Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Hallmark cards for highbrows: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

I was thinking of calling this review “Germans are wankers”, but Rilke wasn’t a German, he only wrote in it. And then I remembered I’ve read half a dozen books in the last twelve months translated from German (by Mann, Bernhard, Walser, Schlink, Süskind, Goethe), and had to admit a certain fondness for them. Thomas Bernhard in particular, whose Extinction I consider one of the greatest books I’ve ever read; but whom like Rilke wasn’t German. An Austrian, in fact, which in Obama-world meant he technically wrote in Austrian, I suppose. Although he hated Austria. Bernhard, not Obama. I don’t know what the smartest guy in the room thought about anything. So I scotched the ‘wanker’ headline. But a small part of me wants to keep it. Here’s why.  

I read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther last year, a book whose protagonist needs a sound hiding if ever one did. Instead, readers are presented characters who tolerate a self-centred half-wit who, after falling in love with another man’s wife, falls into a deep funk that spirals ever downward. At least it’s a short book, and the titular Werther’s poetic meanderings are mercifully abbreviated. Which is more than I can say for Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Are Germans bereft of compassion? Seven-hundred pages of the brain-addled Hans Castorp in a sanatorium in Davos, of all places (although we can’t hold the asinine meetings held there these days against Mr. Mann), is more than a slog. Interestingly, I look back on my days with TMM with something approaching love. Perhaps it’s Stockholm syndrome. And then there’s Mr. Bernhard, who believes paragraphs are redundant. Extinction, if memory serves, has two (one for each of the two parts that comprise it). And yet I was over the moon about it.

So I knew what I was getting into with Rilke. Especially when the blurb noted the book was “too original to be classified under any fixed genre.” Obviously code for “not suitable for anyone suspicious of hipsters and 62 genders.” And to be honest, it’s not. I mean, not suitable for anyone with common sense and a healthy scepticism for all that is trendy and trite. But somehow, I came away thinking it wasn’t as bad on the whole as the parts made it out to be. For a book that eschews plot like Bill Clinton eschews consent, and is not much more than a long ramble through the mind of a pretentious poet in Paris – thus making all other German writers look positively conventional – it held my attention. In part, I think, because of the writing. It’s not easy going, but after a while you sense a rhythm to Rilke's madness (and it is madness) and a kind of calm settles over you. And you just keep on plodding along until the end.

I’m not surprised Rilke only wrote one novel. Just as I’m not surprised he wrote in German.

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