Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2018

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Vilain (and why 1001 Books sometimes gets it right)

This edition, as so many Oxford World’s Classis editions do, has just the perfect cover image.  It’s a detail from a painting called ‘Mirror Image in Shop Window’ (1913) by August Macke.  It’s perfect because Rilke in this ‘novel’ brings us a vivid portrait of a man in search of self, a faceless man in fragments who believes he is nothing.

In my last post I moaned about the inclusion of unreadable stodge in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is essential reading IMO.  I wish I’d read it before reading The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey because that is a ‘found document’ too, and I shall read Gerald Murnane’s fiction with a different eye now too, because he too writes fiction that isn’t fiction, in quasi-autobiographical books that defy the label ‘novel’.

Mind you, in the excellent introduction by Robert Vilain, he says that

Rilke never called Malte a novel, preferring ‘book’ or ‘work’, but the term novel is nowadays capacious enough for modern readers to use it without the need for inverted commas. (p.xvi)

For its time, (1910), The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was radical.  It’s nothing like the 19th century novel with its coherent linear form and chronological simplicity.  It purports to be a notebook of 71 fragmentary jottings, ranging from very short to quite expansive, and while it’s ‘finished’, it seems like a work that could easily continue further, (and not just because it ends unresolved).  In the Introduction, Vilain describes the structure as being in three planes which are not neat sections.  (Indeed, there are scholars who like to argue about where these ‘planes’ intersect, begin and end.)

  • The book begins with Malte’s experiences in Paris, apparently much like Rilke’s own, segueing into
  • memories of Malte’s childhood in Denmark (he was much influenced by things Nordic, apparently), segueing into
  • reflections on historical and artistic figures and places.

It’s not a book for people who like plots, or even proper characters, but once you progress a few pages into the pages about Paris, it becomes addictive.  Plans to alternate this book with something lighter at bedtime fell in a heap. (Literally, with a small mound of books on the bedspread!) This Paris is not the Paris of contemporary tourism, it is a noisy, stressful, horrific place, where Malte is down on his luck and feeling nostalgic for his aristocratic childhood.  (Unlike Rilke’s, which was apparently bourgeois and mean).  He does his best to keep himself clean and neat, enough to fool most shopkeepers but not the poor who recognise in him one of themselves.  He distinguishes between beggars and outcasts:

They are the scraps, the parings of people who have been spat out by fate.  Damp with the spittle of destiny, they stick to a wall, a lamp-post, an advertising column, or they trickle slowly down the alley leaving a dark, dirty trail behind them. (pp.23-24)

And from this excerpt you can see that this is not realism: the images of brokenness are everywhere – not just ruined eviscerated buildings, but fractured body parts too.  He also sees ghosts, as if time has fractured as well.

Malte feels a frantic urge to write because of the possibility that the way we see the world is wrong.

The first person who comes along who has had this disquieting thought must begin to do something about what’s been neglected; even if it’s only one person, and by no means the one most suited to the task: there simply isn’t anyone else to do it.  (p.15)

Perhaps overwhelmed by the violence of French history in Paris (something I’ve felt myself) Malte is consumed by the existence of the horrific in every particle of air.  It’s tenaciously imperishable (as history tends to be, as we know only too well in Australia).  

At the slightest movement, one’s vision moves beyond familiar and friendly things once more, and the outline that only a moment ago offered consolation is revealed more distinctly as the border of horror. (p. 43)

He is obsessed by death, recalling some truly gruesome instances throughout the book…

Malte’s memories of childhood seem a bit more coherent, but it’s no idyll.  Even within his own family he seems to be on the outer, loved by his mother more when he is dressed in his incarnation as a dead sister than for himself, and always on the fringes of family life.  The reader begins to perceive Malte’s ‘issues’ with women and his firm belief that women who are loved live a miserable life and are constantly in danger.  He notes that in the carve-up of family estates women are routinely left in penury, offering a vivid image of young girls from decent families, girls who have left the houses that no longer retain things, who are now living alone and drawing in art galleries:

…as they raise their arms whilst drawing, it transpires that their dresses are not buttoned up at the back, at least not right to the top.  There are a few buttons that can’t be reached.  Because when these dresses were made, there had never been any question of them suddenly leaving on their own.  At home there’s always someone to fasten buttons like that.  But here, in a city as large as this, Lord knows who can be bothered about such things.  For they would need a friend, and friends are no better off than they are, and in any case, what matters is that they have to fasten each other’s clothes.  But that’s ridiculous; it reminds them of the family they don’t want to be reminded of.  (p.76)

(Thanks to Goldie Goldbloom’s wonderful novel Gwen,  (see my review) I know that Rilke was secretary to Rodin for a while, and that Gwen Johns might well have been one of these girls with unbuttoned dresses. Then again, they might have been unbuttoned thanks to Rodin…)

The form of the jottings also includes stories recalled from childhood:

  • Grisha Otrepyev, a pretender to the Russian throne who got away with it for a year but came to a grisly end; and
  • the gruesome death of Charles the Bold, a French Duke of Burgundy with plans for his duchy to rival that of France – and who nearly had himself crowned by the Pope – but was killed in battle.

He makes references to many artists and writers, some of which are only identifiable with the help of the notes at the back, but others which are obvious.  But I have to say that he romanticises Beethoven’s deafness, suggesting that his hearing was sealed by a god so that he could only hear his own music.  He obviously didn’t know that Beethoven had severe, brain-curdling tinnitus. (See Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford).

This book is definitely a ‘read-again’ at some time in the future.  Rilke writes about reading at the right time, noting that when he was young the books in his parents’ library were not right for him:

Many things came into my hands that, so to speak, ought to have been read already, for other things it was much too soon; nothing at that time was just right for the present. But nevertheless I read. (pp.115-6).

I wish I’d read this book before, but I also know that other books I read will enhance my reading of this one.

Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
Title: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Translated from the German by Robert Vilain (who also wrote the Introduction)
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2016, first published 1910
ISBN: 9780199646036
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Oxford World’s Classics)


  1. I love your commitment to this project Lisa … and I read your previous post. Must say I tried to read G & P several years ago but gave up (though I’ve kept it just in case).

    Re this one, JM Coetzee also writes borderline novels – particularly Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a bad year (but several of his earlier more novel-like novels were highly autobiographical too. And then, in a more straight novel-looking way, your favourite, Helen Garner, also regularly crosses the fiction-nonfiction boundary!

    Anyhow, this sounds interesting, and I love the cover.


    • Yes, it’s been a while since I read Coetzee though I have most of his books on the TBR. But I don’t remember them being quite like this. The jottings are numbered, exactly as if a writer has sketched out his ideas and then moved on to something else, not necessarily related though he comes back to some of them later on. Catherine Chidgey’s novel is like that, Murnane isn’t though somehow I kept thinking of him when I read this. Very weird.


      • No you’re right, I don’t expect it’s like this from your description, but your reference to Murnane certainly reminded me of Coetzee’s playing with the idea of the novel.


  2. I’ve had this is my any day now TBR for probably two years. This year! Great review.


    • Oh, please read it soon, I’d love to see your take on it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been meaning to try this one for some time. I liked Hamsun’s Hunger, also about an urban drifter with existential angst – but couldn’t read the more fragmented Book of disquiet by Pessoa – so I’m not sure I’ll get on with this. Lovely cover


    • I haven’t tried Pessoa, though I’ve heard people raving about him…


  4. Great review as always. And it has to be on my list for it sounds right up my alley. I read Hunger in my 20’s and have never forgotten the effect. This seems of a similar vein. Thanks too for taking me back to Gerald Murnane another amazing writer.


    • Thanks, Fay. I have Hunger on my TBR, I should read it soon!


  5. I am fascinated by links between early C20th writing and modern art. The great majority of readers prefer their reading to be representational – and probably their paintings too but luckily most painters ignore them. Will have to haunt the classics sections of bookshops until I find this one.


    • When it works, like it does in this one and in Catherine Chidgey’s book, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it makes me feel nostalgic for The Good Old Days. (I’m especially fond of medieval art).


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