The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

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The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) is a ‘work’ in prose written by the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It is commonly regarded as a novel, but as a work of radical modernism it breaks all the rules commonly underpinning a sustained work of fiction. It pre-dates other major works of modernism by more than a decade, but has never become as well known as novels such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) or D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1924). The reasons for this may become apparent from the critical comments that follow.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – commentary


The most striking feature of Malte Laurids Brigge is that it marks a radical departure in terms of the presentation of fictional narrative. It also embraces just about every characteristic of what became known as literary modernism. The dates of the book’s composition (1906-1910) coincide with the development of modernism in general.

Although the subject is largely a young man’s recollections of his childhood, there is a complete fragmentation of the narrative, with no attempt at chronological progression. There is very little indication of a sequence of events or any indication of the relationship of one notebook entry to another. The result is a mosaic of episodes, held together only by the personality of the narrator.

The same radical departure is true of the other main feature of traditional fiction – characterisation. There are thumbnail sketches of characters known to Malte – his relatives or people who feature in his anecdotes. But none of them are developed, and people he sees in the street (or doesn’t see in the next room) are given just as much importance as close relatives

There is no sense of dramatic tension in the narrative at all – no story, plot, or psychological development to engage a reader’s interest in the manner of conventional fiction.

The subject matter and the form of the individual notebook entries are radically heterogeneous. They begin with anguished accounts of living in reduced circumstances in Paris. They pass on to childhood memories of life in Denmark. They include quasi-philosophic reflections on sometimes bizarre topics – such as feeding pigeons and the noise made by the lid from a tin can. There are impressionistic accounts of paintings and some tapestries. And one entry is a critical essay on the works of Henrik Ibsen.

The main themes

Despite the varied nature of the notebook entries, there is a general theme that emerges from them. They have in common the decline of the aristocracy, the collapse of an empire, and the narrator’s regret for the passing of a grand way of life. Malte’s first-person account of his childhood reveals a family background of a rich, land-owning aristocracy.

His memories revolve around two grand estates at Ulsgaard and Urnekloster, the family seats of the Brigges and Brahes in Denmark. He takes a lofty pride in describing his ancestral homes, with their portrait galleries, the number and size of their rooms, and the long and distinguished history of their land-owning families.

His re-telling of historical events and the details of his personal reading all feature aristocratic dignitaries, plus their levels of rank and social status. He deals with kings, knights and people who died either in battle or in gruesome circumstances. His anecdotes are littered with images of crowns, swords, flags, and the paraphernalia of the ruling class – all presented sympathetically, with profound regret for the passing of their influence.

It is significant that in the narrative present of the notebook entries, the protagonist Malte’s inherited furniture is in storage, and he is living in temporary accommodation in Paris. He is clearly unable to cope psychologically with the change in his circumstances.

The book is rather like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) in plotting the decline of a way of life which was to be swept away forever by the events of the first world war which took place only a few years later. The whole of the Hapsburg empire which then encompassed Austro-Hungary and beyond was in a morbid bureaucratic decline which 1914-18 put an end to forever.

Kafka and Wittgenstein

There are amazing similarities between Rilke and two other writers with Hapsburg origins. Like Rilke, Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, wrote in German, and died within two years of his fellow countryman. Although Kafka is known as a novelist, the vast majority of his work consists of fragmentary writings in notebooks and diaries – very similar to Malte’s notebook entries. His subject matter, like Rilke’s, is expressed in the study of very unusual states of being, psychological tension, and neurotic attention to the trivial detail of everyday life.

There is very little dramatic tension in Kafka’s writings, which are sometimes philosophic meditations on everyday topics, sometimes elaborate metaphors spun out of a startling image, and often quasi-mystic or semi-religious beliefs stated in gnomic aphorisms or ambiguous mantras.

The other writer with whom Rilke has distinct similarities is Ludwig Wittgenstein – who was also a product of the fin-de-siecle Hapsburg Empire. Wittgenstein was from Vienna, and was born into a rich aristocratic family in 1889. He too was riven by self doubt (like Malte and all Kafka’s protagonists) and like Rilke he wrote his ideas in the form of numbered paragraphs in notebooks. He also expressed himself in the form of philosophic reflections and quasi-religious meditations.

Is it a novel?

Rilke himself never referred to Malte Laurids Brigge as a novel: he used the terms ‘book’ or ‘work’ – and the bulk of Rilke’s writing was poetry. Nevertheless, the book is commonly discussed as if it were a novel, and in the one hundred years since its publication readers have become accustomed to all sorts of experimental prose fictions.

But it certainly does not tell a story, and it does not have memorable characters or show anybody’s psychological development. Its parts or episodes are not coherently linked; there is no dramatic tension at all; and the un-coordinated switching from one topic to another makes it very difficult to read. The critic and novelist A.N. Wilson captured some of this problem in his review of the book – which he admits took him a month to read:

It is, in fact, barely 200 pages long, but it is, among other things, an autobiography, a travelogue (Russia, Venice, Paris, Denmark), a fantasy about the twilight of the old European aristocracy, a series of historical sketches, with vignettes as various as those of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, Ivan the Terrible and Eleanora Duse, and a poet’s notebook, attempting to come to grips with such everlasting questions as the nature of consciousness, our need for love, and whether or not we could ever love God.

Rilke delivers re-imagined historical scenes from the lives of fourteenth and fifteenth century French kings – but does not identify who they are. These passages would be incomprehensible without the addition of explanatory footnotes and endnotes supplied by the editor. And even with the glossary material it is very difficult to see their relevance to the rest of the narrative – except to reinforce the impression that Malte is obsessed with royalty, aristocratic status, inheritance, and death – either by disease, regicide, or battlefield slaughter.

He also recounts in minute detail the lives of people he has never met or even seen. There is a lengthy account of a poor news vendor in Paris during which Malte speculates about the man’s state of mind from his shabby appearance. Having done that he then confesses that his account is invalid:

I knew at once that my mental image of him was worthless. The abjectness of his misery, not mitigated by any wariness or pretence, was beyond anything I might be able to convey. I had grasped neither the angle of his posture nor the horror with which the inside of his eyelids seemed continually to imbue him.

It is bad enough that two pages of detailed description are suddenly declared ‘worthless’. If that is the case, why retain them as part of the narrative? But to then pretend knowledge of the psychological effect produced by the inside of a stranger’s eyelids is nothing short of ridiculous. The only possible justification for such statements is that they reveal Malte’s deranged state of mind – a topic which is not consistently addressed.

In the first of the notebook entries, when Malte describes his life in Paris, he is mentally unhinged and paranoid. But as further entries are added, this presentation of madness recedes, and there is every reason to believe that the content of the memoirs and anecdotes should be taken seriously, at face value.

There is therefore a difficulty presented to the reader – reconciling these disparate states of mind and perception within one consciousness. But this fracturing of subject and point of view is all part of what makes the Notebooks an essentially modernist work. It is rather like a prose equivalent of Eliot’s The Waste Land, though it should be noted that it precedes it by more than a decade.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – resources

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – OUP – Amazon UK

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – OUP – Amazon US

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – Penguin – Amazon UK

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – Penguin – Amazon US

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – synopsis

Following the death of his parents a Danish aristocrat Malte Laurids Brigge is living in reduced circumstances in Paris. He is in a neurotic state of mind and appears to be suffering from paranoia. In a series of fragmentary notebook entries he recaptures his past and makes observations on life.

Metaphysical reflections on dying and death – including the idea that people have ‘ownership ‘ of their own death.

Childhood memories of living in a castle amongst eccentric and aristocratic relatives.

A detailed account of a visit in the dining room from the beautiful Cristina Brigge – who has been dead for some time.

Malte hides from his poverty by reading poetry in the Biblioteque Nationale – but is still possessed by paranoid fears.

He pays a visit to a psychiatric hospital, but his neurotic childhood fears return to haunt him.

He describes in great detail his attempts to help a man suffering from St Vitus’ Dance, then writes an oblique appreciation of the works of Henrick Ibsen

Childhood memories of illness and isolation, including the uncanny incident of meeting a disembodied hand under a table.

He becomes seriously ill with a fever, and is nursed by his mother, with whom he has an especially close bond.

Exploring the castle as a child, he dresses up in carnival costume, feels that he loses his own identity, and faints with fear.

He inspects the portraits of aristocratic relatives in the castle, then recalls the cold and remote behaviour of his relatives, even at the family dinner table.

He finds his aunt Abelone very attractive and describes to her in detail a series of heraldic tapestries.

He visits a neighbouring estate where the grand house has burned down and family are forced to live in in a few remaining rooms.

He recalls the death of his father and the medical ritual of piercing the heart as a precaution against premature burial.

Following the death of his father, he prepares to leave Copenhagen. He contemplates various examples of dying, then the story of a neighbour who thinks he can accumulate saved time like money deposited in a bank account.

He describes the activity of his next-door neighbour in Paris – without any evidence that what he is saying is true. This is followed by philosophic reflections on the ‘life’ of material objects, including the lid from a tin can.

He recalls books he has read and treasured, and goes on to re-tell the story of the death of Dmitry I, the false Tsar.

He presents his theory of the Duke of Burgundy’s blood and a detailed account of his death in battle.

He describes the genesis of his attitudes to reading, and then delivers a psychological critique of Goethe’s letters to young Bettina von Arnim.

He gives a detailed account of a news vendor in Paris, including the inside of his eyelids – and then reveals that his account is flawed.

He re-tells the personal history of a nineteenth-century French king who went mad, and describes yet another scene of slaughter on a battlefield.

Trivial episodes from his own childhood suddenly become further episodes in the lives of French kings and the Pope at Avignon.

A visit to the Roman amphitheatre in Orange leads to a meditation on drama and the acting career of Eleanora Duse.

He posits an elderly man reading poetry alone late at night. He believes that because the work is ancient it can express a state of completeness.

In Venice he encounters an attractive Danish girl who sings very beautifully.

He offers a meditation on the parable of the prodigal son, and wonders how it might be possible to draw nearer to God.

© Roy Johnson 2017

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