Those who read it young remember a flickering phantasmagoria, a sequence of real and surreal scenes reflected on the inner waters of the poet’s imagination. Even the title of Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, published in 1910, suggests an actual notebook, a reservoir of images meant for use in poems. Malte Brigge’s great themes are the same as Rilke’s, and Malte’s attempts to think them through can seem tentative, like so many rope ladders flung up into empty air. But the great poetry cycles that Rilke completed a decade later, the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, circle around their themes in like manner, not tapering straight toward a point but blocking out the massive slopes that, each in turn, seem to foreshorten the peak of a very real, solid mountain. Despite appearances, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is highly structured, and upon careful reading becomes, definitively, a novel. The Notebooks comes from the epicenter of Modernism, discordant and fragmentary. And its reactions to the contradictions of its moment, like those of many other works of romantic spleen, could uncharitably be called overreactions. Its famous set pieces of urban alienation come early.
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