In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses Rainer Maria Rilke’s innovative novel
Published in 1910, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a rather experimental novel: a more or less plotless, meandering account of one man’s everyday experiences in Paris in the early twentieth century, interspersed with personal memories and reveries, which are often highly mysterious or only partly explained. The title The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge says it all: this is no novel in the conventional sense but rather fictionalised ‘notebooks’, diary entries, or journal fragments from one of the most innovative poets of the early twentieth century.
Rilke was a poet first and foremost, and some critics have suggested (such as Michael Hulse in his Introduction to the excellent Penguin Classics translation, LINK, which is the one I own) that we should see The Notebooks as a long prose poem, or even as a collection of prose poems. So, what is this novel … if it is a novel at all? And how does that affect the way we respond to, and analyse, it?
Some sections of the novel were based on Rilke’s own letters home to his wife when he lived in Paris in the early twentieth century (he had travelled there to write about the sculptor Rodin), so there is an autobiographical angle to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. But we should be wary of reading the novel as a straightforward novel-as-autobiography, especially when it comes to the childhood memories Malte recalls.
The uncanny, and especially Freud’s theorisation of the uncanny in his 1919 essay of that name, is a prevalent feature of the book. Several of Malte’s childhood memories have an uncanny dimension, such as his encounter with a strange hand under the table, or the moment when he dresses up in a costume and mask, only to be disturbed by a mysterious noise which gives him a fright – a response perhaps partly fuelled by the fact that he has confronted himself in the mirror, only to find that his costume was ‘too convincing’. In this latter passage, the bonbons he knocks over are described as ‘sweets resembling insects in silken cocoons’: the familiar is rendered strange through a surprising and unsettling comparison (who wants to eat insects, after all?). Such scenes are uncanny in their minutiae as well as in terms of the general mood or feeling they describe. But we might argue that the uncanniness of this novel goes far deeper than such isolated passages.
Given that Malte is a poet who has come to Paris to observe the people and the city, the novel suggests connections with Gaston Bachelard’s later theorising of space in his 1958 book The Poetics of Space, where the house allows an individual the shelter and support necessary for daydreaming. Bachelard, of course, means us to take ‘poetics’ more metaphorically than literally, and to apply it to people in general rather than just to poets per se; but the fact that the protagonist of The Notebooks happens to be a poet does intensify the extent to which this novel, like Bachelard nearly fifty years later, is drawing a link between poetic feeling and houses, between imagination and dwelling, between the house and the experience of daydreaming (Malte lapses into reverie or childhood memories frequently in this book).
Even if we don’t see The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge as a prose poem as such, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind that it was written by a poet, about a poet, from a fictional poet’s personal perspective, and many of the details and experiences it recounts are of a particularly poetic turn (for instance, the young Malte had been drawing a knight with his crayons when he has the ‘hand’ encounter mentioned above; this can be analysed as a nod to the tradition of medieval French troubadour poetry, albeit perhaps a faint one).
Rilke died, while still relatively young, of leukaemia in 1926. After his death, a myth arose that Rilke had died while gathering roses from his garden with which he planned to impress a beautiful female guest. He pricked his hand on a thorn, the wound gradually got worse, and eventually he died from the injury. This story isn’t true, but the fact that it’s often circulated as fact highlights how Rilke was seen as the post-Romantic embodiment of ‘the Poet’ who, like his creation Malte, lived and died as a poet, with a poetic vision of the world and a poet’s mindset. There are therefore further, biographical ways of responding to his novel using Bachelard’s work (but, as so often with biographical analyses of works of fiction, the critic should exercise caution). The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is an under-appreciated work of early twentieth-century fiction, a curious mixture of the poetic and the prosaic, or rather the everyday: it brings home the poetics of the everyday to us.
Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.