The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge is the extraordinary journal of a Danish nobleman stranded in a surreal pre-First World War Paris. Ostensibly this is a novel, but the narrator’s sense of extreme alienation in a big foreign city, and his endless questing for the right kind of apprenticeship in art are direct transpositions of Rilke’s experience. ‘Novel’ also seems an uneasy word to use when the narrative alters as it progresses, moving from the recognizable form of a journal written by a disoriented immigrant, to an autobiographical retelling of some intense experiences of his childhood, to a strange yet wonderful compilation of legendary tales. This curious journey through the realms of storytelling comes about because Malte, the narrative alter ego, is poorly equipped to handle severe culture shock. His reaction to the disorientation of Paris, with its streets full of sick, poor people, and hideous, shrieking trams, is to experience himself as hopelessly porous, undefended against the raucous modern world, and menacingly invaded by it.
Culture shock works its strange magic on Malte Laurids Brigge, and what is at stake is no longer simply his own alienation, but the way that the great, unwieldy concept of Life is seen and understood. As for so many writers of this period, the epic changes that took place at the start of the twentieth century seemed to put in doubt the individual’s capacity for self-knowledge. A complete overhaul of representation was needed, for, after all, how are we to know ourselves except via the stories we recount? Nowhere was this more apparent than in the new phenomenon of city life. The concept of being an anonymous stranger in a crowd was experienced as exhilarating and destabilizing by any number of authors, poets and painters. Malte’s attempts at writing about this new reality do not go well. Describing the Paris that surrounds him means allowing himself to change so that he is at one with his surroundings, not the freaked out alien citizen he feels himself to be. Malte recognizes that a change in his perception will mean an ineradicable change in his internal configurations, and the prospect of a switchover to Parisian settings appears to him in a terrifying light
So what does Malte Laurids Brigge do, in the struggle to overcome his extreme alienation and find his poetic creativity (knowing as he does, that the two are magically linked)? The first thing Malte does is to trust to his own unfolding, and gradually the composition of the narrative alters. At first Malte writes a great deal about his experiences in Paris, interspersing his journal with memories of his childhood. Those reminiscences begin to take center stage, until his life in the city is completely obscured by the weight of surreal memories from his past. However, this is not Malte’s final literary destination. The problem with his past is that it reflects back to him the roots of his current suffering without offering any resolution. What Malte wants is a narrative form that will allow him to transcend his troubles and still remain himself.
So, once again the focus of the narrative shifts, and what Malte increasingly tells are parables, and allegories, and stories that have an odd, fairy tale slant to them. How can this possibly help him come to terms with himself, one might reasonably wonder? And yet what Rilke suggests is that autobiographical narrative may not be the best way to approach oneself in language, and that we may find ourselves most fully present in what we write, when we are wholeheartedly engaged in writing about something completely different.
For instance, in the last story of the narrative, Malte rewrites the tale of the Prodigal Son. In his version, Malte claims that the significance of the story is to be found in the problem of excessive family love. The son leaves because the weight of adoration and expectation lies too heavily on his shoulders. ‘He could not put it into words, but when he wandered about outside the whole day and did not even want to take the dogs with him, it was because they too loved him; because he could read in their eyes obedience, expectancy, participation and solicitude; because even in their presence he could do nothing without pleasing or giving pain.’ What the Son wants is, sometimes, to be nothing more than a ‘transient moment’, to be endlessly transformed by the beauty of the world around him. The freedom of our birth right (though we give it away so quickly) is to be exactly what we are, not forced into a shape of compliance by others. Discomforted by love, the prodigal son wants to confront the question of who he might really be without the influence of others, or as Malte describes it, ‘The secret of that life of his which never yet had been, spread out before him.’ Who might we be when we are alone? If we were allowed the purity and simplicity of just being ourselves? What, then, if the departure of the prodigal son were not an act of selfishness, but one of integrity, committed by a man who could not continue lying just to meet the desires of others? Could we perhaps see that it is the love of the family that becomes an unnatural and selfish constraint upon the son, who is otherwise asked to abandon his self in order to please?
So the tale of the Prodigal Son becomes, in Malte’s rereading of it, a tale about ways of loving differently, about viewing our obligations to others differently, and about finding authenticity in a kind of open emptiness. Being receptive to the moment, being flexible, not compliant, becomes the guiding insight of the Prodigal Son. Even though this is the Prodigal Son’s story, the analogy with Malta and his writing is evident. For Malte, too, comfort has finally come in retelling old stories, at the risk of their distortion, so that they contain his personal truth, rather than producing any sort of traditional narrative. Malte abandons the stories that concern his own existence, because if he stares too long at his self it becomes an encumbrance, a paralysing act of self-hypnosis that fills him with anxiety. Malte and his Prodigal Son tell us that what lies closest to the heart, what forms the very substance of our soul, can never be approached directly and explained. It can only be spoken of in allegorical form and it can only be viewed indirectly, like the eclipse of the sun. To try to face it full on would leave us dazzled and overwhelmed, and certainly none the wiser.
This has long been one of my favourite books, although it disconcerts the reader over and over again. It makes you question your expectations of stories and what they should do, but it does so with that unmistakable ring of Rilke’s voice, his piercing and passionate sincerity.
ETA: do read Emma’s review also.