I don’t imagine that I will always read. I hope not, anyway. For someone who is so scared of death it is rather perverse, or certainly absurd, that I spend so much of my time amongst the dead, instead of engaging with the world around me. Indeed, that is why I started reading heavily, it was, I’m sure, a way of turning away from a world that I so often felt, and still feel, at odds with, towards another that I could control and which did not challenge me. With books, I can pick and choose a sensibility, an outlook, that chimes with my own and I can guarantee company and conversation that I don’t find alienating or dispiriting. To this end, I have read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge three times. As a novel it is something of a failure, but large parts of it resonate with me as much as, if not more than, any writing ever set down on paper.
“My last hope was always the window. I imagined that outside there, there still might be something that belonged to me, even now, even in this sudden poverty of dying. But scarcely had I looked thither when I wished the window had been barricaded, blocked up, like the wall. For now I knew that things were going on out there in the same indifferent way, that out there, too, there was nothing but my loneliness.”
The Notebooks is essentially the thoughts, memories and impressions of Malte, a twenty-eight year old Dane who has recently moved to Paris. There are a number of well-known but now dated novels that deal with the ex-pat experience, such as Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, novels that are invariably marred by machismo and pretension. The Notebooks, however, contains none of that. Rilke’s Paris isn’t a playboy’s playground, littered with booze and whores; it is a ‘great’ city, full of ‘curious temptations,’ but there is nothing glamorous about it and no sense that Malte is living some kind of mock-heroic existence. Indeed, in the opening line of the novel he states that Paris is a place where, it strikes him, one does not go to live, but where one goes to die; it is a place that smells of pommes frites and fear.
That Malte is the last, or one of the last, in his family line is trebly significant, for he is preoccupied with death, with solitude, and with nostalgia. One notices that, again in contrast with many other similar novels, there is not one living character with whom he regularly engages or communicates. In Paris he is an observer, making notes about ordinary citizens, but never interacting with them. For example, he sees a pregnant woman ‘inching ponderously along by a high, sun-warmed wall’ as though ‘seeking assurance that it was still there,’ he watches a man collapse, and then another who has some kind of physical ailment that causes him to hop and jerk suddenly. He appears to be drawn to the eccentric and lost, the suffering and down-trodden, no doubt because he identifies with them, but he remains alone and isolated himself. Towards the end of the novel he states that he once felt a loneliness of such enormity that his heart was not equal to it.
However, when he is surrounded by people, such as when there is a carnival, he describes it as a ‘vicious tide of humanity’ and notes how laughter oozes from their mouths like pus from a wound. Malte is the kind of man who lives mostly in his head, who, although he encourages his solitude, is scared of losing his connection with the world, of withdrawing and parting from it. At one point he goes to the library, and praises it as a place where people are so engrossed in their reading that they barely acknowledge each other. He spends his time strolling to little shops, book dealers and antique places, that, he says, no one ever visits. Once more, we see an interest in obscure things, in things that have been forgotten or neglected. One of my favourite passages is when he comes upon a torn down building, and he states that it is the bit that is left that interests him, the last remaining wall with little bits of floor still visible. It is the suggestion of something once whole, once fully functioning that grabs his attention.
[Rainer Maria Rilke – left – and Auguste Rodin in Paris]
As noted, much of the book is concerned with Malte’s memories regarding his family, specifically in relation to his childhood. One understands how this – his upbringing and family situation – may have gone some way to making him the man he is. He is taciturn, he says, and then notes how his father was too. His father was not fond of physical affection either. Later, in one of the more autobiographical anecdotes, Malte talks about his mother’s mourning for a dead child, a little girl, and how he would pretend to be Sophie [the name of Rilke’s own mother] in an effort to please her. It is therefore not a surprise that he is highly sensitive, inward-looking and ill at ease with himself. Indeed, there is much in The Notebooks about identity and individuality. There are, Malte says, no plurals, there is no women, only singularities; he baulks at the term family, saying that the four people under this umbrella did not belong together. Furthermore, at one stage he fools around, dressing up in different costumes, in which he feels more himself, not less; but then he tries on a mask and has some kind of emotional breakdown.
All of these things – ruins, obscurity, deformity, ailments, nostalgia, the self, loneliness – come together in what is the book’s dominant theme, which is that of death. Only Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych and Lampedusa’s The Leopard contain as much heartrending insight into the subject. There are numerous passages and quotes I could discuss or lift from the text, but, not wanting to ruin your own reading, I will focus on only one. When writing about individuality, Malte bemoans the fact, as he sees it, that people do not die their own deaths anymore, they die the death of their illness, they become their illness and their passing, therefore, has nothing to do with them. In sanatoriums, he continues, people die ‘so readily and with much gratitude’; the upper classes die a genteel death at home, and the lower-classes are simply happy to find a death that ‘more or less fits.’
“Who is there today who still cares about a well-finished death? No one. Even the rich, who could after all afford this luxury, are beginning to grow lazy and indifferent; the desire to have a death of one’s own is becoming more and more rare. In a short time it will be as rare as a life of one’s own.”
Malte contrasts these predictable, unheroic deaths with that of his uncle, Chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge. The old Chamberlain died extravagantly; his death was so huge that new wings of the house ought to have been built to accommodate it. He shouted and made demands, demands to see people – both living and dead – and demands to die. This voice plagued the locals, keeping them in a state of agitation; it was a voice louder than the church bells…it was the voice of death, not of Christoph, and it became the master, a more terrible master than the Chamberlain had ever been himself. The point that Malte is making seems to be that one should not go gentle into that good night, that one should not accept the death that most pleases others, that causes the least amount of fuss. You will die, there is no escape, it is within you, your death, from the very first moment, you carry it with you at all times, but you do not have to go out with a whimper.
One might also argue that in looking to the past, in tracing his memories, Malte is running away from death, or that he is attempting to give death the finger, by turning back the clock and keeping these people alive in his own mind and on paper. In any case, it is not difficult to see how for someone so introspective death would be a major concern, for death robs you of that, it prevents everything, it brings everything to a stop, including the ability to think. You cease to be, and what truly makes you yourself is not your appearance, but your thoughts and your experiences. I wonder if this is why, towards the very end of the novel, Malte suddenly begins to write about Christ and God, even going so far as to write to them. Is this a final, cowardly bid to convince himself that death is not the end? I don’t know, but it is fair to say that The Notebooks does lose its way in the final ten or twenty pages.
I wrote at the beginning of this review that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a failure as a novel and this probably warrants further explanation. Rather like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which it resembles in many ways actually, I imagine that some readers will find it difficult to read the book cover-to-cover. There is absolutely no plot, and many of the entries do not follow on from the previous one. Moreover, after a few pages about Paris, which I would guess serve to draw in a number of people, the focus abruptly shifts, and the book then becomes increasingly strange and elusive, with a relentless interiority. None of this bothers me, however. While I do hope to give up reading one day, I will, without question, carry this book around inside me for the rest of my life, rather like my death.