rolled back a little, she began to shake her to make her gaze come forward again. She shouted into those eyes that heard nothing, she pushed and pulled the whole thing to and fro like a doll, and finally she raised her arm and struck the puffy face with all her might, so that it should not die. That time I was afraid.


Rilke’s tableaux parisiens are as uncanny and disturbing as Baudelaire’s. He's as fascinated by the old, the worn-out, the thrown-away, the "girls, still unused in their innermost depths, who had never been loved" as the poet of “Les Sept Vieillards” and “Les Petites Vieilles.” On a blind newspaper peddler’s Sunday cravat and new straw hat: “He himself got no pleasure from them, and who among all these people (I looked about me) could imagine that all this finery was for them?” The wannabe Bohemian girls from good families Malte encounters copying in museums wear dresses that, without servants to button then all the way up, appear half open in the back. Beside him in one of the waiting rooms of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière, a last refuge of prostitutes and beggars, aged women and the insane, Malte becomes conscious of

a huge, immovable mass, having a face that I saw was empty, quite without features and without memories; and it was gruesome that the clothes were like that of a corpse dressed for a coffin. The narrow, black cravat had been buckled in the same loose, impersonal way around the collar, and the coat showed that it had been put on the will-less body by other hands. The hand had been placed on the trousers exactly where it lay, and even the hair looked as if it had been combed by those women who lay out the dead, and was stiffly arranged, like the hair of stuffed animals.


The portions of Malte's family memories and introspection are no less absorbing. Rilke's imagery is often so striking that even the deepest burrowing in Malte's malaise and artistic self-doubt can rival the lurid street scenes. "I put my little strength together like money." "...but inside you it preciptates, hardens, takes on pointed, geometrical forms between your organs." "...it was a literal, unambiguous tale that destroyed the teeming maggots of my conjectures." Certainly the weightiest book I've read this year.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Ernie (new)

Ernie I'll be intrigued to hear what you think about this one. Rilke's one of my all-time favorite poets, and this is a novel that only a poet could write.


message 2: by Buck (new)

Buck All the Gothic melodrama got a little heavy for my taste, but the Paris sections were just astonishing. Remember that description of the half-demolished house with its exposed innards? Sublime.


message 3: by Ernie (new)

Ernie Glad to hear you liked it. I need to revisit it, perhaps in German this time, now that I speak some. Simply unforgettable images: the woman who looks up and leaves her face in her hands chills me even now.


message 4: by Ann (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Klefstad woo! yes, I gotta re-read it too. it's been years. I do remember some of those well-salted scenes . . .

and yeah, Ibsen was a big Joyce thing. As a Trinity kid he learned Norwegian so he could read him. the first of his many many languages.


James Your review reminded me why this novel has a special place in my memory. The connections with Baudelaire are worth pursuing and the comparison to Daedelus is fascinating. I've read the novel both in conjunction with Kierkegaard and again as a precursor to Camus, but must get back to it as you have opened new avenues of discovery.

Thanks,

Jim


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