1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge / The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell. This is Rilke’s only novel, first published in 1910; this translation is from 1982. (There have been a number of translations, most recently, I believe, Burton Pike’s in 2008. I am curious to read the others but I suspect I never will, since it’s Mitchell’s that I fell in love with early on and irrevocably and I can’t imagine letting myself be rewritten like that.) The Notebooks are often called “one of the first great modernist novels,” phrases like this, and are in a journal-like form that is based to a degree on Rilke’s letters from Paris to Lou Andreas-Salome. Brigge, the novel’s narrator, is a young Danish nobleman, living in Paris, a poet, wandering the city, subject to its poverty and decay.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I was in college, in fall 2002, in what at the time I thought was my senior year, in a class called “Nietzsche and Freud.” We were to read tons of Nietzsche and tons of Freud and then some literary works (Tristan Mann, Hermann Hesse, Rilke, some others). One could read everything in German or in English translation; the lectures were in English. I began the class determined to read everything in German (I had learned very good German in high school, which was at that time already slipping from me, is now almost gone), but in the end I read only English and very little of that. I was in a situation: I was sick, with some mysterious neurological illness that had begun the year before and seemed to be worsening, but since no one could explain what was happening, I was trying to continue to do everything normally, including running varsity cross-country, which considering the regular collapses I had was, as people kept telling me, “a bad idea.” The illness was returning increasingly often, in bizarre episodes, and so I was having a profoundly disorienting experience of time and my body. (I continue to have this experience, but through familiarity I am now better oriented.) The semester got messier and messier, until I reached the end (sort of—having had a bad reaction to a medication and needing to leave school suddenly, grabbing a bunch of extensions as I headed out the door), and realized I had final papers to write but had read almost nothing for any of my classes. I wish I could say this was due entirely to illness, but it wasn’t: I had a lot of discipline for certain things but often couldn’t quite make myself read for class, I’d end up wandering around instead. I suppose that’s a stereotypical description of “a writer,” but it’s also how I was. To this day I’ve read maybe 20 pages of Nietzsche, though obviously we were assigned several books by him (we were also meant to watch a taped performance of Wagner’s full Ring Cycle, all eight hours, can you believe it?). I had a strategy for my college classes at the time: write a somewhat shaky first couple papers, miss a bunch of class, but then write one killer final paper, which surprise and sign of improvement usually resulted in an A for the course, even if you had missed a lot in between (as I did, because of illness but also sometimes simple disinterest) or otherwise not been impressive or even adequate as a student. In the case of “Nietzsche and Freud” I had for the final to compare two books from a divided list of works we’d read in class, but when I looked at the list I had only read one of them.
One good thing, or maybe just one thing, about illness is that it grants your moments of health a real ferocity. As I recovered a little I set to work reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and could not have been angrier that someone was asking me to spend my time with this trash. In that entire disastrous autumn one of the only things I really remember, remember with the truer, deeper weight of memory, is this novel: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It was beautiful, it was something that could answer to my desperation, it was something anyone would be lucky just to get to spend time in. I wrote then about Rilke and Hesse with a fierce passion—a young passion, maybe the essay would be laughable now, but a real one, I remember how it felt to read The Notebooks, the struggle and disquiet of that time.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
A few years later I reread The Notebooks and this time wrote a novella in response. The novella was about, or “about,” a young woman studying in and wandering through Berlin, as well as an actor who is becoming passionate about climate change and imagining the end of days it might lead to. The novella is structured around a series of excerpts from texts that perhaps one or both of the narrators (the student, the actor) are reading. As perhaps you have already guessed, the novella was a failure. I undertook almost every experiment I could imagine within it, and it was all too much for one work to bear—I have not returned to it but I can’t think that it’s readable. It was an essential developmental text for me, though, the struggle that, having endured, having reached the end of, I was then able to write my first novel. And that novel, too, is largely about reading, although in this case, reading the news, reading about the war in Iraq.
We (dreamers, idiots, children, geniuses, whalers, Elvises) who want to spend so much of our lives writing, we for whom literature is so vital, must struggle daily with whatever variations we can stand of this question: what can a book stand for? what can a book be? what is it a cause of? When we write a novel we are writing in response to all we’ve read, we are writing back at it all and we are trying to write forward. The Notebooks have been in my life a work so powerful that I think it’s right to spend years trying to respond. When I wrote that essay and that novella in response to The Notebooks, I was trying to answer the larger question that still haunts/orients me and never only me: How do we speak about the texts that make us up?
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
The Notebooks begin with the heading “September 11, rue Toullier”; the first sentence is “So this is where people come to live; I would have thought it is a city to die in.” I read the novel, as I said, in fall 2002, when that date was particularly weighty, a coincidence one couldn’t quite shake off. Nor can I ever shake off those first lines. In German it’s “So, also hierher kommen die Leute, um zu leben, ich würde eher meinen, es stürbe sich hier.” In Pike’s translation, “So, this is where people come in order to live, I would have rather thought: to die.”
When I first read The Notebooks what I was particularly obsessed with—at the time being immersed in Buddhist philosophy, and thus attentive to the aspects of Eastern philosophy in Rilke and to his meditations on desire, selfhood, and god—were the symbolic “women in love” in the novel. Women whose love is essentially unrequited—in the words of my undergraduate self (why not? Safety! I’ll call it like a base, so that you can’t judge me—): “The unattainable quality of the object of her love and the nature of her sacrifice liken her love to the ideal love of God.” Who could summarize the novel’s thoughts on love, on god, on art, on self-surrender and freedom—instead I’ll just offer these lines, which indeed mystified and (in struggling to come to terms with them) transformed me: “To be loved means to be consumed in flames. To love is to give light with inexhaustible oil. To be loved is to pass away; to love is to endure.”
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
Most recently I typed a handful of passages on painting from The Notebooks into an email for a friend who is writing a beautiful novel on Egon Schiele.
Hilary Plum’s first novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, is forthcoming from FC2. She is co-director of Clockroot Books, a consulting editor with the Kenyon Review, and a contributing editor to Rescue Press. Some recent fiction can be found in DIAGRAM.