Horror? Probably not. Devotees of his Duino Elegies know that “every angel is terrifying,” sure, but his poems show him to be more a master of contemplation than of suspense. But in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke’s gets downright spooky, writing the kind of unnerving scenes I can only dream about writing.
Take this moment, when young Malte’s alone in the library, coloring a very grand and variegated knight on his paper. He drops his much-needed red crayon behind the desk:
“I had to negotiate all sorts of maneuvers to get down: my legs seemed much to long…finally I did get down, somewhat confused, and found myself on an animal skin that reached under the table back to the wall…I imagined I was losing a lot of time, and was about to call Mademoiselle and ask her to hold the lamp for me, when I noticed that the darkness was slowly becoming penetrable to my involuntarily straining eyes…I recognized my own, outstretched hand moving around down below all by itself, a little like some aquatic animal investigating the bottom…but how could I have been prepared for another hand suddenly coming out of the wall toward mine, a bigger, uncommonly skinny hand of a kind I had never seen…and both hands were blindly moving toward each other.”
Reading this scene for the first time was enough to give me goosebumps on the back of my neck, and to make me do a quick check under my own desk for any uncommonly skinny, disembodied hands. I think Rilke knows something important that he demonstrates in this scene: nothing’s ever so terrifying as it is when you’re a child. When you’re five or six, that shadow in the corner moves, dammit. It’s not a chair, it’s not a stuffed animal, it’s not a coat. It’s something evil, and it bloody well moves when your alone. You’re sure of it. Still, it’s comforting to have your parents come in the room, demonstrate the physics of shadows.
But Rilke won’t even let us have that comfort; later, young Malte and his family visit neighbors whose home has recently been devastated by fire. The adults, paranoid about the smell of smoke, hunt phantom scents that haunt the home like ghosts:
” ‘Mama smells something,’ Vera Schulin said behind him, “we must all be quiet, she smells with her ears.” My father slowly turned around in a circle, as if he had the smell behind him…It struck me that all the distinctly grown-up people who had just been talking and laughing were going around bent over and busying themselves with something invisible…and it was horrible that it was stronger than all of them.”
Malte realizes there is more in the world than he can understand or his parents can protect him from. He says “something had come into my life, right into my life, which I would have to carry around alone, always and always.”
For me, what makes these frightening interludes in Notebooks so compelling is that Rilke isn’t dumbing down his language to describe a child’s experience. I often suspect an author who makes a kid’s perception of the world simplistic of using a defense mechanism, not an opening up into a universal, human experience.
Rilke gives Malte all the complexity and depth of feeling we know ourselves to have even as children. Lately, I’ve been hearing a great deal about the fact that a narrative voice in a young adult novel needs to immediately accessible. I fear this can be a way of reducing experiences like Malte’s to cheap fright, devoid of the true insights that we can have at any stage of life. Writers like Rilke give voice not to children only, and not to adults only, but to people. People learning how to live in the world, whatever their age.