Where Rilke's poetry can aspire to the transcendent, this novel is dark, very dark. This first person narrative is moody and intense, with flashes of brilliance, but not easy overall. Yes, many passages have the formal qualities of a prose poem. But Rilke's content is unexpected: you have to be in the right frame of mind to get along with this book.
The Danish narrator is in Paris - he has chosen to isolate himself from friends and family - and is struggling with an existentially-centered depression. The early entries establish that if he is from an aristocratic family, the narrator is deliberately living among the French poor, wanting to be anonymous and unknown. He is seeking escape from his past.
Quickly we discover that identity will be a major theme in Rilke's book: the narrator reflects on how medical science has changed our understanding of personality. The way people are sick, or die, is no longer an extension of their identity. All is now classified and catagorised according to symptoms. People don't bear an illness stoically; they respond to medication and treatment.
The narrator's reflections lead us deeper and deeper into his mind. It is brilliant, illuminating, and disturbing. If the book is visibly influenced by Knut Hamsun's Hunger
, Rilke is far more brooding and introspective. You cannot speed through his novel.
And you have to go back at points and re-read. (The explanatory endnotes in this edition are essential - the conversation about Beethoven, who is not identified, would have been confusing without them - and there probably could be quite a few more.)