The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Although I’ve been meaning for years to read this novel by one of my favorite poets, I only just got around to it, prompted by last week’s The Blind Owl I heard that Hedayat had been influenced by the Rilke novel, and I could see that. Both plunge the reader deep into the mind of a troubled young man, seducing us with poetic prose that draws us in ever deeper. Rilke’s novel, however, is not a plunge into madness, but an existential journey.

Twenty-eight-year-old Malte leads a solitary life in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. He walks the streets, dismayed by the poverty and despair of the people he sees. Death is all around him: a man dying near him in a cafe, a young girl dying in front of his eyes on a trolley. He says, “I have no roof over me, and it is raining into my eyes.”

He takes refuge in libraries, museums, and his own bare room. He reconstructs his childhood, when only his mother was powerful enough to dispel the night fears. Daytime fears abound: a mysterious hand he encounters under a table as he searches for a dropped crayon, costumes and masks he dresses up in that suck his soul away. Two encounters with dead women, one a visible manifestation and one, a story of his mother’s, only felt—but there was the dog’s behavior. And death: he says that we each carry our death inside us “as a fruit has its core.” He movingly recounts the terrible deaths of his grandfather, father and mother.

Masks become a motif throughout the novel, as Malte determines how to live and how to love. They recur in various ways, as decorations on the wall, a death mask of Beethoven, the false front certain other historical figures have put on, the world itself. He asks, “Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of this life?”

He explores the lives of various poets, saints, kings, and others, always in beautifully evocative language. Here he is, after pondering a number of women whose stories have come down to us, famous for their grief at having lost their great loves, thinking suddenly of a childhood memory.

I found a jewel-case; it was two handsbreadths large, fan-shaped, with a border of flowers stamped into the dark-green morocco. I opened it: it was empty. I can say this now after so many years. But at that time, when I had opened it, I saw only what its emptiness consisted of: velvet, a small mound of light-colored, no longer fresh velvet; and the jewel-groove which, empty and brighter by just a trace of melancholy, vanished into it. For a moment this was bearable. But to those who, as women who are loved, remain behind, it is perhaps always like this.

He turns to love, requited and not. I remember a long time ago a friend of mine pointing out how much easier it is to be the one who loves rather than the one who is loved. Malte takes this insight even further, declaring that the Prodigal Son left home because he could not bear to be so loved by his family. He imagines the freedom of running away through fields escaping even the dogs, and preferring the harshness of life on his own. “What were all the darknesses of that time, compared to the thick sorrow of those embraces in which everything was lost? Didn’t you wake up feeling that you had no future? Didn’t you walk around drained of all meaning, without the right to even the slightest danger?”

I thought of the two novels I read recently which featured a child mysteriously resistant to family ties who runs away. In The Stone Carvers it was a son who ran away and ran away until finally he didn’t come back. In The Orchardist it was an adopted daughter who goes off with the horse wranglers every season until she too does not return. This beautiful novel by Rilke helps me understand these other two novels better and also myself.

In the Introduction, William H. Gass ties Malte’s story closely to Rilke’s own biography. Yet he also clarifies how much editing and revision went into the final version. We who write fiction may use elements from our lives but using imagination and passion we craft them into something whole and shining, or try to. Rilke succeeds brilliantly.

What novel have you read whose poetic prose you particularly noticed?

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