The opening pages of Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:
September 11, rue Toullier
So, this is where people come in order to live, I would have rather thought: to die. I have been out. I have seen: hospitals. I saw a man who tottered 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 she sometimes 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—they can do that. Further on, rue Saint-Jacques, a big building with a dome. The map indicated Valde-Grace, Hopital militaire. I didn’t really need to know that, but it does no harm. The street began to smell from all sides. It smelled, as far as one could distinguish, of iodoform, of the grease of pommes frites, of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a curiously cataract-blinded building, it wasn’t to be found on the map, but over the door it said, fairly legibly: Asyle de nuit.1 Beside the entrance were the prices. I read them. It was not expensive.
And what else? A child in a standing baby carriage. The child was fat, greenish, and had a prominent sore on its forehead. The sore was obviously healing and did not hurt. The child was sleeping, its mouth open, breathing iodoform, pommes frites, fear. That’s how it was. The main thing was that one was alive. That was the main thing.
That I can’t give up sleeping with the window open. Electric trolleys race ringing through my room. Automobiles rush over me. A door slams shut. Somewhere a pane of glass shatters, I hear the big fragments laugh, the small splinters titter. Then, suddenly, a muffled, confined noise from the other side, within the building. Someone is climbing the stairs. Coming, incessantly coming. Is here, is here a long time, passes by. And the street again. A girl screams: Ah tais-toi, je ne veuxplus.2 The trolley comes running up all excited, runs on over it, over everything. Someone calls out. People are running, overtake each other. A dog barks. What a relief: a dog. Toward morning even a cock crows, and that is an indescribable blessing. Then I suddenly fall asleep.
Those are the noises. But there is something here that is even more terrible: the silence. I think that sometimes there is such a moment of extreme tension at great tires: the waterhoses fall away, the firemen are no longer climbing, no one moves. Soundlessly a black pediment up above pushes forward, and a high wall behind which the tire flares up starts to lean out, soundlessly. Everyone stands and waits with hunched shoulders, faces furrowed above the eyes, waiting for the horrible crash. That’s what the silence here is like.
I am learning to see. I don’t know why, everything penetrates me more deeply, and doesn’t stop at the place where it always used to end. There is a place in me I knew nothing about. Everything goes there now. I don’t know what goes on there.
Today I wrote a letter, it made me realize that I have only been here for three weeks. Three weeks someplace else, in the country for example, could be like a day, here it is years. I don’t intend to write any more letters. Why should I tell someone that I am changing? If I change, I am no longer the person I was, and if I am something different than before it is clear that I have no acquaintances. And it is impossible for me to write to strangers, to people who do not know me.
Have I said it already? I am learning to see. Yes, I’m beginning. It is still going badly. But I want to make use of my time.
For instance, I never realized how many faces there are. There are lots of people but still more faces, for everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, of course it wears out, gets dirty, cracks in the folds, stretches like a glove one has worn on a journey. Those are thrifty, simple people: they don’t change it, they don’t even have it cleaned. It’s good enough, they maintain, and who can convince them otherwise? The question does arise, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them in reserve. Their children will get to wear them. But it also happens that their dogs wear them when they go out. And why not? Face is face.
Other people put on their faces with uncanny rapidity, one after the other, and wear them all out. At first it seems to them as if they would have them forever, but they are barely forty and this one is already the last. That of course has its tragic side. They are not used to taking care of faces, they run through their last one in a week, there are holes in it, in many places it is as thin as paper, and then slowly what’s underneath emerges, the not-face, and they walk around with that.
But the woman, the woman: she had fallen completely into herself, forward into her hands. It was on the corner of the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. As soon as I saw her I began to walk softly. When poor people are thinking of something one should not disturb them. Perhaps it will occur to them.
The street was too empty, its emptiness got bored and pulled my foot out from under and flipped it back and forth, this way and that, like a wooden shoe. The woman took fright and raised herself up out of herself, too quickly, too violently, so that her face remained in her two hands. I could see it laying there, its hollow form. It cost me an indescribable effort to stay with those hands and not to look at what had torn itself out of them. I dreaded seeing a face from the inside, but I was even more afraid of the exposed, flayed head without a face.
I am afraid. Against fear, once one has it, one must do something. It would be truly hateful to get sick here, and if it should occur to anyone to hustle me off to the Hotel-Dieu,3 I would certainly die there. This Hotel is a pleasant Hotel, fantastically busy. One can hardly contemplate the facade of the Cathedral of Paris without the danger of being run over by one of the many vehicles rushing toward its entrance across the open square as fast as they can. They are small omnibusses continuously sounding their bells, and even the Duke of Sagan would have to stop his coach if some small dying person had got it into his head to try to get straight into God’s Hotel. Dying people are pigheaded, and all Paris comes to a halt when Madame Legrand, dealer in second-hand goods from the rue des Martyrs, is driven to a particular square of the Cite. It is to be noted that these small fiendish vehicles have uncommonly stimulating milk-glass windows behind which one can conjure up the most splendid agonies; it only takes the imagination of a concierge. If one has more imagination and casts it in other directions, the possibilities are absolutely limitless. But I have often seen open carriages arriving, taxis with their tops down, driving for the usual fare: two francs for the hour of death.
This excellent Hotel is quite old, people were already dying in it in several beds in King Chlodwig’s time. Now there is dying in 559 beds. Factory-style, of course. With such enormous production the individual death is not carried out so well, but that’s not what matters either. It’s a question of numbers. Who today will pay something for a death that has been well worked out? No one. Even the rich, who could afford to die in great detail, are beginning to get careless and indifferent: the desire to have a death of one’s own is becoming ever rarer. In a short while it will be just as rare as a life of one’s own. God, everything is presented ready-made. One comes along, one finds a life all prepared, one only has to put it on. One wants to leave or is forced to; no strain: Voila votre mort, monsieur.4 One dies as one happens to, one dies the death that belongs to the disease one has (for since all diseases are known, one also knows that their various fatal conclusions belong to the diseases and not to the person, and the ill person has, so to speak, nothing to do).
In the sanatoriums, where people die so gladly and are so grateful to the doctors and nurses, one dies one of the deaths employed by the institution; that is looked upon with approval. But if one dies at home, it is a matter of course to choose the polite death of better circles, with which, so to speak, the first-class burial already begins, with its whole sequence of simply beautiful rituals. The poor stand before such a house and look their fill. Their death is of course banal, without any fuss. They are happy if they find one that more or less fits. It’s all right if it’s too big: one always still grows a little. Only if death doesn’t come on through the chest, or strangles, then it has its difficulty.
When I think of home, where no one is any longer, I believe that earlier it must have been different. Earlier one knew (or perhaps surmised) that one had death within oneself, like fruit does the seed. Children had a small death in themselves and grownups a big one. Women had it in their wombs and men in their chests. One had it, and that gave one a special dignity and a quiet pride.
One saw in my grandfather, old Chamberlain Brigge, that he bore a death within himself. And what a death it was: two months long, and so loud it could be heard even as far as the outlying buildings.
The long, old main house was too small for this death, it seemed as if wings would need to be added to it, for the chamberlain’s body became larger and larger, and he was continually demanding to be carried from one room to the next, and fell into a terrible rage when the day was not yet done and there were no longer any rooms in which he had not already lain. Then the whole procession of servants, maids, and dogs, which he always had around him, came up the stairs and, the house steward at their head, into the room where his blessed mother had died, the room that had been preserved exactly as she had left it twenty-three years before and that otherwise no one had ever been allowed to enter. Now the whole pack burst in. The draperies were drawn back, and the robust light of a summer afternoon investigated all the shy, startled objects and turned around awkwardly in the ripped-open mirrors. And the people did the same. There were maids who were so curious they didn’t know where their hands had got to, young servants who gaped at everything, and older ones who went around and sought to remember what they had been told about this locked room in which they now happily found themselves.
But above all, being in a room where all the objects smelled seemed uncommonly exciting for the dogs. The big, lean Russian greyhounds tan busily back and forth behind the armchairs, crisscrossing the room with a rocking motion in a long dance-step, raised themselves up like dogs in a coat of arms, their thin paws supported on the white and gold window sill, and stared into the courtyard left and right with pointed, tensed faces and drawn-back foreheads. Small, glove-yellow dachshunds sat in the wide, plumped-up silk armchairs by the window, with faces as if everything was as it should be, and a wiry-haired, sullen-looking pointer rubbed his back on the edge of a gold-legged table on whose painted top the Sevres cups trembled.
Yes, for these absent-minded things heavy with sleep it was a terrible time. It happened that rose petals tumbled out of books some hasty hand had awkwardly opened and were crushed underfoot; small, fragile objects were picked up and, after they immediately broke, quickly set down again; many damaged things were hidden behind curtains or even thrown behind the golden weave of the fireplace screen. And from time to time something fell down, fell muffled on the carpet, fell brightly on the hard parquet, but in either case it broke, burst sharply or broke open almost soundlessly, for cossetted as they were, these objects could not withstand any kind of fall.
And if it had occurred to anyone to ask what was the cause of everything that had called down the fullness of all this destruction on this anxiously guarded room—there would have been only one answer: death.
The death of the chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge at Ulsgaard. For, swelling out of his dark blue uniform, he lay in the middle of the floor and did not stir. In his large, strange face, no longer familiar to anyone, his eyes had fallen shut: he did not see what was happening. At first they had attempted to lay him on the bed, but he had put up a struggle, for he hated beds ever since those first nights in which his illness had grown. And then the bed up there turned out to be too small, so there was nothing else to do but lay him on the carpet as he was; for he had not wanted to go downstairs.
So there he lay, and one might think that he had died. As the light slowly began to fade the dogs had withdrawn through the crack of the door, one after another, only the wire-haired pointer with the sullen face sat by his master, and one of his broad, shaggy front paws lay on Christoph Detlev’s large gray hand. Most of the servants too were standing outside in the white corridor, which was brighter than the room; but those who had remained inside sometimes stole a glance at the big, darkening heap in the middle, wishing that it were nothing more than a large suit covering some ruined thing.
But it was still something. It was a voice, the voice that seven weeks before no one had recognized: for it was not the voice of the chamberlain. It was not Christoph Detlev to whom this voice belonged, it was Christoph Detlev’s death.
Christoph Detlev’s death had now been living for many, many days at Ulsgaard, and spoke with everyone and demanded. Demanded to be carried around, demanded the blue room, demanded the small salon, demanded the large hall. Demanded the dogs, demanded that people laugh, speak, play, and be silent, and all at the same time. Demanded to see friends, women, and those who had died, and demanded himself to die: Demanded. Demanded and screamed.
For when night had come and those of the exhausted servants who were not keeping watch tried to get to sleep, then Christoph Detlev’s death screamed, screamed and moaned, roared so long and so incessantly that the dogs, who at first howled along, fell silent and did not dare lie down but, standing on their long, slender, quivering legs, were afraid. And when those in the village heard him roaring through the far, silver, Danish summer night, they got up as for a thunderstorm, dressed, and sat around the lamp without saying a word until it was over. And the women who were near to giving birth were put in the most remote rooms and the most shielded bed-cupboards; but they heard it, heard it as if it were in their own bodies, and they pleaded to get up too and came, broad and pale, and sat down among the others with their blurred faces. And the cows that were calving at this time were helpless and withdrawn, and the dead fruit was torn out of the body with all the entrails when it wouldn’t come. And everyone performed their daily tasks badly and forgot to bring in the hay, because during the day they feared for the night and because they were so exhausted from being up so much and from getting up frightened that they could not think of anything. And when on Sundays they went into the peaceful white church, they prayed that Ulsgaard should no longer have a master, for this was a dreadful master. And what they were all thinking and praying the pastor said out loud from the chancel, for he too no longer had any nights and could not understand God. And the bell said it, which had acquired a fearsome rival that tolled the entire night and with which the bell could not compete, even when it began ringing out from all its metal. Yes, everyone said it, and among the young people was one who had dreamed that he had gone to the castle and beat the master to death with a manure fork, and people were so angry, so exhausted, so irritated, that they all listened as he related his dream, and without even knowing it looked at him to see if he were up to such a deed. That is how one felt and spoke in the whole region, in which a few weeks before the chamberlain had been loved and pitied. But even though people spoke this way, nothing changed. Christoph Detlev’s death that lived at Ulsgaard was not to be hurried. It had come for ten weeks, and for ten weeks it remained. And during this time it was more the master than Christoph Detlev had ever been, it was like a king whom one calls the Terrible, later and always.
It was not the death of any dropsy sufferer, it was the angry, princely death that the chamberlain had carried within himself his whole life long and had nourished out of himself. All the excess of pride, will, and energy of mastery that he himself had not been able to use up even in his calm days had gone into his death, which now sat at Ulsgaard and squandered it.
How chamberlain Brigge would have looked at him who would have desired of him that he should die another death than this. He died his difficult death.
And when I think of the others I have seen or whom I have heard about: it is always the same. They all had their own death. These men who bore it within their armor, inside, like a prisoner, these women who became very old and small and then passed over in an enormous bed, as on a stage, before the entire family, the servants, and the dogs, grandly and discreetly. The children, even quite little ones, did not have some child’s death or other, but pulled themselves together and died what they already were and what they would have become.
And what kind of melancholy beauty did it give women when they were pregnant and standing, and in their big bodies, on which their narrow hands involuntarily rested, were two fruits: a child and a death. Did not the concentrated, almost nourishing smile in their completely emptied-out faces come from their sometimes thinking that both were growing?
—Translated from the German by Burton Pike. From The Review of Contemporary Fiction, June, 2008.
1 Maison d’Accouchement: Lying-in Hospital. Asyle de nuit: flophouse.
2 Oh shut up, I’ve had enough.
3 Hotel-Dieu: The large old central hospital of Paris.
4 Here is your death, sir.