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Rainer Maria Rilke: Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge)

Rilke’s only novel is about death and the rejection of love. The hero/narrator Malte Brigge, the 28 year old Danish minor aristocrat and poet, takes the view of Rilke, namely that each person’s death is as unique as his face or personality and that love not only does not bring us together but drives us further apart.

At the start of the novel, we find Brigge in Paris. What he sees is death and misery. This is not, for example, the death and misery of Hugo’s Les Misérables where the suffering of humanity is caused by others but, rather, a view of the world which sees misery and death everywhere – a bleak hospital, a ruined building, a pregnant woman. We learn of his past, a fairly conventional but unhappy childhood, coloured by death. (Like Rilke himself, his mother wanted a girl.) We meet his grandmother – as a ghost. He describes the death of various family members far more than he describes their life.

Love is, of course, no solution. He is in love with Abalone, his mother’s youngest sister yet despite or, more probably, because of his idealized view of love he is unable to establish a proper relationship with her or another woman. Indeed, as he shows us in this relationship and elsewhere, love pulls us apart rather than brings us together. However, it is the images of death that stand out in this novel. These are not the images of carnage that we find in many modern novels nor the glamourising of death in Gothic style but the recognition that death – our own death – is just as much an integral part of us and unique to us as is our life. From the ghostly grandmother to the bodies in the ice (eerily prefiguring the dead horses in the ice in Malaparte‘s Kaputt) to the surgical stabbing of his father, death is ever-present and the theme of this novel. It will come to be a theme of other Austrians and other Europeans. Rilke’s only novel, however, is as fine a treatment of death as you will find.

Publishing history

First published 1910 by Insel-Verlag, Leipzig
First published in English 1930 by The Hogarth Press
Translated by M.D. Herter Norton (earlier editions), Stephen Mitchell (Random House), Michael Hulse (Penguin), Robert Vilain (OUP)