Unreal City: Rilke’s Phantasmagoric Fiction

Unreal City: Rilke’s Phantasmagoric Fiction

Unreal City: Rilke’s Phantasmagoric Fiction

An appraisal of Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.


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.”

Ulsgaard was Malte’s paternal estate. The destitute poet was once the child of the Danish aristocracy, and beginning with this anecdote, his memories of an almost medieval childhood compete for space with the concrete of Paris. Malte’s grandfather, Chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge, died not in battle but in bed. In bed he was a volcano, swelling in death so much that he had to be moved onto the floor, where a voice no one had heard before erupted. He howled through the night for two months, becoming notorious in the vicinity, so that the villagers who once admired him began calling him “the Terrible.” This is a tall tale, but Malte writes it as if awed. He is comforted by the greatness of this “princely death,” which he juxtaposes to the deaths mass-produced in a modern hospital. In the pre-industrial past, “you had your death inside you as a fruit has its core.”

Humane it may be, but this elevation of the past is buttressed by an almost medieval nostalgia, recalling the sentiments of more overtly reactionary Modernists like T.S. Eliot. The first half of The Notebooks culminates in a visit to the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Malte describes the tapestries in loving detail, noting the postures of the lady with the unicorn and the attendant animals, and concludes with satisfaction that these tapestries are a static ideal: “Everything is here. Everything forever.”

What arrests Malte is the enduring stillness of the tapestries, so contrary to his roving, animating eye. It is sometimes intrusive, endowing objects with uncanny life; translators of Rilke’s prose must follow its lead and similarly endow Rilke’s images in ways that may seem inappropriate to the purist. With Burton Pike’s scholarly new translation of The Notebooks, it becomes apparent that Stephen Mitchell’s definitive translation of 1982 took liberties in order to bring Rilke to life in English.

Pike argues that Rilke’s prose “is not smooth,” and though he doesn’t make explicit claims against Mitchell, it must be Mitchell he has in mind when he writes, “It would be a mistake to translate [Rilke’s] German into a smoothed-over literary English.” In the first surreal moment of The Notebooks, on the first page, Mitchell has: “The street began to give off smells from all sides.” Pike copies the German word for word, changing only the word order: “The street began to smell from all sides.” Pike’s clipped translation surprises.

Strictness about word-for-word equivalence, and tense, saves Pike from some of Mitchell’s more inventive moments. When a thought occurs to Malte in a haunting, spooky way, Pike has: “It touched me almost spectrally.” This is awkward, but there is no good equivalent for the German adverb “gespenstisch.” Mitchell solves the problem another way, conjuring up a ghost on his own credit: “There was a thought which kept making my hair stand on end, as if I had been tapped on the shoulder by a ghost.”

Yet Pike’s loyalty to the German too often captures not the essential weirdness of Rilke’s prose but the relative weirdness of German syntax to English ears. When Pike translates “Gesicht ist Gesicht” as “face is face,” he adds a barking quality to what should be a matter-of-fact phrase. Mitchell’s “A face is a face” retains the bluntness of the original–he is always willing to add words that will keep Rilke fluid in English. And when Rilke’s prose defies perfect translation, Mitchell consistently finds his way into persuasive English. Malte’s meditation on faces eventually leads him down an empty street. Here’s Pike: “The street was too empty, its emptiness got bored and pulled my foot out from under and flipped it back and forth, this way and that, like a wooden shoe.” And here’s Mitchell: “The street was too empty; its emptiness had gotten bored and pulled my steps out from under my feet and clattered around in them, all over the street, as if they were wooden clogs.”

The upshot of this imagery is that a woman, slumped at the other end of the street, sits up startled, accidentally leaving her face where it lay, in her hands. This makes sense only if we understand that Malte’s footsteps, in the emptiness, have echoed up and down the street.

It is Rilke’s hyperanimate imagery, with all of its moving parts, that ties his language in knots, and the achievement of Mitchell’s admittedly smooth translation has been to retie those knots, in English that holds. In the long warp of the novel, Mitchell serves Rilke better. Though Pike’s differences with Mitchell are instructive, Pike does not supplant him.

The tapestries that hung so self-sufficiently at the end of part one of the novel become a backdrop for social criticism in part two. Malte seems to be merely historicizing them at first, noting that these tapestries used to hang in a private house, among the descendants of the fifteenth-century knight who commissioned them. But then he turns and notices that there are girls in the museum, modern girls with sketch pads who, like the tapestries, have moved out of the old houses and now live independently, with no one to fasten the backs of their dresses. These aristocratic girls dimly recognize that the lady in the tapestry represents everything that would have been theirs if family and religion and feminine passivity were still triumphant.

There is something about old legends of unrequited love that encourages Malte, the straining poet. His idols are lovelorn women who finally transcend their man–women whose “torment suddenly turned into a bitter, icy magnificence, which nothing could confine.” When Malte hit rock bottom in Paris, he developed a similar theory about beggars: that, like saints, they are attended by angels in their seclusion. Suffering perhaps, in his urban alienation, from delusions of grandeur, Malte champions the hermetic genius–whether it be a charismatic beggar, or Beethoven in his deaf isolation, or some Avignonese pope.

Everything Malte does, dredging up old legends, could be read as a relentless comparison between the European present and the European past. The city disappoints, its hospitals dehumanize, its streets harrow the sensitive poet. He casts himself back to the dust-clogged halls of Ulsgaard. He buries his imagination in the old costume closet and in his mother’s lap. It is typical of Malte that his metaphor for men’s neglect of women figures a scrap of fine lace that lies wrinkled among a boy’s broken toys.

Rilke fetishizes the past, to be sure. In 1963 Elizabeth Hardwick lamented in the inaugural issue of The New York Review of Books that Rilke’s model of life, “Art as religion…the austere dedication, sustained by the hope that poems and novels would save us,” was passing from New York City. (“From patience, at last,” Hardwick continued, sounding a bit like Malte, “they had perfection. And a security, a fringe benefit, a pension fund such as one can hardly imagine nowadays.”) But Rilke was always passing on. His sense of the past was creative, nutritive and eccentric. Some critics read the historical scenes of The Notebooks as filler or, in dramatic terms, as writing exercises on Malte’s part. Childhood ghosts and stories of knights–and a mad king who pressed an amulet to his chest so steadily that a purulent indentation opened in his flesh–puffed out from a diseased imagination. Because he no longer owns an inherited house, Malte complains that “I have no roof over me” and grouches that “my old furniture is rotting in the barn where I left it.” He could seem spoiled.

But Rilke ends the book with a long retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, and the moral of his story is not that the prodigal son was spoiled. Malte in fact applauds the prodigal son, speculating that he left home because he did not want to be loved, and that he did not want to be loved because he wanted to achieve something higher. One of the darkest obscurities of The Notebooks is the question of how Malte came to Paris penniless. We learn that his family sold their house and moved to Copenhagen, but the rest goes unexplained. Malte’s sympathy for the prodigal son shines backward to encompass the modern girls, alone in the Musée de Cluny, and even the homeless beggars and saints of his most fevered notions. All these strive together, in Malte’s sense of history and in his language of solitary work.

About the prodigal son: “I see his whole existence, which was then beginning its long love toward God, that silent work undertaken without thought of ever reaching its goal.” About the young girls and their forebears: “Over the centuries they have taken upon themselves the entire task of love.” About himself, the poet contemplating the beggar: “I had undertaken the task of imagining him, and was sweating from the effort. For I had to make him as you make a dead man, who has lost all the proofs and all the constituent parts of his existence, who has to be achieved entirely within you.” Even the ghosts who, ironically, enliven the quiet halls of his childhood, seem to quiver with the effort of their vigil.

Love and death are the two themes, the twin heights, that command The Notebooks. Looking back over the bulging, gathered solidity of Malte’s efforts, we can discern a mind that is anything but spoiled. The Chamberlain’s overbearing death, which grew in him like a fruit, resembles the unrequited love–and in the case of the prodigal son, the something beyond love–that flies past its target, with nothing to stop it. Ripeness is not all: it is too much; it never quits. Even dumb objects are bursting with kinetic potential. The lovelorn ghosts have outgrown their lives. Malte regrets the way he grew up, the abnormality. He tries to accommodate himself to the city. It is an effort.

Reading The Notebooks, it is important to remember which half Rilke made up. He had lived and suffered in Paris, from 1902 to 1910, while researching a biography of Rodin and pursuing other projects. But he was not Danish, and his family was not nearly as noble as the Brigges. He invented all this romance, not to show up modern Paris but to delve back, to find room to plant himself for the leap into a future that he so doubtfully contemplated.

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