A young man named Malte Laurids Brigge lives in a cheap room in Paris while his belongings rot in storage. Every person he sees seems to carry their death within them and with little but a library card to distinguish him from the city's untouchables, he thinks of the deaths, and ghosts, of his aristocratic family, of which he is the sole living descendant. Suffused with passages of lyrical brilliance, Rilke's semi-autobiographical novel is a moving and powerful coming-of-age story.
We are so used to novels being narratives of action that when we meet something like this, it gives us pause. There really is no plot here as most people would conceive it. The narrator calls to mind Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, brooding and destitute. Malte is haunted by the doppelgangers that he lived with during his well-to-do childhood, all now long dead; he is the only member of his ancient Danish aristocratic family. The book flits in and out of memories of the deaths of his father and other relatives and their relationships. In many novels, one can easily separate, if one wishes, content and form; here they seem to belong to one another, the poetry and the memory inextricably intertwined.
Unlike many other reviewers, I wouldn't say that the novel is difficult reading, but it might not be something that you want to read in one or two sittings. Like the "Duino Elegies" or the "Sonnets to Orpheus," they are meant to be dipped into. The text (at least in this edition) is subdivided into seventy-one parts which serve as breaks for the narrative line of thought. If you will excuse the length, this is from section twenty-nine, and it is representative of the style throughout:
"One thing is certain: that on that evening I was drawing a knight, a quite solitary and unmistakable knight, mounted on a strangely caparisoned steed. He turned out so brightly colored that I had to change crayons frequently; but it was the red one that I used most of all, and reached for time and again. Now I needed it once again; but it rolled (I still see it) right across the brightened page, to the edge, and fell down, past me, before I could stop it, and was gone. I really did need it urgently, and having to climb down after it was distinctly vexing. Awkward as I was, it was quite a business to get down; my legs were far too long, and I couldn't draw them out from under me: remaining too long in a kneeling position had numbed my limbs; I could not tell what was mine and what was the chair's. At length, rather at sixes and sevens, I did make it to the floor, and found myself on an animal fell that extended under the table to the wall. But at this point I was confronted with a fresh difficulty. My eyes, accustomed to the brightness above and still wholly entranced by the colors on the white paper, were unable to make out anything at all below the table, where the blackness seemed so dense that I was afraid of knocking against it; so I fell back on my sense of touch and, kneeling and supporting myself on my left hand, combed through the cool, long-haired, familiar-feeling fell with my other hand. But there was no sign of the crayon."
The M.D. Herter Norton translation is intimate yet delicate: I'm not sure about other translations, but some of the original spirit no doubt emerges in any conscientious translation. A book not to be hurried; many passages invite immediate re-reading, and made me regret living in an age of interruptions.