Paris is a difficult place,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a friend on New Year’s Eve, 1902. “And the beautiful things here and there do not quite compensate for the cruelty of its streets and the monstrosity of its people.” Then 26, the writer had recently moved to the city from the German countryside, leaving behind his new wife and their young child. His plan was to work there for a year and send money to his family, which had been relying on a trust fund that his father had abruptly withdrawn. For reasons that remain hard to pin down, however, he stayed for six years, without warming to the cruel streets and monstrous people or, for that matter, earning much money. It was a period of loneliness and frustration, during which he was wracked with doubts about his art. And yet a part of him seemed obscurely drawn to its hardships. In “Turning Point,” a poem about spiritual growth, he quotes as an epigraph these lines from the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Kassner: “The road from intensity to greatness / passes through sacrifice.” His fictional record of Paris would likewise turn on ascetic withdrawal and renewal.

Rilke began work on The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) soon after arriving in the French capital and labored over it for the next six years. Its long gestation contrasts with his poetry, which came to him sporadically, apparently without effort, in bursts of divine inspiration. (The Duino Elegies was composed in the span of a few weeks, in 1910 and 1921.) Not that the prose narrative required much research or preparation on his part: Framed as the journals of a young poet in Paris, it hews closely to his experiences and draws freely, at times verbatim, from his letters. The project’s difficulty was rather internal in nature. Along with the New Poems (1908), which were composed during the same period, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is Rilke’s first mature book, in which he began to transmute private obsessions into the themes that would shape his oeuvre: the mysteries of perception, the dilemmas of love, and the search for spiritual meaning in a godless world. Malte’s journal can be understood as dramatizing that process. “Each section of The Notebooks must be taken not just as a fictional diary,” Benjamin Lytal argued in a 2008 essay for The Nation, “but as an artistic effort designed by its fictional writer to solve some emotional problem and reach some height of beauty and insight.”

As much a series of prose poems as it is a novel, The Notebooks matches the literary heights of Rilke’s finest verse. The book is doubly interesting as a document that “comes from the epicenter of Modernism” and that consciously responds to the “contradictions of that moment,” as Lytal noted. Disturbed by the sights, sounds, and smells of Paris, which send him into a crisis, Rilke’s alter ego provides a sensory account of urban modernity that complements the psychic and social accounts of Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin. That Malte’s passionate grousing about the industrial metropolis shades into a nostalgia for the feudal provinces only adds to the interest Edward G. Snow’s new translation is an opportunity to revisit this elusive masterpiece, whose “close-knit prose,” Rilke believed, “was a schooling for me and an advance that had to come so that later I could write everything else.”

Rilke arrived in Paris hoping that a wealthy benefactor would house and sponsor him. When that didn’t pan out, he settled for a bohemian, downwardly mobile lifestyle, moving from one hotel room to another, without finding a regular job. (“I am poor. I do not suffer from poverty because at bottom it refuses me nothing.”) His wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, joined him a year later, but their marriage soon fell apart, after which he more or less abandoned their daughter. He spent his days in libraries and museums, immersed in Baudelaire, Ibsen, Cézanne, and above all Rodin, about whom he was commissioned to write a monograph by a small German publisher. He befriended the master and was even hired as his secretary, only to be dismissed within months, “like a thieving servant,” over a misunderstanding. The ordeal no doubt hardened Rilke’s aversion to honest labor. Thereafter he relied on aristocratic patrons, who hosted him for long spells in chalets and châteaus across Europe, most famously in Duino on the Adriatic coast.

The young Rilke was a gifted if unworldly poet, with a few gushing pamphlets to his name and a dubious interest in Russian spiritualism. (“It was as if he saw the people, actions, and objects of the world as basins into which he might empty the apparently boundless bladder of his being,” William Gass said of the adolescent poetry.) His studies in Paris brought him down to earth and gave his florid sensibility an acid bath. From Cézanne and Rodin, he learned the importance of material observation and, conversely, of handling language as a material. (“Only things talk to me, Rodin’s things, the things on the gothic cathedrals, classical things.”) Baudelaire and Ibsen taught him to hate bourgeois culture with pride. (“I am beginning to see people, even noticing the ‘animal faces’ Ibsen saw, the snouts and sets of teeth; I am learning to feel true aversion and antipathy.”) These influences come together in New Poems, a sequence of dense, searching, and persistently visual lyrics that blur the line between observer and observed, as in “Black Cat” (quoted here from Stephen Mitchell’s 1982 translation):

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the olden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

The same formal qualities are evident in The Notebooks, the only piece of long fiction Rilke wrote. Initially titled Journal of My Other Self, the book is more than semi-autobiographical, although its narrator is Danish (rather than German) and from a noble (rather than bourgeois) family—changes that can be attributed, respectively, to Rilke’s veneration for the Scandinavian writer Jens Peter Jacobsen and to his own blue-blooded pretentions. Then again, character and social drama are not the actual interests of the novel, which is marked by a “fundamental lack in ego development and object relations,” as the scholar Andreas Huyssen has noted. Rather, the narrative draws its power from Malte’s intense, at times hallucinatory evocation of two settings, Paris and rural Denmark. His contrasting responses to them, in turn, give the story its dramatic arc. Neither a Künstlerroman nor a bildungsroman, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is more a psychic geography, a record of solitude and disquiet.

The 28-year-old Malte is a curious protagonist. Unlike the provincial heroes of classic realist novels of the time, he is largely without romantic, professional, or political ambition, though he reflects on love, gripes about poverty, and expresses a discreet feudalism, as when he exclaims: “Oh, what a happy fate, to sit in the quiet room of an ancestral house among endless calm, settled things and hear outside the airy, light green garden the first wrens tuning up and in the distance the village clock.” Nor is he a flaneur, like his idol Baudelaire. Better described as a loner or an outsider, Malte is at once observant and watchful, unsure of his place in the city and beguiled by its effect on him. “I am learning to see,” he announces early on. “I don’t know how it’s happened, but everything enters me more deeply now and keeps on going where it used to stop.” Sounds likewise have a physical impact: “Electric trains speed madly through my room. Automobiles drive over me.” Smells assail him “from all sides.”

The novel opens with a series of extraordinary urban set pieces. Walking into a parade in the opposite direction—as if swimming against the tide of society—Malte describes “people wedged together, one jammed into another, so that no movement forward was possible, only a soft, gentle back-and-forth motion, as if they were copulating while standing up.” Of an old man feeding birds, he reflects: “If there were no onlookers and he was allowed to stand there long enough, I am certain that an angel would suddenly appear and, overcoming an aversion, swoop down and eat the stale, sweetish morsel from that ravaged hand.” In an extended, almost Beckett-like sequence, he follows down several blocks a mentally unwell beggar, who hops and skips at fixed intervals, as if some energy “were searching around in his body, attempting at various places to break out.” He feels an odd kinship with the vagrant: “A cold stab sliced down my spine when his legs suddenly made a small, convulsive leap. And I decided that I too would stumble a little when he did.” Revealing the morbid in the familiar, and vice versa, such vignettes call to mind the great Belgian expressionist James Ensor’s paintings, in which, as T.J. Clark has observed, the “ordinary, daily, material life of modernity is seen to be haunted by the unreal, the deathly, the disguised, the predatory, the phantasmagoric.”

About halfway through the book, Malte comes down with a terrible fever, which is when the narrative turns. “Just as one morning something that went missing long ago is suddenly there again,” he recounts while lying in bed convalescing, “in just that way things lost from my childhood are scattered before me on my blanket, and they are like new.” From this point, the city gradually recedes from his journal, which is given over to Malte’s distant memories of his childhood in Denmark. If Paris is “haunted by the unreal,” the ordinary and the supernatural mix more comfortably in Ulsgaard, the family estate where ancestors stalk the halls, ghosts appear at dinner, and the ancien régime refuses to pass away gracefully. Malte’s paternal grandfather, Chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge, languishes in the throes of “a princely death” for over 10 weeks, during which he “screams unremittingly.” Rilke plays out the episode to good effect:

Everyone’s work went badly and they forgot to bring in the hay because all through the day they were dreading the night and because they were so exhausted from the long hours of lying sleepless and from the sudden terrified moments of waking that they couldn’t concentrate on anything. And on Sundays, in the white, peaceful church, they prayed for an end to the lords of Ulsgaard; for the last one was a terrible lord.

The enchanted tone should not distract from (and, in fact, reflects) what Michael Hofmann has identified as Rilke’s “promotion of passivity and his feudal and static playing-card version of society.” Tellingly, when the good peasants have their prayers answered, all Malte feels is personal misfortune: “Ulsgaard was no longer in the family possession. My father died in the city, in an apartment that felt hostile and alien.”

Ulsgaard is also the site of more intimate fantasies. As a toddler, Malte cross-dresses to please his mother, who longed for a daughter. (This is something Rilke also did.) He hatches a plan with an older cousin to bring their dead grandmother back to life by confronting her portrait with a mirror. (It does not work out.) Rummaging through a storeroom one afternoon, he finds a wardrobe full of old costumes: “In them I first truly saw possibilities that were free and endlessly transformable: you could be a slave girl at an auction, or Joan of Arc, or an old king, or an old wizard; all this I now had at my disposal.” (After donning a mask, many scarves, an old cloak, and much else, he finally looks in the mirror—and faints.) In perhaps the most beautiful anecdote, mother and son unspool lace from a spindle:

First came strips of Italian work, knotty pieces with drawn-out threads, in which one pattern constantly repeated, plainly, as in a peasant’s garden. Then suddenly our looks would be latticed by long runs of Venetian needlepoint, as if we were in convents, or prisons. All of a sudden, dazed and disoriented, we stepped out into the long path of the Valenciennes, and it was winter and early morning and there was hoarfrost. And we pushed through the snowy thicket of Binche and came to places where no one had ventured.

This passage expresses, in playful terms, one of Rilke’s most cherished beliefs: that objects have an inner life. (He addresses the subject in an astonishing essay, “On the Fate of Childhood Dolls.”) “If you think about it,” Maman says, “each of these pieces may be a heaven unto itself. We know so little about such things.”

How are the two halves of The Notebooks connected? Rilke doesn’t spell this out in the narrative, which drifts from Ulsgaard back to stories of obscure historical figures and then ends with an enigmatic retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son. One clue is to be found, however, in Rilke’s voluminous letters, where he time and again laments the creeping mechanization of life, a process he associated with cities like Paris and more so with the dreaded (and never-visited) United States. He elaborated on this theme in a famous 1925 missive to his Polish translator:

the ever more rapid fading away of so much of the visible that will no longer be replaced. Even for our grandparents a ‘house’, a ‘well’, a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat: were infinitely more, infinitely more intimate; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added to the store of the human. Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, sham things, dummy life…. A house, in the American sense, an American apple or a grapevine over there, has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which went the hopes and reflections of our forefathers…. Live things, things lived and conscient of us, are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last still to have known such things.

Seen from this perspective, Malte’s imaginative return to Ulsgaard has as much to do with feudal nostalgia as with a desire to once again inhabit a “living” world where “almost everything”—stuffed animals and toy soldiers, family portraits and heirlooms, lace of different patterns—was a “vessel” of the human and added to “the store of the human.” That Malte’s thoughts turn to his childhood during a period of illness suggests that recollection is a healing act—or, conversely, as Huyssen has argued, that it amounts to a traumatic response.

It would be tempting to thus dismiss The Notebooks as an anti-modernist parable. And yet the sensibility that emerges from its pages is harder to pin down. For one thing, while Malte mentally escapes Paris, he does not actually leave it, though an easier life awaits him at home: “My old furniture rots in a barn where I was permitted to store it, while I myself, my God yes, I have no roof over my head, and it is raining into my eyes.” For another, while he complains about the city’s chaos, he does not develop a “blasé attitude of indifference” toward its “rapidly shifting stimulations of the nerves,” which Simmel diagnosed as the standard psychic response to “the modern metropolis.” Such an assault on the senses, he warned, led to the “loss of independence and individuality”—and increased the susceptibility to fascism, Benjamin would later add. On the contrary, it is precisely Malte’s sensitivity to “the shocks of the city” that powers his indignation and keeps his sense of self together. By refusing to come to terms with Paris or to let go of his formative childhood memories, Malte keeps a hold, if only tenuously, on his “independence and individuality.”

Theodor Adorno described the best modern art in negative terms, as “a surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.” In this sense, and despite its author’s aversion to modernity, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a distinctly modern work.