Rilke’s one and only novel is a mysterious, beautifully written, baffling modernist stew. Reading it for the third time, I was struck again by its yearning and incompleteness, its meditative and incantatory qualities, and the sense it gives us of loneliness and despair, without removing hope and the potential for redemption.
The protagonist is a struggling young poet, living in Paris, poverty stricken, seemingly quite alone. He is neither successful at his craft, nor completely defeated. Rilke presents Malte in the present, lets him take us back in time into his childhood, and also much further back, into the Middle Ages. This is done in a seemingly random fashion, but works. Fits. Amplifies what comes before and after. The voice of Malte is erudite, extremely knowledgeable about obscure historical figures and, like Rilke, interested in the vagaries of love. Both Malte and his author see women as loving better, more passionately, more selflessly than men. Both Malte and his author see loving itself as superior to being loved. For them, being loved means being consumed by fire. Loving creates that fire. This is extended to their idea of God. Mysteriously, that god does not love back. It is the Beloved, but never the Lover. Though it is not explicit in Malte’s meditations on the theme, I have always gotten the sense that he sees God as the exception to the rule. Humans who are beloved are consumed by the fire of love. God can never be.
Rilke worked on the novel from 1904 until 1910, when it was published. He struggled with it, with its form, content, meaning. He put a tremendous amount of time in research for the novel, mastering many periods of art history, learning about famous and not so famous men and women from ancient to modern times. The book is filled with names that have been lost to us for the most part, but who might bring interest if investigated. Especially the once famous lovers he talks about. Gaspara Stampa, Goethe’s Bettina, the Portuguese Nun (Marianna Alcoforado), the Blessed Rose of Lima (Isabel Flores de Oliva) and Louis Labbé. Malte talks about nobles, kings and queens, popes and saints, and layers the book with richness and romanticism, leavened by his present day penury. Leavened by his longing for his childhood in Denmark, for the ecccentric characters of his youth, his relatives and friends.
The book shows the influence of Nietzsche and Doystoevsky (especially where Malte talks about his neighbor hoarding minutes like money). Baudelaire, Cezanne and Rodin. Descriptions of Paris remind me of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, and the frequent mention of art and images link back to Cezanne and Rilke’s teacher Rodin, in their constructive qualities, in their juxtapositions and formations. The Notebooks inspired writers like Sartre, especially his novel La Nauseé.
Burton Pike’s new translation is wonderful. My first two readings were of the translation done by M.D. Herter Norton. Pike’s seems richer, more vibrant. His introduction is also excellent. But having both books is helpful, in that the Norton Library addition has very good notes at the end. A reader in 2009 needs those notes to follow Malte a bit more closely.