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

Last week, I posted about my potential love for The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by the wonderful Stephen Mitchell, which I was reading for my IRL book group. I was loving the writing and the way the book dipped back and forth between fuzzy present impressions and straightforward childhood memories.

Sadly, I did not enjoy the second half of the book nearly as much. The pretty, sparkling passages that delighted me in the first half petered out. The memories, which started out so clear, got muddled. The present, which was already hazy, got downright confusing. I lost my footing in the murk of this seemingly different style.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke (cover)The book reads very much like a diary, though not the kind in which daily occurrences are dutifully noted. The “notebooks” are made up not so much of chapters, but of sections, the way a journal might look if one neglected to note the date or start a new page with each successive entry. As one might expect, there wasn’t much of a narrative arc. That was fine with me for the first half, when the scenes each made a kind of sense. In the second half, though, without that tenuous coherency, I felt like very little was holding the book together.

It’s interesting to note, as the introduction to my edition pointed out, that Rilke himself was living alone in Paris when this novel was published, like Malte does in the book. Some aspects of the novel are actually semi-autobiographical. This fact increased my intellectual interest in the book, but it did nothing to warm my heart to Malte and his notebooks.

Honestly, had I not had a reason beyond my own enjoyment to read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I’d most likely have stopped half way through. It’s a book that just screams to have a paper written about it, or have a class taught on it, or be picked apart with a fine-toothed comb, none of which I’m in the mood to do. I do think this book will provide interesting fodder for a book group discussion and am looking forward to our meeting, which is scheduled for tonight.

I’m not judging Rilke solely on the basis of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It was his only novel, so it clearly was not his primary format. I’m thinking his second chance will be Letters to a Young Poet…that seems like a safe bet!

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  1. I’m with you, Erin. I never did get to that re-read of this. Truth is, I don’t really want to. I did give this a 3-star rating almost solely due to the beautiful writing which makes itself known throughout. I just really didn’t follow this. It should be an interesting discussion tonight!

    1. Agreed, Paul! The writing was lovely, but I totally lost where Rilke was going with it. I don’t blame you for not rereading it…I was glad to finish it the first time!

  2. I am sorry to hear that the second half of this book fizzled for you. I had not heard much about it, and am not sure it would be the thing for me, but sometimes I like to challenge myself to read a piece of literature that is a little obscure, so it’s not something that I will totally close the door on.

    1. I’d actually say it’s worth reading the first half, if you’re interested. I really did like the first half — beautiful writing, a sense that I could follow what was going on, an interesting main character. But I would say feel free to put it down past the halfway point! My book group did have an interesting discussion about the book, so it was worth it, even if the book, as a whole, wasn’t my favorite.

    1. Let’s do it! After the TBR Dare is over, though, because I don’t have it, nor was it on my list by December 31st. Maybe summer?

  3. Hi Erin,

    Just read this and your earlier post regarding Rilke’s “Notebooks” and I agree that the book, at least in Mitchell’s seemingly wonderful translation, is both captivating and frustrating (my take on your sentiments, of course).

    The passages you cite are well chosen examples. I read this book after many readings of his earlier and only published set of short stories, “Stories of God”, as well as his poetry and found it something of a bridge between the two. Like his earlier stories, his narrative powers are remarkable. And, like his poetry, the imagery he invokes is at times startling – I’m thinking primarily of his “Book of Images” and “The New Poems” from which poems such as ‘The Panther’ come.

    For me, the two – narrative and poetry – meet at no finer a place than the ruined mansion. I felt that I had suddenly been transported into something of a Gothic mystery along the lines of “Rebecca” or “Jane Eyre”. I was a bit disappointed that that storyline seemed set aside. Ultimately, I too was disappointed in second part of the book, particularly in its ending. I think though that at least part of the fault lay in me for I had been expressly reading it in comparison with his earlier stories.

    Although “Letters to a Young Poet” is a more famous work, I highly recommend “Stories of God” to you for purposes of comparing his prose work. There are, to my knowledge, three English translations in print, including one that I have edited. I like all three as I’m interested in how translators go about their business and, full-disclosure, I have an obvious financial interest in the one book. Even so, as a first read, I would recommend that you start with the Michael Kohn translation published by Shambhala. Like many of Shambahala’s books, it has an “Eastern” feel to it. It is this translation that me further on into Rilke and ultimately to commission my own translations of the stories. There is an earlier translation by M.D. Herter Norton (Norton) that I would say is more literal (but having learned a thing or two from the translators I’ve been privileged to work with, not necessarily more accurate).

    About the translations that I commissioned, the unique things about this work, is that a different translator takes up each story and also provides an essay on the art of translation as exemplified in the story you would have just read. There is also a 14th story that was not part of the original work – it was a letter that Rilke has written to himself as though he was Ewald, a main character from these stories – the other translations do not include this. Finally, the book includes the original German so that students of same can have a look for themselves.

    Oh one, final note – there is a wonderful new – well, recent translation of Rilke’s entire collection of poetry. It is by Edward Snow (North Point Press). It too is a bilingual edition and it is remarkable. He’s every bit the translator as Mitchell.

    Best regards,

    Jack Beacham

    1. Thank you for your in depth recommendation. As I’m not familiar with much of Rilke’s work, it’s helpful to have some guidance. The idea of a translation-essay pairing, is very appealing to me. I think I’ll take a short break from Rilke at the moment, but it’s wonderful to know there are good things of his out there and to have some idea about where I might start!

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