30 March 2010

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rainer Maria Rilke)

I am a creature of extremes. Some days, I will achieve nothing. Yes, I will rise. Eat. Continue to exist. Ensure none of the children left in my care catch on fire. But those little yellow slips listing activities to achieve will remain depressingly devoid of bright red ticks. Years ago I worked out the trick. If I do just ONE THING on one of those lists I will inevitably do everything I wanted to achieve that month in a single day. ONE THING is all it takes to get the ball rolling.

This morning, my friends, that ONE THING was deep-fried Cadbury's Caramel Eggs. Frozen caramel eggs, wrapped in doughnut batter, deep-fried. I could attempt to justify these mini odes to heart failure, but I fear any defence I cobbled together would essentially be semantically null. I had promised the kiddywinks an Easter treat and, having delivered what can only be described as the Best Easter Treat That Ever There Was, I immediately rolled onto the next thing on my list- my next review!

I apologise so very much for the lack of posting this year. A friend who reads the blog regularly confessed that he now diligently reads every book we post about. Considering the speed of his reading and the turtle-slowness of our reviewing he is filling in the gaps with In Search of Lost Time. Kudos to N in that this is probably the best way to read Proust. I read all seven volumes one after the other and by the end of it my amazement with the prose was rather over-shadowed by my great desire for Proust to have run out of paper and ink about ten thousand words earlier.

Today, however, is not about good old Marcel. Nor is it about deep-fried Cadbury's Caramel Eggs (thank you Peabody), contrary to what the first part of this post may indicate. It is about Malte, the overly morbid and depressing young narrator of the German poet Rilke's only novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

I am in the very bad habit of scribbling on books that I read. It's because I am an English major. Mostly it is incoherent scribbling, but I do like to underline little bite-sized lettered gems that tickle my fancy. If I were to do this in Notebooks, entire pages would be underlined. For Rilke, plot seems to be largely irrelevant, especially the establishment of any discernible linear structure to said plot. Instead, each paragraph tackles a new idea afresh, with characters only occasionally overlapping. An unknown man in a hospital waiting room is given as much importance as Malte's father, demonstrating the author's erratic fixation of topics as well as Malte's emotionally absent state.

As a result of this format, this became a novel I was able to pick up and put down, which is helpful when taking into consideration my line of work, the London transport system and my woefully short attention span. One particular topic Malte expounds on is the 'woman who is left behind', when her lover betrays her or is brutally slain in battle (obviously there are quite a few other ways in which she can be left behind but those two in particular spring to mind.) There is a bemused worshipping of women that occurs throughout the novel, Malte seems to understand women all too well, he is startlingly sensitive when talking about them, but his tentativeness seems to suggest he suspects women (as a whole) could turn on him at any time. This timidity probably stems from the fact his mother used to dress him up as a girl and refer to him as Sophie.

You can see why Rilke is known as a poet rather than an author- this is really a collection of lengthy prose poetry, without any rhythm or structure. So, poetry written by someone who couldn't actually be bothered to write poetry. Notebooks is perhaps the actual notes of Rilke, who, jotting down ideas for his poetry and subsequently realising just how many genius thoughts he had, saw the task of turning them into poetry too gargantuan. Having already achieved some fame as a poet, he decided to take a punt and see if the publisher would take his word for it that this was a novel, rather than his riverside scribblings.

Rating: 7/10.
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