The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

[This page by Marielle Sutherland]

Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)

Rilke continues his experimentation with structure during this middle period with one of the first great modernist novels, Malte Laurids Brigge. Malte is a young Danish flâneur of noble origin adrift in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century and trying to become a poet. He is a semi-autobiographical figure who also resembles Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Paris is an anonymous, merciless, industrialised city: teeming with vehicles, overcrowded, unbearably loud, ridden with poverty, insanity, disease and institutionalised death. Malte feels exposed, isolated and alienated, facing the challenge of writing, of forging and sustaining a sense of self and a personal relation to death.

Malte is determined to ‘learn to see’, to face, absorb and express the negative aesthetic of this new urban reality. He is a modernist artist who feels challenged to find a language for the transitory, the repulsive, the broken and abject aspects of the modern world. Beauty and traditional forms no longer offer adequate expression in an age of anxiety, and Rilke, through Malte, is trying in this ‘novel’ to articulate and transform what he sees and experiences in art: e.g. a dilapidated house, a blind cauliflower peddlar. Malte admires Baudelaire’s poem ‘Une Charogne’ because it turns a rotting corpse into art without beautifying it in any way, and affirms its existence. Malte tries to transform and articulate the ruptures and traumas of modern existence as well as those personal to his childhood, such as being dressed as a girl and witnessing his father’s heart being pierced after death because he was so deeply afraid of being buried alive.

This is Rilke’s only ‘novel’, but the title suggests ‘notes’, fragments, impressions rather than coherent plot and narrative. At the beginning the notes appear in diary form, but neither chronological nor linear progression follows. Instead, the notes shift restlessly between observations of Parisian reality, commentaries on the disrupted nature of perception, childhood memories and reinterpretations of historical figures such as Jeanne d’Arc [Joan of Arc] and Ivan the Terrible.

Malte’s Notebooks attempt the enormous task of existing and writing faced with how incomprehensible and incapacitating the elements of modern life and the certainty of death had become. This task was also Rilke’s own, and writing Malte Laurids Brigge was a slow and agonising process. Rilke’s sense of alienation and linguistic crisis led to years of silence.

Opening paragraph:

11. September, Rue Toullier.

So, also hierher kommen die Leute, um zu leben, ich würde eher meinen, es stürbe sich hier. Ich bin ausgewesen. Ich habe gesehen: Hospitäler. Ich habe einen Menschen gesehen, welcher schwankte und umsank. Die Leute versammelten sich um ihn, das ersparte mir den Rest. Ich habe eine schwangere Frau gesehen. Sie schob sich schwer an einer hohen, warmen Mauer entlang, nach der sie manchmal tastete, wie um sich zu überzeugen, ob sie noch da sei. Ja, sie war noch da. Dahinter? Ich suchte auf meinem Plan: Maison d'Accouchement. Gut. Man wird sie entbinden – man kann das. Weiter, Rue Saint-Jacques, ein großes Gebäude mit einer Kuppel. Der Plan gab an Val-ge-grâce, Hôpital militaire. Das brauchte ich eigentlich nicht zu wissen, aber es schadet nicht. Die Gasse begann von allen Seiten zu riechen. Es roch, soviel sich unterscheiden ließ, nach Jodoform, nach dem Fett von Pommes frites, nach Angst. Alle Städte riechen im Sommer. Dann habe ich ein eigentümlich starblindes Haus gesehen, es war im Plan nicht zu finden, aber über der Tür stand noch ziemlich leserlich: Asyle de nuit. Neben dem Eingang waren die Preise. Ich habe sie gelesen. Es war nicht teuer.

11th September, Rue Toullier.

So, this is where people come in order to live; I actually think this is a place of death. I have been out. I have seen: hospitals. I saw a man who staggered and collapsed. People gathered around him; that spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She was pushing herself with difficulty along a high, warm wall, which sometimes she reached out to touch as if to convince herself that it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind it? I looked on my map: Maison d'Accouchement. Good. They will deliver her baby—they can do that. Further on, rue Saint-Jacques: a big building with a dome. The map indicated Val-de-Grâce, Hôspital militaire. I didn't really need to know that, but it does no harm. The street began to smell from every direction. It smelled, as far as one could distinguish, of iodoform, pommes frites grease, of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a curiously cataract-blind house. It wasn't on the map, but over the door it said, fairly legibly: Asyle de nuit. Beside the entrance were the prices. I read them. It was not expensive.


Malte records his first day in Paris, and his attention is drawn not to the famous, beautiful and historical landmarks, but to the vulnerable, suffering people on the streets. He orientates himself by these figures, checking their location against his map and discovering a landscape of institutions of birth, death and sex. There is a sense of people hovering on the borderline between life and death: the man collapsing in the open street; the pregnant woman reaching out for something to keep her stable and define the bounds of her existence; the military hospital with its reminders of war’s violence and destruction. He has gone out in order to ‘see’ and allow himself to be confronted by the urban realities of this twentieth century city. The reader follows his eye as it moves from object to map and back again, mostly shifting uneasily in the breathless shorter sentences, sometimes dwelling in the longer sentences on fragments within scenes or on sensory experiences. The smells of the city are putrid and penetrating, accentuated by the warm weather. The industrial, institutional smell of iodoform and the grease from the French fries are nauseating and malignant. The city’s corruption extends to its illicit underworld, absent from the map, shut off to the world of daylight and masquerading under a euphemistic name. The first ‘note’ conveys uprootedness and dislocation, attempted orientation and fear of an anonymous, institutionalised extinction.

Further Reading

Robert Britten, ‘“Blick und Gebärde”: Embodied Perception in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge’, Monatshefte 114:1 (2022), 66-84

Rey Conquer, ‘Making Sense: Hands, Faces & Creation in Rilke’s Auguste Rodin and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge’, Oxford German Studies 48:2 (2019), 240-60

William H. Gass, introduction to Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1985)

Stefanie Harris, ‘Exposures: Rilke, Photography, and the City’, New German Critique 99 (2006), 121-50

Andreas Huyssen, 'Paris/Childhood: The Fragmented Body in Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge', in Modernity and the Text: Revisions of German Modernism, ed. by David Bathrick and Andreas Huyssen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), pp. 113-41

Andreas Huyssen, Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), Chapter 1 on Malte Laurids Brigge and Baudelaire

Lorna Martens, The Promise of Memory: Childhood Recollection and its Objects in Literary Modernism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), Chapter 2 on Malte Laurids Brigge, pp. 99-136

Michael Minden, ‘Modernism’s Struggle for the Soul: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina’, German Life and Letters 67:3 (2014), 320-40

Judith Ryan, The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), Chapter 4 on Malte Laurids Brigge

Walter H. Sokel, 'The Devolution of the Self in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge', in Rilke: The Alchemy of Alienation, ed. by Frank Baron, Ernest S. Dick, Warren R. Maurer (Lawrence: Regents Press of the University of Kansas, 1986), pp. 171-90

Theodore Ziolkowski, Dimensions of the Modern Novel: German Texts and European Contexts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), Chapter 1 on Malte Laurids Brigge, pp. 3-36

Web Link

Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge in German; click on a word for the English translation