The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.

The Classics Reclamation Project

I’m currently about half way through The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke for my IRL book group meeting in early February. My edition is translated by none other than Stephen Mitchell, who also did the version of Gilgamesh I read a few weeks back. Truly, the man has a way with words, and I have a feeling I’ll be choosing his translation whenever it’s an option.

This is my first Rilke, and it’s not at all what I expected. I can’t actually say what I did expect, only that what I’m reading isn’t it. I am, however, really liking The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge so far. It is just as the title suggests: journal-like entries written by our main character, Malte. He has recently come to Paris and does not seem at all content in his current life. The entries swing between amorphous sensory impressions and clear childhood memories. It’s interesting to me how disjointed and muddled the present bits seem when compared with the straightforward stories from the past. I’ll have to revisit that observation upon completing the book and see what comes of it.

I don’t often have clear feelings about the experience of reading a novel, so I was surprised to find that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge has evoked several so far. The person in my book group who chose the book said it has been compared with an Impressionist painting, which I can certainly see. But the first note I recorded about Rilke’s writing was that reading it is “like holding a delicate glass ball.” It’s fragile and beautiful and, at times, breathtaking to behold. For instance, this meditation on poetry struck me as particularly lovely (and long):

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Marie Rilke (cover)“Ah, but poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)–they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make as they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else–); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,–and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves–only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them. (p. 19-20)

Or there are examples of more concrete description, equally beautiful:

“It had never really cleared up that day. The trees stood as if they had lost their way in the mist, and there was something presumptuous about driving into it. At intervals it began to quietly snow again, and now it was as if even the last line had been erased and we were driving into a blank page…The sound of sleighbells no longer fell away completely; it seemed to hang, in clusters, right and left on the trees.” (p. 139)

My next note reads, “like muddy, complex, sustained piano chord.” How to describe that? It’s like a rich, full chord, utilizing the full keyboard range, but with a few dissonances woven in, sounded with the sustain pedal held. It’s like swimming around in that sound, that rich world of language and impressions Rilke creates. Not everything he writes makes immediate sense to me, but it all contributes to that world.

So. Despite the fact that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not what I had expected, it’s providing me with a unique reading experience that I’m finding both enjoyable and intriguing. Final thoughts next week!

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  1. Wow! It does sound like this is a complex read, but also probably really rewarding. I will be interested in hearing your final thoughts on it and will be considering picking it up based on your reactions. Good luck with it!

    1. It is complex, but it’s not as hard as I would have expected. Of course, it could be that a lot of it is going way over my head! The writing is definitely beautiful, and I do enjoy Malte’s childhood memories. I’ll have to see how the rest of the novel goes and report back 🙂

  2. I finished this book for our meeting, but I’ve decided that I need to read it again. I found the language beautiful, some really great descriptions. However, I feel like I was lost in it, like I didn’t get it. So I’m hoping that a re-read in a different frame of mind will help.

    I look forward to the discussions next week, though!

    1. Paul, I can see how you’d want to read it again. I won’t have time, but I’ll be interested to hear if it made a difference for you. I love the language and the childhood memories. The bits in the present were muddy to me, which is maybe the point? I think it’ll make for some good discussion, definitely!

  3. Translations are so important. I’m still trying to understand what all the fuss is about where ‘Madame Bovary’ is concerned because I picked up a translation that should have been had up under the trades description act. I’ll make a note of Mitchell’s name and look out for his work.

    1. They really are; I didn’t appreciate the importance of a good translation until recently. I’d definitely recommend Mitchell — his Gilgamesh, the first of his translations I’d encountered, was wonderful, and this one is equally so.

  4. I’ve read his Letters to a Young Poet, which was lovely. One of those books that you start to make notes from, only to realize that you’re copying out the whole book (or, it felt like it, at the time).

    1. I’d like to read that one as well! I always assumed that’s where I’d start with Rilke, until my book group chose The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I definitely know that sort of book…I always end up just buying my own copy!

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