Wednesday, December 3, 2008

From the Impoverished Holidays Gift Guide Library: Rilke's "Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge"

Welcome to the Down-on-My-Luck Token of Holiday Acknowledgment From the Library Gift Guide #3! Today, a mitochondrian in the PDXWD corpus recommends Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

Compared to many writers who publish fifty volumes in a lifetime, Rainer Maria Rilke's body of work is a slender one: several volumes of poetry, a book of letters, and one book of fiction. But the power of Rilke lives in his ability to say everything by saying nothing. More widely-known for The Sonnets to Orpheus or The Duino Elegies or Letters to a Young Poet, fewer discuss his Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Some critics have mistakenly called this book autobiographical because of its fragmentary nature, reliance on memory, and Parisian setting, but it is no more autobiographical than is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises because it is set in Spain, or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury because of its roots in the South. If you were to construct a span of Rilke’s life out of the events that occur in Notebooks, you would be left only shards of a broken mirror reflecting the image of the reader rather than the writer.

What is the novel about? One shouldn’t read Rilke looking for suspense or plot driven narrative anymore than one should read Proust and then be disappointed four hundred pages in to learn that Odette simply wasn’t Swann’s type. Rilke’s Notebooks has no ostensible plot, but rather fluidly moves through memories of Malte’s childhood, a woman he loved from afar, the ghost of things in the world, and the passing of time. Early on, Malte asks himself:
I sit here and am nothing. And never the less this nothing begins to think and thinks, five flights up on a grey Parisian afternoon these thoughts: Is it possible, it thinks that one has not yet seen known and said anything real or important? It is possible that one has had millennia of time to observe and reflect and note down, and that one has let those millennia slip way like a recess interval at school in which one eats one’s sandwich and an apple?

Yes, it is possible.

Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface which might still have been something, has been covered with an incredibly tedious material, which makes it look like living room furniture during a summer vacation?

Yes, it is possible.

Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? Is it possible that the past is false, because we have always spoken about its masses, just as if we were telling about a gathering of many people, instead of talking about a person they were standing around because he was a stranger and was dying?

Yes, it is possible.

Despite Malte’s affirmation here, ultimately, no questions are answered. The threads that hold together Rilke’s tapestry of fragments are death and love, but we are asked to forget everything we thought we knew about either of those terms. For Malte death is everywhere, not simply at the end of life in the room of his dying uncle, but in the faces of strangers on the street, in the wall of a waiting room, and in the memory of an ancient burnt-down mansion. Love, real love, exists only in solitude and in the independence of both the self and the beloved, for love used otherwise becomes almost a violence. These themes are familiar in many of Rilke’s works and are discussed in Letters to a Young Poet, but here they take on the scope and solidarity of objects and events in the world that speak because of their simplicity of existence.

It is a danger to think that because this book is small that it can be read quickly. Rilke’s descriptions should be carried in one’s pocket for a long time, read in solitude, read in crowded places, and re-read again because of the sound and sense a passages gives, and then, like a painting in a museum that one passes by many times until one sees it, the book will begin to speak. To quote Wallace Stevens, “There is a nothing that is and a nothing that isn’t.” Rilke’s prose draws from his ability to see both.

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