Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the more influential poets of the last century. Writing in German, his verse is lyrically intense and often mysterious. Critically Rilke is best considered a strong influence moving away from the traditional into the modernist forms of poetry and prose where introspection and critical observation began to supplant the traditional themes and techniques. Rilke wrote only one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge addresses what we now consider common existential themes: the quest for individuality, the experiences of life, and the significance of death. Heavily influenced by the writings of Nietzsche, Rilke, like many modernists, selected images of the industrial revolution and the age of scientific progress to project the anxiety and alienation of the period.
I found reading this novel a bit of a chore: not because it was too difficult but because it was chunked and not smooth sailing in the narrative. Although short, the novel moved between more plot-like elements into more psychological or philosophical discussions and back, much like Mann’s Magic Mountain. I did, however, find sections and passages incredibly well written and evocative, so I suspect a second or even a third reading will help to smooth out the bumps.
The novel is not long and, as I said, it’s not really a difficult read (especially if you are used to German literature in translation). I recommend adding The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge to your reading list to experience a great writer and an influential thinker from the last century. When you finish reading Rilke you will wonder why you ever wasted all that time reading fluff like Harry Potter.
Next, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for more fun … or maybe a frisky romp through The Cantos.