Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I first encountered back in 2011, is known more for his poetry, but he did have the odd foray into prose. One of those books turned out to be one of the most famous works of German-language literature, a wrenching tale of angst and Weltschmerz – perfect for German Literature Month 😉
Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) is less a novel than a collection of thoughts from a young Germanic nobleman living in Paris. Twenty-eight years old, a man with a slightly gloomy bent, our friend spends part of his time depicting what he sees around him in his new home, casting a pessimistic eye over the beautiful city:
“So, also hierher kommen die Leute, um zu leben, ich würde eher meinen es stürbe sich hier.”
“So, this is where people come to live, I’d have thought it was more suited to dying.” ***
A rather unsatisfied tourist, he’s not a man to see the best in his surroundings…
However, while the book starts with his reflections on Paris, the majority of the text is spent in the past. Malte prefers to wallow in memories of his childhood, describing gothic mansions, dead relatives and ghosts strolling through the middle of dinner parties. There’s also a beautiful woman, Abelone, who continually crops up in his reflections – could she be the reason for his mood and the departure from his homeland? With Rilke, there are plenty of questions, but the answers are slightly more difficult to find.
Die Aufzeichnungen… is a mainstay of German literature, and it’s easy to see why as it has all the features of a classic. The writing is excellent, laying out a range and depth of ideas and transporting the reader from turn-of-the-century Paris to provincial Germany decades earlier. There’s also a ghost or two, always welcome in a classic novel – oh, and it’s quite a challenging read to boot 😉
Malte is a young man looking for himself in Paris, and this theme of identity pervades the work. Having lost much of what makes up a man’s personality, though, he spends his time looking back to find himself. This begins in his childhood with the discovery of antique clothes and costumes in a disused corner of his spacious home. Unpacking dresses, greatcoats, scarves and costume masks, the boy is able to entertain himself for hours; until, that is, he sees himself in a mirror, at which point this game of altered identities takes a sinister twist.
This obsession with faces and identity follows Malte into adulthood, with Rilke frequently returning to the theme of faces as masks, sometimes literally:
“Die Frau erschrak und hob sich aus sich ab, zu schnell, zu heftig, so daß das gesicht in den zwei Händen bliebe. Ich konnte es darin liegen sehen, seine hohle Form.”
“The woman started and came to herself, too quickly, too violently, so that her face stayed in her hands. I could see it lying there, its hollow form.” ***
Returning to his childhood, the young man allows the reader to see where his fixation with faces may have started. At one point, the young Malte takes a midnight stroll through the great halls of a country house, looking for the portrait of a girl he knows. What he finds are rows upon rows of family likenesses, each with traits in common, many reminding him of his own features.
The fixation with his childhood becomes understandable when we realise that all this has disappeared. Although Malte dreams of returning, his family is gone, the old houses sold to strangers – his roots have all been torn out:
“Und man hat niemand und nichts und fährt in der Welt herum mit einem Koffer und mit einer Bücherkiste und eigentlich ohne Neugierde. Was für ein Leben ist das eigentlich: ohne Haus, ohne ererbte Dinge, ohne Hunde. Hätte man doch wenigstens seine Erinnerungen. Aber wer hat die? Wäre die Kindheit da, sie ist wie vergraben.”
“And you have no-one and nothing and drift around the world with a suitcase and a box of books and in truth without any interest. What kind of a life is that: no house, no inherited items, no dogs. If only you had your memories, at least. But who has those? If only your childhood were here, it is as if it has been buried.” ***
Having run away to find himself, he merely realises he’s more lost than ever, causing his mental turmoil and focus on writing of the past. And when I say mental turmoil, it soon becomes clear that it may actually be mental illness…
Die Aufzeichnungen… was published in 1910, and the style of the work is clearly modernist. The more you read, the more the connections with writers like Joyce, Woolf and Proust become obvious (the Proustian comparisons are particularly apt in the detailed sections on Malte’s childhood). However, there’s also a family resemblance to an earlier Germanic text, with Rilke’s young man an older, more subdued (and less melodramatic) version of Goethe’s young Werther. In terms of the structure, the sketches, tangents and random stories we struggle to fit into Malte’s own story reminded me a little of Joyce (at which point I’d have to say that reading this on a Kindle is not the best of ideas – some sections stretch on forever with no apparent link to our depressive friend…).
Very much the work of a poet in prose, the book constantly shows Rilke’s eye for detail, along with a lack of regard for plot. He’s able to conjure up smells, sounds and descriptions at will:
“Und ihre Gesichter waren voll von dem Licht, das aus den Schaubuden kam, und das Lachen quoll aus ihren Munden wie Eiter aus offenen Stellen.”
“And their faces were full of the light coming from the performance stalls, and laughter oozed from their mouths like pus from open wounds.”
Which is a rather unique simile… In fact, my copyright-free Kindle edition (which, for once, includes sections highlighted by previous readers of the book) shows that there are choice quotes on most pages – I certainly felt spoilt for choice when selecting a few passages for my review.
In truth, Die Aufzeichnungen… is one of those books you don’t ‘get’ first time around (especially when you’re reading it unannotated in German). I suspect that this is one to revisit, to reflect on, to discuss and read discussions about; perhaps in a few years’ time (with a proper edition), it’ll make slightly more sense. Then again, it might be a book that requires a lifetime to really get to the bottom of. As I said – a classic 😉