The Bohemian-Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) remains one of the more popular and influential writers of the twentieth century. Rilke used impressionistic and expressionistic techniques, both of which influenced his writing towards a modernistic style that was to be imitated and expanded upon by a subsequent generation of writers. Greek mythological figures often exist is his work, but classical themes are typically replaced with those that began permeating the arts in the early 1900’s: that being a skepticism of life’s inherent meaning, a loss of faith in mankind itself despite a growing scientific awareness, and the seemingly meaningless nature of existence in the face of increased mechanization/industrialization of day to day existence.
Rilke’s one and only novel is The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, written between 1904 and 1910. The prose is lyrical and the writing somewhat autobiographical in the form of a journal with undated entries. The style is choppy (somewhat akin to stream of consciousness), not so much as I whined about with Gertrude Stein, but erratic none-the-less. There are unifying themes of self-awareness (especially the often false nature of appearances), death, and the fluidity of time (which he treats with elements of non-linear story telling). Existential elements permeate the work. A sense of detachment and alienation is paramount. These themes, especially the negative view of human nature and promise, were to dominate literature and the arts with the aftermath of World War I.
Here are some samples of Rilke’s writing in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, starting with a sample evoking time, change, and a sense of alienation from being alone in this world:
Today, while I was writing a letter, it struck me that I have been here just three weeks. Three weeks anywhere else, in the country for example, would be like one day; here they are years. And I don’t want to write any more letters. What’s the use of telling someone that I am changing? If I’m changing, I am no longer who I was; and if I’m something else, it’s obvious that I have no acquaintances. And I can’t possible write to strangers.
Rilke’s comment on the role of experience in writing poems is fabulous (though, paradoxically, much of our great poetry has come from writers in their youth):
Ah, but poems amount to so little when you write them to early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) — they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things…
Here, Rilke seems to hit on a sort of manifesto for modernists in rejecting our knowledge of the past:
Is it possible, it thinks, that we have not yet seen, known, or said anything real and important? Is it possible that we have had thousands of years to look, meditate, and record, and that we have let those thousands of years slip away like recess at school, when there is just enough time to eat your sandwich and an apple?
Yes, it is possible.
Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of life. Is it possible that even this surface, which might have still been something, has been covered with an incredibly tedious material, which makes it look like living-room furniture during the summer vacation?
Yes, it is possible.
Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood?…
Yes, it is possible.
Rilke further disregards history and tradition by downplaying the role they play in charting the future:
No, no, there is nothing in the world that can be imagined in advance, not the slightest thing. Everything is made up of so many unique particulars that are impossible to foresee. In imagination, we pass over them in our haste and don’t notice they’re missing. But realities are slow and indescribably detailed.
Lastly, an interesting thought to contemplate:
Fate loves to invent designs and patterns. Its difficulty lies in complexity. But life itself is difficult because of its simplicity. It has just a few elements, of a grandeur that we can never fathom.
In 1987, The Limited Editions Club (LEC) published a beautiful edition of this now classic work from Rilke. Interestingly, despite Rilke’s importance to modernism, the design of this edition is classic to the core. The book is bound, by Recalcati in Milan, in white full vellum with gilt imprint on the front cover & spine. This design is not really a contradiction, as in the early 1900’s fine books were often bound in full white vellum, so this homage to the time of this work being written is quite apropos. I find it very clean, simple and timeless. In fact, one of the best bound of LEC’s. The text is set in Monotype Didot, a type which is classic, elegant and yet strong. The text is printed on nicely textured Cartiere Enrico Magnani mould-made paper at the Stamperia Valdonega in Verona. This edition was published during the tail end of the transition of the LEC to a more livre d’artiste approach. Such time was a sweet spot in which the quality of the editions were extremely high, but had not yet moved into the super expensive ‘price is no object’ category. Such editions are accessible at a price point that is extremely reasonable considering the amazing level of quality and craftsmanship.
About the Edition
- Designed by Benjamin Schiff
- Translated by Stephen Mitchell
- Text set in Monotype Didot
- Printed on Cartiere Enrico Magnani mould-made paper at the Stamperia Valdonega in Verona
- Bound by Recalcati in Milan
- White full vellum with gilt imprint on front cover & spine
- Black cloth-covered slipcase
- Large octavo (7-1/2″ x 10-1/4″), 219 pages
- Limited to 800 copies, issued unsigned
Pictures of the Edition
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