Those who read it young remember a flickering phantasmagoria, a sequence of real and surreal scenes reflected on the inner waters of the poet’s imagination. Even the title of Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, published in 1910, suggests an actual notebook, a reservoir of images meant for use in poems. Malte Brigge’s great themes are the same as Rilke’s, and Malte’s attempts to think them through can seem tentative, like so many rope ladders flung up into empty air. But the great poetry cycles that Rilke completed a decade later, the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, circle around their themes in like manner, not tapering straight toward a point but blocking out the massive slopes that, each in turn, seem to foreshorten the peak of a very real, solid mountain. Despite appearances, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is highly structured, and upon careful reading becomes, definitively, a novel.
The Notebooks comes from the epicenter of Modernism, discordant and fragmentary. And its reactions to the contradictions of its moment, like those of many other works of romantic spleen, could uncharitably be called overreactions. Its famous set pieces of urban alienation come early. Young Malte, arrived in Paris at age 28, wants to test his sense of vocation against the city. Like many young writers, he may have confused being a poet with being a Parisian. “I am learning to see,” he assures himself, though his identity crisis as an urban newcomer gets in the way. His vision is physical; he claims that it bounces back from the pavements and shop windows and breaks open new spaces within him. But when he tries to describe what he sees, Malte projects his angst onto the men and women around him. He sees multitudes every day; the crowds shock him, and he begins to find in their faces signs not only of urban wear and tear but of uncertainty. Each person, he perceives, has several faces. Because he is a poet, he makes his metaphor literal, observing that “there are people who wear the same face for years; naturally it wears out, gets dirty, splits at the seams, stretches like gloves worn during a long journey.” Other people put on a new face every day, using them up, until they realize in the middle of life that they have wasted their beauty. So the axis of urban misery is stretched between the cheerless passants and the decadent flâneurs.
Sketches like these can be enjoyed on their own, framed by their jotted criticality and containing Rilke’s signature imagery. At moments, Malte the confused youth shifts into Rilke the mature writer. A painting by Hieronymus Bosch becomes, in Malte’s description, pure Rilke: “Things meant for limited and ordinary uses stretch out and stroke one another, lewd and curious, quivering in the random lechery of distraction. Those kettles that walk around steaming, those pistons that start to think, and the indolent funnel that squeezes into a hole for its pleasure.” In one famous scene, Malte observes the bare remaining wall of a torn-down tenement, its wallpaper still showing, discolored by the open channel of the old toilet pipe. The life of the vanished tenants persists vividly on these walls, but once again, Malte animates his metaphor and makes it come to life:
The stubborn life of these rooms had not let itself be trampled out. It was still there; it clung to the nails that were left, stood on the narrow remnant of flooring, crouched under the corner beams where a bit of interior still remained…. It was in every flayed strip of surface; it was in the damp blisters on the lower edges of the wallpaper; it fluttered in the torn-off shreds, and oozed from the foul stains which had appeared long before.
Though he notices all this, Malte claims he ran away from the wall instantly, horrified.
For the wall is not only a set piece but an increment in the dramatic arc of The Notebooks. Malte is stoking himself, fanning his fear–his angsty description of “viscous” crowds, a page later, is a telltale indulgence, the mark of an immature poet. Not that Malte is a ham–Rilke makes him repeat himself occasionally, as if paranoid, and works in ample detail of the poet’s very real poverty. Yet each section of The Notebooks must be taken not just as a fictional diary but as an artistic effort designed by its fictional writer to solve some emotional problem and reach some height of beauty and insight. He makes this explicit once, early on. Noting that “one must take some action against fear,” he writes a short, luminous story about the heroic death of his grandfather and declares afterward with satisfaction that “I have taken some action against fear. I sat up all night and wrote; now I am as tired as after a long walk through the fields of Ulsgaard.”