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The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I found a pdf version on line, translated by William Needham.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not a Beach and Public Transport book. However, I read it noisy environments, on the beach, at the laundromat or with children playing around. From the first page, Rilke wrapped me in the silken bubble of his words and the bubbling of the outside world vanished in a quiet puff. Here are the opening lines:


September 11th, rue Toullier

Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in. I’ve been out. I’ve seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: ‘Maison d’Accouchement’. Fine. They’ll deliver her child; they’re able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: ‘Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire’. I didn’t actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: ‘Asyle de nuit’. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn’t expensive there.

We are here, in Paris wandering in the city streets with Malte Laurids Brigge. He’s a Danish citizen who lives poorly in Paris. To conjure up his anguish, he wanders restlessly in the streets and writes endlessly in his cheap room. He calls back childhood memories. There is no linear construction here, the memories come at random, in small scenes, images from the past intertwined with tales from the city. He goes to the library, mostly to read poetry and to feel in communion with other readers.

I am sitting here reading a poet. There are a great number of people in the room but one doesn’t notice them. They’re inside the books. Sometimes they move about in the pages like people turning over in their sleep between two dreams.

Malte’s childhood memories are phantasmagorical. They are set in old and strange castles filled with bizarre relatives. His mother was probably a little unbalanced and his rememberance is full of ghostly appearances and eccentric diners. As a reader, I couldn’t know if it was due to the perception of a child whose imagination was wild or who built his own explanation of situations he couldn’t grasp or if the memories were blurred. The castles are daunting with many rooms and corridors and remains of the past. It reminded me the atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes.

Malte suffers from over-sensitivity. He perceives more than the common man. Where we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, each perception pigeon-holed in its own category, he can mix sensations. I thought he could taste sounds, smell landscapes and taste the air around him. (The smell of the flowers was an unintelligible medley like a lot of different voices all at the same time.) With his extra perception, he feels the traces of the past in Paris, the remains of the people who lived there and especially their suffering.

The existence of the horrible in every atom of air. You breathe it in without being able to see it, but it condenses inside you, becomes hard, assumes pointed geometrical forms among your organs; for all the torments and horrors that happened at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating rooms, under the arches of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tenacious permanence which endures for its own self and depends, jealous of everything else that exists, on its own terrible reality.

I can understand that, it happens to me sometimes when I visit places full of history or just old buildings. Every time I go to the Musée Jacquemart André, I almost expect to see Marcel Proust step out of a room. I’m not sure I could visit a concentration camp without being overwhelmed by what happened there. I’d feel like the people who died there are still lingering in the buildings claiming not to be forgotten.

Malte is disquieted by many things. He fears death and fights against this particular fear by reading the tales of famous death or of the death of relatives.

This excellent hotel [the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris] is very old. In the days of King Clovis people were already dying here in what few beds there were. Now there are 559 beds to die in. It’s natural mass-production. With such a high number as that a single death doesn’t get the same attention; however, that isn’t what matters. Quantity is what matters. Who today still cares whether or not a death has been well put together? Nobody. Even the rich who, after all, can afford to attend to the details of dying are starting to grow slipshod and apathetic; the desire to have a death all of one’s own is becoming more and more infrequent. Only a while and it’ll become as rare as a life of one’s own.

He thinks people don’t take their death seriously when it is in them, lying from the beginning, waiting for its time to come. He seeks loneliness, he refuses to take part in the affairs of the world. Objects seem aggressive to him from time to time when his imagination takes the power.

It struck me that Rilke (1875-1926), Proust (1871-1922) and Kakfa (1883-1924) were contemporaries. I found Proust in Rilke when he describes Malte’s anguish. This passage reminded me the first night of the Narrator in his hotel room in Balbec (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)

This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window.

Malte’s thoughts about Time, tickling, rich and yet easily spent also brought me back to Proust. I enjoyed the story of Nicolaï Kousmitch, Malte’s former neighbour. Nicolaï once calculated how many seconds he would still live on a 50 years basis. The number was such that he felt really rich. But doing a weekly accounts of time expenses, he soon realises that time goes by very quickly, that he’s not sure to make the best of it. Nicolaï becomes acutely aware of the time passing by, sensing the seconds fading away in a cold draft and the Earth rotating. The notion of Time is very present in Proust too.

I found Proust in a specific passage when the young Malte is feverish. It reminded me of the Narrator’s constant illness, his need to rest in afternoons, his thoughts wandering. Malte also encounters sleepless nights, just like the Narrator. I’m currently reading Proust, so the images are fresh in my mind and this one also sounded very Proustian to me:

It must have been one of those early mornings that July brings—hours when things are rested and there’s something joyful and spontaneous happening everywhere. Millions of small irrepressible movements collect in the most convincing mosaic of Being; things leap and merge into one another and soar high in the sky, and their coolness makes the shadows distinct and gives the sun a light spiritual appearance. In the garden there is nothing that stands out from the rest, the effect is overall and you need to be in everything and to not miss any of it.

My memories of Kafka are more distant. But I couldn’t help thinking about him when I read about fears, frightening objects and of course the castles.

The three of them are really cerebral. Many things happen in their minds and they look into themselves to understand the mystery of life, to cope with their disquiet and their panic attacks. They have a rich inner world and it’s the source of their art. They differ on one point: religion. Rilke often refers to God, the love of God humans can feel. It’s absent in Proust – I don’t think he was religious and mysticism wasn’t appealing to him. I don’t remember it as being essential in Kafka.

I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league. I felt like I only scratched its surface, without understanding its deep meaning. I didn’t fully understand the last 50 pages, I got lost. I’m not very good at abstract thinking when it doesn’t involve figures. I grasped something about love and that being loved was being imprisoned and loving someone was putting them in a prison too. But that’s it. There are also a lot of literary references. I caught some of them (Verlaine, Baudelaire, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun) but I missed the others. Who is Bettina? Brentano’s wife? I’m not well-read in German literature and it prevented me from diving further in Rilke’s thinking.

I’m glad I found an English translation online, I have dozens of quotes and I would have felt really frustrated not to give a glimpse of Rilke’s incredible style. I’m not a great reader of poetry but here, it’s everywhere, filling the text with wonderful images, adding an extra dimension to his thoughts. He managed to pass on some of his extra-vision, the gift artists have to look at reality with different eyes.

  1. August 9, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    I’m so glad you read this – I’ll link to your review when I have the readalong at the end of the month. This is one of my favourite novels of all time, although I admit the ending is difficult. By the third time or so that I read it, I had some clearer feelings about it, but what it means will perhaps always be ambiguous and elusive. I just love the way that Malte moves through different kinds of storytelling to try to find a form that will calm his anxiety – from realism in the city, to the memories of his childhood to, finally, the parable form that does seem to produce the miracle of reassurance he seeks. There’s something about this story that is just so unique; what Rilke does here I’ve never really seen any other author do.


    • August 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      I didn’t know when I was supposed to post on it so I just did as I pleased.
      It’s a book that deserves to be re-read at different times of one’s life. I think it’s not a book you can read when you’re too young. I wonder what my response to it would be in a decade for example.
      I wonder how close Malte is from Rilke. There’s that wish to be self-sufficient, to find in himself the strength to move on and the answers to his questions which reminds me the advise Rilke gave to Franz Kappuss in his letters.


      • August 10, 2011 at 5:39 pm

        I haven’t read Rilke (shameful, I know). As I read the review, I started to wonder when this was written as I saw some connections with Proust. Then I hit the passage in which you mentioned the similarities between the two.


        • August 10, 2011 at 8:27 pm

          Sorry I wasn’t more explicit about his bio.
          After reading Litlove’s and Caroline’s comments, I wonder if I’m not imagining the connections with Proust.
          It’s not the part of Proust related to his meeting the aristocracy and going to fancy diner parties.
          It’s the part about his anguish, his perception of the world and the fact that we are fleeting.

          I have another quote that might help you decide if you want to read him or not:

          Thus, seeing it now, in a version of my childhood memories, it’s not a building, rather it’s all split up: a room here, a room there, and here a section of passageway that doesn’t link these two rooms but has simply been preserved, a fragment. Similarly it’s all scattered about within me, — the rooms, the staircases which opened onto the ground floor with such great elaborateness and other narrow circular stairways in whose darkness one travelled like blood through veins; the tower rooms, the high balconies, the unexpected galleries one was urged along from the little entrance door:–all that is still within me and will never cease being within me. It’s as if the image of this house had plunged into me from an infinite height and smashed to pieces on the foundation of my being.


  2. August 10, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Another one that I read at a very young age… I remember I loved it but didn’t find any similarities with Proust at all although I read them almost at the same time. I know I identified a lot with Malte… I said before, this is one I’m afraid to re-read, I’m afraid I would spoil it.


    • August 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm

      Some books are special and we don’t want to read them again, fearing we wouldn’t like them anymore or we could discover they aren’t good literature after all.
      Not a chance that it happens with this one. It’s too good to discover it’s bad literature and so rich that your new reading would live its own way in a parallel world, not touching your first impressions.
      I envy you to be able to read it in the original. (which makes me think I have no complain about the translation, for once)


  3. August 11, 2011 at 5:25 am

    I wonder whether the Proust association came from the fact you read it in French?


    • August 11, 2011 at 5:35 am

      I made the association too, Caroline, and I haven’t read Rilke.


    • August 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm

      I don’t know if it comes from the language. It would be interesting if Max or Richard read it too as Proust is fresh in their minds too.
      Rilke and Proust don’t have the same style. They share something in their sensitivity and perception.
      Does the German translate well into French?


  4. August 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    I do think you can make productive links between Proust and Rilke. I always think of Proust’s long extended novel as the dramatisation of consciousness, what it is to experience, to forget, to remember. Rilke is working in very similar territory, I think, only his emotional responses to experience are different. He wants to master the overpowering effects of the present, and chooses to go back to his memories to do so, and then onto storytelling itself. For Proust the telling of the story is all bound up with the way it is remembered (it becomes better, more the essence of itself than an experience in the present can ever be). But the same concerns are apparent, just in different permutations.


  5. August 16, 2011 at 8:47 am

    I almost had to smile when I read “I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league”, because you give such an interesting and rich review of the text. I haven’t read this book yet, but really want to after your beautiful introduction to it!

    To me the book seems to have a lot of similarities to Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” (1880). (Hunger recounts the life of a starving young man whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusionary existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis – like Malte, he suffers from over-sensitivity)

    Maybe expressionistic would be a suitable term for this literary style.


    • August 16, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting. I hope you’ll come back if you read it, I’m interested in your response to it.
      I don’t know Hunger, I’ll look it up, thanks for the reference.
      According to the cover of the book, I think you’re right about “expressionistic”.


  6. August 16, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    P.S: concerning “The Notebooks…” cover – I’m spending a week in Vienna = Egon Schiele land 😉


    • August 16, 2011 at 9:59 pm

      I know : I’ve been to your blog 🙂
      Lucky you, I’d love to visit Vienna, it must be beautiful.


  7. August 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I recently missed an Egon Schiele exhibition here in London. Most annoying.

    Rilke’s not an author I’m terribly familiar with. I know the name, but that could just be from reading your previous Rilke review. This sounds interesting. I wonder if there are links to German expressionist cinema? Not directly, but a grappling with similar themes and perhaps a degree of similarity in response. Probably not but the thought is intriguing. Influences sometimes come from, or go to, other art forms after all.

    I also thought there was a certain irony in your saying it was out of your league after writing such a thoughtful review.

    Knut Hamsun. Shameful I haven’t read him yet.

    On an unrelated note, Vienna is splendid. Absolutely beautiful. When I went there I stayed at the Hotel Sacher, where the cake was as you would hope. We ate at a restaurant called the Drei Hussaren (spelling?) which was old fashioned but courteous and which had exceptionnally good food. I’d love to go back, though I fear it’ll be a while before I do.


    • August 21, 2011 at 8:53 pm

      I think you’d like Rilke. If you want another take on this one, Litlove will be reviewing it by the end of the month. It’s the third time she reads it and her post should be interesting. Funnily, I’ve found some Rilke in Sodome et Gomorrhe.
      I’d love to go to Vienna too, that was a possibility for this Spring’s escapade but we ended up in England instead. So many places I’d want to visit.


  8. August 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    Yes, my list of places to go to is lengthy as well. I think I need to reread your other Rilke post, particularly as I can’t find a copy of this one yet in English.


    • August 25, 2011 at 7:45 am

      It’s available on the kindle, for you at least. (I can’t buy kindle books on Amazon UK only on Amazon US. I tried Amazon Germany, no way)
      Letters to a Young Poet are beautiful and sensitive. I had a audio version and the actor (Denis Podalydes) added an extra dimension to the text.
      I have an excerpt of his letters to Lou Andreas Salome at home.


  9. leroyhunter
    August 25, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    I’m only reading this now Emma, but what a great review. I think you do yourself a great disservice by saying “it’s out of my league” – just like you did in your Joyce piece. Seems to me like you’ve gotten very close to the essence of both books. I’m definitely on the lookout for this after reading your thoughts.

    I have Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet on the shelf but the right mood for them hasn’t presented itself yet. I’ve never read anything by him. The links you make to Proust and Kafka are irresistible though.

    About places: I was in Munich a few years ago, and took a trip to visit Dachau. It was a grim, unsettling experience. You wonder about the rightness or “validity” of such a trip, but I suppose by extension one should doubt the exercise of reading Primo Levi and other survivor accounts, which I don’t. There were groups of what I assume were older schoolkids there that day as well, I found their evident ignorance or unconcern about the place troubling: they were chattering, larking about, swinging off bits of the camp. It seemed wrong, but then again, it’s not a church, is it? Maybe it’s right to be light-hearted in the face of history’s evil remnants. I felt a bit angry about it at the time though. I suppose they were only kids.

    On a lighter note: my parents love Vienna, so add me to the list of wannabe visitors….


    • August 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

      You’re very kind but I really missed a lot of this book and it was a bit frustrating.
      Letters to a Young Poet deserve to be read one by one in a quiet room, just before bed time, to have a peaceful sleep. They’re brillant and soothing. I call them “worry-wipers”.

      I don’t wonder about the rightness to a trip to Dachau or Auchwitz. I wonder how I could stand it as I had a strong reaction when I read Primo Levi and Jorge Semprun. The reaction of these students is strange but it is a way to handle the emotion too. Romain Gary got so sick when he visited a concentration camp that Jean Seberg was really worried. After that, as an artist, he wrote La Danse de Genghis Cohn, his most Jewish novel.


  10. September 11, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    If you want to know more about this book, I highly recommend Litlove’s review.


    I’m glad I wrote mine before reading hers or I wouldn’t have dared publish anything. Now the kind commentors who denied that that book was a little out of my league will understand what I meant.


  1. September 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm
  2. August 22, 2013 at 12:16 am
  3. November 29, 2013 at 11:41 pm
  4. December 29, 2018 at 11:00 am

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