The Gothic elements of Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge surprise and delight me. I didn't expect the poet of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus to be a purveyor of ghost stories,a designer of haunted houses, a curator of candlelit picture galleries visited in the dead of night. These near para-literary elements don't diminish the work, however, because the larger context of high aestheticism and (especially) Modernist urban angst renders them Kafkaesque avant la lettre. And Rilke does depict anxiety and alienation as well as any of his Modernist contemporaries--and with an additional vivid urgency that brings to mind the lurid palette and slashing brushwork of Expressionist painting. Halfway through the book, I can already see that this is a rich work that demands multiple readings.
I wish Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer had adapted Malte to film. Imagine what either director might have done with the scene in which Malte watches the doctors pierce his dead father's heart.
Upon finishing the Notebooks, I have the same feeling that comes when I reach the end of any of Rilke's best poems: the desire to immediately return to the beginning and read it again, to try to catch the motifs, images and ideas that I missed the first time through. This is, as we all know, one of the defining characteristics of Modernist literature: it can only be re-read. On my first, preliminary dig into this text as rich as the hoard at Sutton Hoo, I'm struck by the motif of literal defacement (people's faces horrifyingly pulled off, injured or peeling) and how it might symbolize not only Malte's anxiety at the fragility of personality, the possibility of dissociation, the presence of death (' "Doden," he said. "Doden" '), but also the gradual self-effacement of Malte as a character, an object of narration. As the book progresses, Malte attempts to efface himself, to move from an object of narration (an acting character) to a subject or subjectivity of narration (a consciousness upon and through which narratives of others play). But the persistence of the defacement motif, which recurs like an object of obsession even in the historical narratives Malte recounts, foregrounds and thus foils the strategy of effacement. Malte's repeated attempts to protectively conceal himself behind other texts reveal themselves in the telling. His telling is a "tell" (as Joe Mantegna might say). Again, these are merely preliminary thoughts about a book that must be re-read. And I recommend that it be read slowly, not like a novel but like a long poem in prose.