Lawrence Durrell on Rainer Maria Rilke’s
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
“Alle Uhren stehen” (All Clocks Stop or Time Stops).
“Lawrence Durrell über einen deutschen Roman, der ihm wichtig wurde” (Lawrence Durrell on the importance of a German novel).
Editor’s note: When editing Lawrence Durrell’s Endpapers and Inklings 1933-1988 (2019) I took out an “insurance policy’ –I predicted that at some stage it was more than likely that items I had either failed to locate or had somehow overlooked would come to light. The following is a confirmation of that prediction. We are grateful to Bruce Redwine for his translation of this review by Durrell of Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), which appeared in Die Zeit (Hamburg): 27 July 1962. It is followed by Redwine’s “Commentary” on the review.
There are few works in the prose of great poets, whose readings are as stimulating
and exacting as the slim notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Although they have roughly
the form of a novel and pretend to be the diary of a Danish poet living in Paris, they are
fictitious, in the usual meaning of the word. They are a long prose-poem, which borrows
the tone of prose, in order to weave a poetical reality with deceptive accuracy and
austerity. I am aware of few books that are filled with the same amount of poetical
observation and few books in which each line carries so heavily a weight. Moreover, the
style of poetry is flawless in its clarity. It presents itself to the reader as reserved, almost
surgical, so that one hesitates — even to use one word — a word that to the reader could
evoke the joy of de Nerval’s “Aurelia” or the gnomic irony of [Paul Valéry’s] M. Teste.
No, this is something entirely different — the tracing of ephemeral reality, under which
lie those illusionary appearances which we call time, history, and memory.
The fact that the material is occasionally autobiographical, that Rilke occasionally
borrows the tone of the novel — in order to oppose reality and to serve as a counterpoint to
the daily reality of mankind — all that does not, on the whole, impair the importance of
poetry. Of course, there are a couple of sketches of people, of places and events, but they
all have a dream-like dimension and appear to the reader like visions. Cautiously, they
are neither fixed temporally, nor are they provided with a chronology. One has the
feeling that, in the room where Rilke earnestly wrote down these words, the clocks
stopped and the window-curtains were drawn shut. What does it matter whether it was
day or night, spring or autumn, past or future? Only the poetic vision was important — the
unintelligible, metaphysical germ of time, its inner mainspring — the still, agonising
search for a concrete, spiritual reality, which conceals the superficiality of daily reality.
So it happens that the sentences — which are as simple as clear, as spare as long
and elliptical — are laden with a kind of kinetic beauty, which is a function of their poetic
truth. Our poet does not assume a posture, nor does he allow the intensity of his language
to appear “poetical”, in the bad sense of the word. On the contrary, he faces his inner
vision and quietly fills his notebook with his precise transcriptions of what he actually
sees: how to play billiards, how to analyse statistics, or how to catalogue stamps. This
almost scientific dissociation gives poetry a singular resonance. It conjures the past
without sadness, it depicts the presence without pity or contempt, and it peers into the
future without fear.
Rilke’s vision appears to us, in an age which is full of conflicting heresies,
clamorous in its theories, and biased in its appeal to our basest hopes, of special
importance. His vision is free of all private matters. It is too pure to fall into any system,
be it aesthetic, social, or religious. It reminds us that his pure vision is like a clear spring.
It allows no pollution through time and history.
It is simple — eternal and changeable.1
And the poet’s task is this — in the silence of his room, to respect and honour
where clocks stop. In front of the window, the story takes place; yet, from the paper the
raw material rises slowly, out of which the story can be set and built. This is the task of
the poet — it is not for him to rationalise order amid chaos. This task is something else —
to show through his mere existence that the poet of mankind is not dead and cannot die,
so long as from time to time at least one of his great representatives is born, who takes up
the threads of his inner life and weaves them into a poem. The poet cries out through his
silence. We need not ask him why we are calling out. We know all too well.
1 The German reads: “Sie ist einfach—ewig und verändlich.” Verändlich (changeable)
does not go well with ewig (eternal). I wonder if Durrell originally wrote unchangeable,
which would be unverändlich in German. The eternal is normally associated with
immutability, as in the phrase “unvaryingly eternal” from Durrell’s 1961 essay, “Women
of the Mediterranean”: “They [famous women] are all children of this mysterious sea,
occupying its landscapes in human forms which seem as unvaryingly eternal as the olive,
the asphodel, the cypress, the laurel, and above all the sacred vine” (Lawrence Durrell,
Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, ed. Alan G. Thomas [New York: Dutton,
1969]: p. 369).
Commentary by Bruce Redwine
According to Alan G. Thomas and James A. Brigham, Lawrence Durrell’s short
note on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) was
originally titled: “Alle Uhren stehen Still” (all clocks are still), which emphasises that
time has stopped.2 Dieter E. Zimmer translated Durrell’s English. He also interviewed
Durrell for Die Zeit (Hamburg) on 27 November 1959 (see Ingersoll citation below).
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a great poet of the German language. Born
in Prague, a major city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was an Austrian citizen until
1918, when he chose Czech citizenship.3 He is often called a “Bohemian-Austrian poet.”
The lives of Rilke and Durrell had several similarities which were essential
aspects of their personalities. Both poets felt estranged from the countries associated
with their native languages. Rilke had an “innate aversion to Germany”;4 Durrell felt “he
must escape England.”5 Rilke’s spiritual home was Russia, Durrell’s was Greece. But in
neither country could either poet find a permanent home. Both men were essentially
homeless and spent much of their lives wandering from place to place. Rilke was born in
Bohemia and died in Switzerland; Durrell was born in India and died in France.
These similarities are illustrative, perhaps symptomatic, of a condition which
Erich Heller calls “the disinherited mind” in his influential book on modern German
literature.6 He describes those artists as being dispossessed by modern culture and
history, and he takes both his title and part of his epigraph from a passage near the end of
the “Seventh Elegy” of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1923). Heller translates this epigraph as
“Each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited children, / to whom no longer what’s
been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs.” Both Rilke and Durrell were disinherited or
dispossessed poets. They did not belong anywhere; they were perpetual exiles. So, when
Durrell ends his essay on Rilke with a cryptic appeal — “The poet cries out through his
silence. We need not ask him why we are calling out. We know all too well” — the poet
(Rilke or possibly Durrell himself) is surely calling out to all those who share his sense of
Lawrence Durrell did not know German. He read Rilke in translation, and the
poet had a profound effect on him. In 1940 he wrote a perceptive review of Rilke’s
landmark Duino Elegies,7 and in 1942 he tried to persuade T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber
to publish translations of Rilke’s work.8 In a 1959 interview, Durrell said, “I would like to have written only one thing, but it was written by Rainer Maria Rilke: The Notebooks
of M. L. Brigge.”9
Durrell’s imaginative depiction of Rilke’s study — an isolated and timeless place
with drawn curtains and stopped clock — is memorable and undoubtedly reflective of his
own work habits. In 1960, two interviewers noted that “[Durrell] writes in a room
without windows, with notices of his work in foreign languages he cannot understand
pinned to the bookcase.”10 Durrell’s study also seems a confined space cutoff from the
outside world and dedicated to the powers of his own imagination.
2 Alan G. Thomas and James A. Brigham’s Lawrence Durrell: An Illustrated Checklist
(Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1983): p. 89.
3 See Anna A. Tavis, Rilke’s Russia: A Cultural Encounter (Evanston, IL: Northwestern
UP, 1996): p. 147, n. 24.
4 Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (Oxford: Clarendon P,
1986): p. 358.
5 Ian S. MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber, 1998): p. 106
6 Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Cleveland, OH: Meridian/World, 1959).
7 Lawrence Durrell’s Endpapers and Inklings 1933-1988: Dramas, Screenplays, Essays,
Incorrigibilia, ed. Richard Pine (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: 2019): vol. 2, pp. 279-80.
8 MacNiven, p. 259.
9Hubert Juin, “Letting the Reader Loose on the Work,” Lawrence Durrell:
Conversations, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll (Madison, [NJ]: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1998): p.
40; for Dieter Zimmer’s interview, “Becoming a Literary Tramp,” see Conversations, pp.
10 “Lawrence Durrell: The Art of Fiction XXIII,” interviewed by Julian Mitchell and
Gene Andrewski, Paris Review 22 (1960): p. 33.