This remarkable book is the only novel by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the greatest German-language poet of his time. It is, in a sense, a true curiosity – dark and intense – and possesses, not surprisingly, strong elements of autobiography. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge), has even been described as an anti-novel. It is set in Paris in the period just before the First World War, but it presents a bleaker milieu than that described by Proust. The language is terse, the atmosphere painful, the images uncompromising. Rilke drew on the short period he spent in Paris in 1903 where, in contrast to the rural circumstances in which he had lived before, he found the underbelly of urban life distressing He saw the sick, the vagrants, the beggars and those descending into mental and emotional confusion and despair. And he worried that he, too, might become like them. This is the theme he explores in the Notebooks in a first-person torrent of observation and reflection. Malte, a young Dane with little money but with the aspiration to be a poet) expresses a continuing uncertainty and unease, in the form of a diary, without obvious timeline or direction, except for its increasing intensity. Published in 1910, ‘The Notebooks’ is a striking contrast to the crafted, polished poetry for which Rilke was better known. It has affected and been admired by many writers since, including Jean-Paul Sartre. Jamie Parker’s reading underpins the fear and the tension of the work. Translation William Needham.
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