Saturday, February 1, 2014

Abelone Brahe

Abelone Brahe, a character in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke, first published in 1910, is the youngest sister of Malte’s mother. Malte is in love with her, but he says that in his notebooks he will say nothing about her. “Only wrong would be done in the telling,” he says. “One cannot say anything about a woman.” But Malte finds himself writing about women a good deal.

Malte Laurids Brigge has lost the Danish ancestral home, the dogs, the inherited things around which he could have lived comfortably. He lives in Paris, a solitary. His dislocation is such that he believes he may be close to madness. He spends his time in the streets, the libraries and museums of Paris, recording the progress of the new individual he is becoming in his notebooks. He is very lonely and he endlessly writes down stories of his family, of the many deaths he has seen and the ghosts that remain.

But he is also certain that solitude is the price he must pay to see reality. “I marvel sometimes how readily I give up everything I expected for the reality, even when the reality is bad.” He notices many young girls drawing in museums, wondering why they too needed to leave home. “They have already begun to look about, to search; they, whose strength has always lain in being found.” But it comes of weariness, Malte thinks. Women have, for centuries, done the whole work of love. He wonders whether men might start to learn this work, now that so much is changing. The notebooks, which begin with the records of many deaths, turn to a meditation on love.

Abelone remains mysterious, seen only in an idyllic description of her in the garden in summer, stripping currants out of their clusters with a fork. She leads Malte to Bettina von Arnim, “whose love was equal to everything,” and whose collected letters to Goethe are among the few books from which Malte never parts. Goethe was not equal to her, Malte thinks. “Is not the whole world of your making? For how often you have set it afire with your love,” he says of Bettina.

Throughout The Notebooks Abelone links Malte to his home. She doesn’t marry. As a young person, her father finds that she too burns a candle early in the morning writing and requests her to take down his memoirs. These chronicle the aristocratic salons of his time, and particularly the German literary circle of Julie Reventlow, though he dies before he can tell Abelone much about this woman whom he considered a saint. Malte tells us no more about Abelone, though he sometimes talks to her. He describes a magnificent tapestry to her. “I think you would understand,” he writes. Hearing a singer in Venice, he thinks, “Abelone.”

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge speak to me of the painful inner process Jung called individuation. This understanding of one’s unique self and destiny, in Jung’s terms, allows one to forge an ego that “does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate.” [Memories, Dreams and Reflections, C.G. Jung, 1961]

I was one of those young girls who had left home for the city. For me too, seeing reality was worth the price. I was less worried about love than Malte, steeped in the rich atmosphere of a loving family, Christian in the best sense of the word. But I was determined to become the one my inner self wished to be. The Notebooks celebrate the uniqueness of the individual on his lonely quest. Abelone remains the good angel hovering over Malte, not particularly knowable, but blessing his adventure in modernity with her spirit. Mine too.


Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rilke. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who would like to see it in a .pdf format. Email me at at lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com to request it.

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