Published in 1910 “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” is a semi autobiographical novel by Rainer Maria Rilke. It was first released in the United States as Journal of My Other Self. The novel is written using an expressionism form. It reads as random thoughts by the author. In it he not only tells the story of an unhappy young man, but he delves deep into the darkest places of his emotions.
Malte is on assignment in Paris. Instead of seeing the beauty of the city he only sees the squalor. He relates the sicknesses he sees from his window. The cruel acts of people and the hopelessness. He is often ill but is afraid to go to the hospital where he assumes he will die.
The story follows points of his childhood and the deaths of his parents. His mother was depressed after the death of her daughter that was born before Malte. In order to make her happy he would pretend to be his dead sister.
As an adult Malte was often depressed and would suffer bouts of his mind traveling to dark depths. At one point in the book he was waiting for electro shock therapy but escaped from the hospital before it happened.
In the book he obsesses on a short visit to his grandfather’s castle. There he saw a ghost and met some interesting characters. Later he listened to stories of his mother by Abelone, a woman who had been friends with his mother and the object of his infatuation. The book reads like a series of journal entries written by a depressed and paranoid young man.
September 11th, rue Toullier
Malte is watching a pregnant woman working her way towards the childbirth home. As he looks around the street he also sees sick people and smells an antiseptic mixed with the grease of french fries. He also thinks he smells fear. He also sees a building with a sign that says it is the Asylum at Night. Beside the sign is a price list and it is expensive. He tries to sleep but the noises from his window of the city won’t cease. He can’t close his window. Finally he hears a rooster crow and falls asleep.
Later, while writing a letter he realizes he has been in Paris for three weeks. It feels to him like years. He seems to be living in a constant state of fear. He fears getting sick and being taken to the hospital where he is sure he would die. He complains about the dangerous streets. If he stops to look at Notre-Dame he would be run over. The traffic is terrible. The streets are covered with the sick and the dying.
When he looks back on his childhood home, he thinks about the deaths of his family members. He thinks about the death each person carried within themselves. Then his thoughts move to the death of the Chamberlain, his father. Finally the weather improves and Malte is out taking a walk on a beautiful autumn morning. His peace is broken by a smiling old man who is carrying his crutch instead of using it to walk. It seems as if the good weather healed him.
With the nice weather comes a different view from Malte’s window. He sees a happy baby and a cheerful woman pushing a wheelbarrow. Malte turns away from the window and thinks to get to work. He is a writer and has written a play, a study of the painter, Carpaccio and some poems. He thinks that at twenty eight he is almost old enough to write good poetry. He thinks that he will come to his end while he is writing.
He thinks back to the age of twelve or thirteen. His father took him to see his grandfather, Count Brahe. He hadn’t seen his father in law since Malte’s mother’s death. They had dinner each night in a large dark dining room lit only by candles.
At dinner Malte would observe the guest. His grandfather called them “the family.” The group consisted of Malte’s uncle, Miss Mathilde Brahe, his cousin Erik and a ghost, Christine Brahe. She died in childbirth years earlier. He presence upset Malte’s father so instead of dropping Malte off for a more lengthy stay the left after nine weeks.
This part opens with Malte enjoying reading poetry at the library. He marvels at the freedom of having his own poet. He thinks that no one would notice him as a writer because his hands aren’t ink stained. He washes them thoroughly including his wrists which the mark of a gentleman. Even though his clothes are old and he doesn’t have a carriage, he likes to think he is a cut above the poor dying in the streets. But every day an old woman or an old man will suddenly appear beside him on the street and show him something and then vanish. But he feels safe when he enters the library because he has a card to enter and they don’t. There he can read poetry. He thinks about the comfortable life the poet lives and then he thinks about the loss of his own home and family.
On some days he walks along the rue de Seine. He walks past shops that no one enters. When he looks inside he sees the proprietors sitting and reading. The wave at him without a “care in the world.” After he goes back to his room, Malte lays on his bed and thinks about the sounds and smells drifting in through his window. He feels the weight of his depression. It affects his health.
The doctor wants to try electrotherapy. While waiting for his appointment Malte is disgusted by all the wounded and sick also waiting at the hospital. He leaves the hospital and wanders aimlessly, unsure of what city he is in. Finally he makes it back to his room and lays with a fever for a few days. His health improves and Malte attempts to make his way to the library. But along the way his weakness takes over and he crumples. Bent over in pain he starts back home. Along the way he is in constant fear of every person he passes.
At home he writes a letter to a friend telling them how much fun he is having in Paris. He embellishes. He also includes his observations of how real the people are. Meanwhile his depression makes him consider suicide and he becomes even more fixated on death. He thinks about the death of his sister, Ingeborg who died young and before he was born. His parents hardly ever spoke of her. But, when his mother was dying she talked about her a lot.
He relates the story told to him about his mother’s sister who was burnt to death. She had gotten too close the candles on the mirror while trying to fix the flowers. Then he tells the story of Ingeborg’s ghost. Although his mother felt the cold chill, her father saw her. Also, the dog went up and ran around like he was happy to see someone who wasn’t there.
As a child Malte often experienced prolong illnesses. He would sometimes disrupt the house with screaming that only his mother could calm. He and his mother grew close. She would tell him that she had wished he had been born a girl. Sometimes he would knock on her door and using a girlish voice tell her his name was Sophie. She would braid his hair and they would speak about Malte and how naughty he was. When she became ill in her last days, she would ask him what happened to Sophie.
Often when he was young, his mother would experience migraines and send Malte away. He would hide from his father and the help. On one of these occasions, he found some old clothes and became enraptured with costumes.
Once, while visiting his uncle, Malte took a candle out to examine the paintings of the various family members in the hallway. His cousin Erik came upon him and frightened him. Erik surmised that Malte was looking for a portrait of Christine, the ghost. He told Malte that she had asked him to look for her portrait and it was missing. They have a disagreement but Malte asks Erik to be his friend. Years later Malte thinks that if Erik had agreed he would have been the only friend he ever had. Now there is a portrait of Erik hanging in the gallery, but he wonders if Erik ever saw it before he died so young.
A year after his mother died Malte noticed Abelone. She was a young girl who sang beautifully. Although Malte didn’t like the feeling music evoked in him he developed romantic feelings for Abelone. He wrote love letters to her from school. But they realized that she was still in love with a lost love and he loved all women so they parted ways.
Malte often thinks about the different way men and women experience love. Women seem to put their whole heart and soul into it while men repeat what they hear. “Couldn’t we try to gradually develop and slowly take upon ourselves, little by little, our part in the great task of love?” He wants men to learn to be more involved.
Malte remembers a story Abelone told him about her father, Sten. He would call her in to his office in the morning so she could take dictation. Although he didn’t like children, he would show her attention while she was working. He would pace and make observations.
One of those observations was about books. He thought “books are empty, it is blood that matters. It is blood we must learn to read.” He was collecting stories from the Bernstorff circle, a group of German intellectuals that formed a resistance to the Nazi party. Most of the members were executed after attending a tea party in Berlin on September 10, 1943. Abelone’s father’s father was a member of the circle and he wanted to write about it.
By the time Malte’s father died they were living in an apartment in town. Malte had been traveling and arrived home to late to see his father alive. His father’s only request was to have his heart perforated. It was a custom to insure death before burying. Malte stood by and watched the performance. Malte was fixated on death although it terrified him. He collected stories of the dead and dying. One such story was about Felix Arvers. He was in a hospital slowly slipping into death when he heard a nun mispronouncing corridor. He pulled back from death long enough to correct her pronunciation then he died.
Over the years Malte has had a variety of neighbors. One of his neighbors were two men who never seemed to sleep. They stood up and played the violin almost continuously. While another neighbor hardly ever got out of bed. He didn’t sleep but laid in bed reciting poetry. The man, Nikolai Kuzmitch, had decided that time was money and when he did the math and determined how much time he had left in his life, he felt like a very rich man. He began to imagine that he had a bodyguard and then he played the part, having long admonishing conversations with himself. Finally, one day he noticed that his bodyguard was gone. He was supposed to go to a party but instead he sat on the chair and thought he felt the seconds he had saved brush past him. Since then he has stayed in bed. The poetry focuses him.
Malte thinks about a small green book of children stories he had been given as a child. He can only remember two of the stories. One was “Charles the Bold’s Downfall.” It is the story of a young man who summoned his mother from a convent to Moscow. The nation in need of him made the character seem powerful while his mother diminished him. She brought his ego under control. Another of the stories was the “End of Grishka Otrepyov.” The main character had very warm hands and are always trying to cool them. “The blood would shoot into these hands as it might rush to someone’s else’s head; and when clenched into fists, they did seem like the heads of madmen, raging with fantasies.”
At first he put off reading too often. He handled books like he did friends. They could wait. Later he dived into them go from book to book with a vengeance. A character named Bettina who became more real to him than Abelone.
Malte tells the story of a king. Although everyone prayed for him, he was the poorest among them. Men with blackened faces would attack him in bed. That’s when they noticed the ulcers on his chest where the iron amulet he wore had sunk in because he pressed into his skin in his ardor. It was “An age when the kiss of reconciliation between two men was just a signal for the murderers who were standing nearby.” The king had been slowly declining. When his young wife was alive she would lay with him, but now they wouldn’t bring concubines to him because of the stench. He spent his days looking at pictures in books and becoming agitated because he couldn’t see them all at once.
The next subject Malte tackles is women. “Women who are loved live poorly and in danger. If only they could surpass themselves and become women in love. Around women in love there is sheer security.” These women are safe to be around because they are only interested in one man. They devote themselves to him.
Once, in Venice, Malti thought of Abelone again. It had been many years. In Venice people would “nonchalantly abandon themselves to the most extravagant possibilities.” There is romance everywhere. Couples who are usually arguing become companionable. The husbands smile and relax, the wives feel young and desirable. When they speak of leaving the departure dates keep getting pushed back.
Malte was glad to not be leaving anytime soon. Suddenly he sees a woman standing in front of a window. She seemed to be mimicking the expression he has on his face. When he noticed he calmed his face, she mimicked that expression, too. Next he smiled at her. She did the same at him. But, before he could approach her she was whisked away with entreaties to sing by her hostess. The woman tried to object by saying that no one wanted to hear songs sung in Danish. But someone spoke up and said that she could also sing in German and Italian. She comes up to him and whispers that she will sing not because they demand it but because she “must sing.” When she sang a song in German her voice reminded him of Abelone.
Malte wonders if the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son is not the story of a man who didn’t want to be loved. He thinks that the boy felt trapped by the love of his family. Even the dogs that run up to him make him feel suffocated. At his birthday party, they gave him gifts, but don’t actually understand what he really wanted. He wanted adventure. “For he had lost hope of ever meeting the woman whose love could pierce him.” So he took his inheritance and left to find his place in the world. But while he was away he began to forget how to love. He even forgot how to love God because of the years of poverty and hunger. Finally, he decided to go home. He didn’t expect to find any forgiveness or love. As he nears the house, he sees the faces peeking from windows. The dogs that ran to him in devotion were still there but much older. Last he sees his father and is forgiven. “The embraced him.”
The Prodigal Son would be relieved that his family still doesn’t understand him. It would make it easier for him to stay because “every day he recognized more clearly tht their love, of which they were so vain and to which they secretly encouraged on another, had nothing to do with him.” Malte thinks this would make the Prodigal Son smile. He would feel that he is difficult to love and only God could love him, but God wasn’t ready to love him yet.
Malte Laurids Brigge – a young man who is living in Paris. He suffers from depression and is affects his health. He often escapes into daydreams. He writes his thoughts out into a journal to work through his depression and paranoia. Malte was alone in the world. His family had died. First his mother, in a death that he recounts. Then his father. Although he was out of the country at the time, Malte returned in time to see his father’s heart perforated.
Malte has dreams and fantasies of death even though he is terrified of it. He has great phobias for the sicknesses that he sees in the streets of Paris. He becomes unable to see any of the beauty of the city, only the rudeness, decay and death. Malte lacks the ability to make friends. He holds himself separate from people. Although he would like to find love, he won’t let anyone close enough. He believes that men are incapable of true love.
The Chamberlain – Malte’s Father. He is the Master of the Hunt. As a father he is a bit disconnected, but he takes care of his son as best as he knows how. Although, he doesn’t show as much love to his wife or son as Malte thinks he should, he does remove his son from an environment he deems unsafe, especially after he sees the ghost. Instead of leaving Malte with his wife’s family after she dies, he takes him and tries to take care of him.
Mathilde Brahe – a distant cousin of Malte’s mother. She was “of an uncertain age.” She was devoted to Baron Nolde who was an Austrian spiritualist. She wouldn’t make any moves without first getting his approval. A plump woman who wore brightly colored, loose fitting dresses. She reminded Malte of his mother.
Erik Brahe – the small son of one of Malte’s female cousins. He was thin and fragile with brown eyes. One of his eyes moved while the other stared into a corner. Erik was the same age as Malte. He comes upon Malte and frightens him in the dark corridor. Malte’s grandfather commissioned a portrait of Erik, but the boy didn’t live long enough to see it complete. Malte often thought he would have liked to be friends with him.
Count Brahe – Malte’s grandfather. A taciturn and strict man. He had the second sight. At one time he told a young woman who was recently married to the sons she would have and their travels. He also saw ghosts.
Christine Brahe – a young woman who haunts the castle. Everyone can see her. She wants Erik to find her portrait in the castle.
Abelone – Malte’s first love. He noticed her a year after his mother’s death. She was always there in the background. She was disagreeable but seemed to fill in any gaps and uses needed by the family. She was friends with his mother and told him stories. Her main distinguishing feature was her voice. She sang beautiful songs, but Malte had a fear of music. He felt that it pulled him out of himself, which was fine. But it never put him back in the same place.
Rainer Maria Rilke Biography
Rainer Maria Rilke was born Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke in Prague in 1875. He was a poet and a novelist. His parents had lost a daughter at a week old before Rilke was born so they never connected with him. The loss colored the relationships with his parents. His mother would dress him like a girl in trying to recover her lost daughter. When he was nine years old his parents divorced. Although he was artistic and a poet his parents pressured him into entering the military academy. Soon his illnesses led to his leaving the academy and returning home in 1891.
At the age of twenty one he entered the university in Prague and then went to Munich. At these colleges he studied literature, art history and philosophy. When he was twenty two he met Lou Andreas-Salome. She was older, married and intellegent. They were together for three years and after their romance ended they remained friends the rest of his life. She had trained under Sigmund Freud and psychoanalyzed him quite often. She also was a font of information for his writing.
While staying in an artists’ colony at Worpswede he met his wife Clara Westhoff. They had a daughter, Ruth a year later. In 1902 Rilke was eager to escape the house with a crying baby and jumped at the offer to write a thesis on Auguste Rodin in Paris. Soon his wife realized he was stretching his stay in Paris out and left Ruth with hr parents in order to follow him. Although the couple would have liked to get a divorce, his Catholicism prevented it.
Although he was a poet, Rilke learned a lot while working with Rodin. The sculptor helped him in defining his poetry into a sound of an incantation. It used repetitiveness and dramatic, flowery words to hide the actual meaning. His poetry, like Rodin’s sculpting and Cezanne’s paintings, would be open for interpretation by the individual.
In Ronda, southern Spain, Rilke spent a great deal of his time at the Hotel Reina Victoria. The room he stayed in had been transformed into a museum for him. But after renovations, his personal effects and the furniture he used was placed in a glassed in case near the spa. There is also a bronze statue of Rilke there.
Rilke was a world traveler. He was in Europe, Russia, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland. His travels were used as inspiration for his poetry. He wrote over four hundred poems.
Throughout his life his health was precarious. In 1926 he died of leukemia and was buried in the Raron cemetery near Visp in Switzerland. He had been staying at the Valmont Sanatorium there.
A lyrical poet, Rilke wrote in German. He wrote in both verse and lyrical prose. He used words to form images of the feelings of anxiety and alienation in a world that was becoming more scientific and industrial. Rilke was an existentialist at a time that helped transition writing from traditional to modernist.