The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Rainer Maria Rilke

This dreamlike meditation on being young and alone in Paris is a feverish work of nerves, angst and sublime beauty from one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.

‘There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.’

11 September, rue Toullier

This, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more of a place to die. I have been out. I saw hospitals. I saw one man who tottered and then collapsed. People gathered around him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She was inching ponderously along by a high, sun-warmed wall, occasionally touching it as if seeking assurance that it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I located it on my map: Maison d’Accouchement. Very well. She will be delivered of her child – that is where their skill lies. Further on, rue Saint-Jacques, a large building with a cupola. The map read: Val-de-Grâce, hôpital militaire. That I did not need to know, but it does no harm. The street began to smell from all sides. As far as I could distinguish the odours, it smelled of iodoform, the fat in which pommes frites are fried, and fear. Every city reeks in summer. Then I saw a building curiously blinded with cataracts, unmarked on the map, though the words over the door were still quite legible: Asyle de nuit. Beside the entrance was the tariff of charges. I read it through. It was not expensive.

What else? a baby in a halted pram, plump, greenish, with quite a rash on its forehead. The rash was clearly healing and not painful. The child was asleep, its mouth hung open, it was breathing in iodoform, pommes frites, fear. That was simply the way it was. The main thing was to be living. That was the main thing.

That I cannot give up sleeping with the window open! The trams rattle jangling through my room. Automobiles drive over me. A door slams. Somewhere a window smashes; I hear the laughter of the larger shards and the sniggering of the splinters. Then suddenly a thudding, muffled noise from the other direction, inside the house. Someone is climbing the stairs, coming, coming steadily, reaches my door, pauses for some time, then goes on. And once again the street. A girl shrieks: ‘Ah, tais-toi, je ne veux plus!’ The tram races up all agitated, then rushes on headlong. Somebody shouts. People are running, overtaking each other. A dog barks. What relief: a dog. Around dawn, a cock even crows, affording balm unlimited. Then quite abruptly I fall asleep.

Those are the sounds I hear. But there is something more fearful still: the silence. I have a notion that, at big fires, a moment of extreme suspense can sometimes occur, when the jets of water slacken off, the firemen no longer climb, no one moves a muscle. Without a sound, a high black wall of masonry cants over up above, the fire blazing behind it, and, without a sound, leans, about to topple. Everyone stands waiting, shoulders tensed, faces drawn in around their eyes, for the terrible crash. That is how the silence is here.

I am learning to see. Why, I cannot say, but all things enter more deeply into me; nor do the impressions remain at the level where they used to cease. There is a place within me of which I knew nothing. Now all things tend that way. I do not know what happens there.

Today, as I was writing a letter, I realized that I have been here for a mere three weeks. Three weeks in some other place – say, in the country – could seem a day; here they are years. I have resolved to write no more letters. Why should I inform anyone of the changes within me? If I am changing, I no longer remain the person I was, and if I become someone else, it follows that I have no friends or acquaintances. And to write to strangers, to people who do not know me, is quite out of the question.

Have I mentioned already that I am learning to see? Yes, I am making a start. I have not made much progress yet, but I mean to make the most of my time.

To think, for example, that I have never consciously registered just how many faces there are. There are a great many people, but there are a great many more faces, for every person has several. There are people who wear the same face for years on end; naturally it shows signs of wear, it gets dirty, it cracks at the creases, it splays out like gloves worn on a journey. These are simple people, practising economies, and they do not change their face or even have it cleaned. It’ll do fine, they insist, and who is to prove them wrong? The question, of course, since they have several faces, is what they do with the others. They keep them for best: their children can wear them some day. But it has been known for their dogs to go out wearing them, too. And why not? A face is a face.

Other people are disconcertingly quick to change their faces, one after another, and they wear them out. At first they suppose they have enough to last for ever, but hardly have they reached forty when they come to the last of them. There is of course a tragic side to this. They are not used to looking after their faces; the last is worn out in a week, holed and paper-thin in numerous places, and little by little the underlay shows through, the non-face, and they go about wearing that.

But that woman, that woman: she was wholly immersed within herself, bowed forward, head in hands. It was at the corner of the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. The moment I saw her, I began to tread softly. The poor should not be disturbed when they are lost in thought. The thing they are trying to think of may yet come to them.

The street was too deserted, its emptiness was wearied with itself and pulled out the footfall from under my feet and banged it about as if it were knocking a wooden clog. The woman was startled and started out of herself too rapidly and roughly, so that her face was left in her hands. I could see it lying in them, the hollow mould of it. It cost me an indescribable effort to keep my gaze on those hands and not look at what had been torn from out of them. I was appalled to see the inside of the facial mask, but I was far more terrified still of seeing a head bare and stripped of its face.

I am afraid. It is essential to do something about your fear once you are afraid. It would be odious to fall ill here, and, if anyone thought of taking me to the Hôtel-Dieu, I should indubitably die there. The Hôtel is very pleasant, and extremely popular. It is hardly possible to view the façade of the cathedral of Paris without the risk of being run over by one of the many vehicles speeding as fast as they can go across the square to the Hôtel. These little omnibuses ring their bells continuously, and even the Duc de Sagan would needs have his carriage halted if some person or other at death’s door took it into his head that he had to get to God’s own Hôtel. The dying will have their way, and the whole of Paris stops in its tracks if Madame Legrand, the brocanteuse in the rue des Martyrs, comes to this Cité square. It is worth noting that these fiendish little vehicles have frosted-glass windows that excite the imagination quite extraordinarily: it takes no more than a concierge’s powers to picture the most extravagant agonies behind them, and if one is possessed of greater imaginative resources, and allows them to wander freely in other directions, there need be no limit to speculation. But I have also seen open hackney carriages arriving, hired cabs with the tops folded down, making the trip for the standard fare of two francs per hour of death throes.

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