Friday, February 02, 2007

Paris Notes: Rilke, Malte Laurids Brigge, and the Latin Quarter Today

As noted in my previous blog post, Lost Son began as a series of journals in which I often directly addressed my main character, Rainer Maria Rilke. Here follows another entry from those journals. In this one, I began addressing Rilke's imaginary character Malte Laurids Brigge. The entry reveals a little about my process of imagining my way through contemporary Paris into the city Rilke (and Malte) knew, namely: Paris between 1902 and 1909, the years during which Rilke wrote Malte's story in the great novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Though this and other such entries do not appear in Lost Son, I feel that they somehow continue to permeate the book...

“It ripped me out of myself and put me into their lives, through all their lives, through and through all their beleaguered lives. Often I had to say aloud to myself: I am not one of them, I am going to leave this frightful city in which they will die.”
Rainer Maria Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé – July 18, 1903

… Rue Linné, Paris V: the present
Paris: the word has now become an insignia on a postcard, a cliché, a simple idiom for earthly pleasure. But what of Paris as you knew it? Can one even see that world in this one?—this city of innumerable camera flashes and riverboat dinners and mid-bridge kisses, city whose only sighs are those of the soon-to-depart. Do the poor, the hopeful and hopeless destitute, still find themselves packed into the cramped hostelries along the river?

The streets are not acrawl with them these days, at least not within a mile or so radius of the Ile de la Cité (though walk out along the Canal Saint Martin, as I did yesterday, and you might reconsider). Here in your Latin Quarter, they sometimes proclaim themselves with signs—black letters smudged onto flaps of cardboard; and sometimes one sees them dragging about the sidewalks or lurking in doorways, asking for nothing. But the boulevard Saint Michel, in its new sterilized brightness, only reluctantly yields up its memory of the man with the Saint Vitus’ Dance, that ragdoll figure whom you watched with gorgonized awe and later gave to your fictional second self, Malte Laurids Brigge, to evoke in his troubled notebooks.

No, one no longer sees such figures as if seeing a great scream personified. But such figures do remain, just beneath the surface dignity of these clean-swept boulevards, beneath Haussmann’s elegant housefronts. And they are most definitely to be found, like the wastage of long-since defeated, long-since scattered armies, in the twisting streets set back from the river and confettied with rubbish. They’re in every city, no doubt, shall always be. Malte’s disgraced kin—the poor and cursed urbanites who occasioned him to anoint the first blank page of his notebook with those agitated words:

“So, people do come here to live. I would have sooner thought that this is where one dies.”

Already I’ve seen much of these figures—and the conditions on these city streets have greatly improved since yours and Malte’s arrival one hundred years ago, so I can only imagine the things you saw then.

May I tell Malte what I’ve seen in a month’s time, and thereby reveal to him something?…something. Perhaps he’d like to know that the grim spectacles he beheld daily were more than the phantasms of his dark soul. That even today one may witness such things in Paris. So Malte, I hope you’ll find it assuring that I have seen:

…the graying slack-sided man who appeared to suffer so much in the mere act of motion. He seemed to have lost his cane or leg-braces. He was just outside the gate of the Hôtel des Invalides when I saw him. Groping along the wall with splayed hands, his spine bowing backward in the effort to free himself of the wall. To walk.

He wasn’t an extremely old man—just gray-haired, like many not-so-old men. His stiffness seemed to be coming from somewhere outside or just above him; it seemed he was hemmed in by some invisible man-size flange made of most inflexible rubber. A number of people streamed past him and crossed the expansive front grounds to the church door. He hardly noticed them. All his focus was fixed in that labor of getting to the gate—the gate through which those others glided like birds.

I asked myself what you might have asked, Malte. Can it be that some persons, some very small number, are cursed by an imbalance of the blood or the brain or the inner ear to bear gravity’s effect at a volume exponentially greater than most? Because it was something like that with this man.

And then it struck me that the man might well be significantly younger than he looked, but the pressure, the incessant pressure, was speeding the clockworks inside him. I’d been waiting for a traffic light to change and now it was time to cross. In a final glimpse I saw him unmooring himself from the wall and starting forward with tiny, slow, hard-won steps. Before him lay the vast open grounds of the Invalides complex, and high above him the gilded dome stood up in mute and grand neutrality.

There was also this, Malte:

...the man with jowls as loose and pendulous as a winded dog’s. He was crossing the pretty little Place Maubert where the pretty fountain patters, and beyond his slightly disheveled jacket and shirt he was perfectly unremarkable. But when he came closer I saw the white, beaded strings of slaver swaying from his unfurled bottom lip. He brushed past me with a glazed stare toward the gutters, a stare that might—to somebody not looking very closely—appear pensive.

And this:

...the brawny balding man with the sunned skull and the heavy, very capable hands, lying unconscious on his back on the clean sidewalk in the rue de l’Estrapade. Flat on his back in front of the artful ironwork gates of that one bright patrician house, the one that looks like a guidebook photograph. And he wasn’t sidled up to the gate, either—no, he was sprawled at the center of the pavement, a great X of a body, like someone who had fallen from some unreckonable height....

(continue reading this entry in Part II, "Paris Notes Continued," below)

No comments:

Post a Comment