After the death of his mother, a man called Beeklam turns to collecting statues, which he keeps in the flooded basement of his house in Amsterdam. Thelma, he calls one specimen – it was his mother’s name. Others are Rosalind, Diane, Magdalena, Gertrud, after his mother’s friends. Because the basement, ‘like the sewers’, is connected to the sea, ‘it was a relief to Beeklam to know that any gap or crack would give a sense of the movement of waves: of a submerged world he believed to be populated by other statues with feet (if they still had them) tied to stones, and whose knuckles of stone knocked on his walls.’ It’s disappointing, somehow, to read a couple of sentences later: ‘The child now wished to live as though he’d drowned.’ Wasn’t that obvious already, the memory palace under water, the feet ‘(if they still had them)’ tied to stones? Grief gets everywhere, we know that, but Fleur Jaeggy, at her best, steers clear of things that are common knowledge: ‘It is only distractions, uncertainty, distance that bring us closer to our targets, and then it is the target that strikes us.’
Jaeggy was born in Zürich in 1940 and writes in Italian, with intrusions from French, even English sometimes, but mostly German, ‘the language of funerals, of sermons’, and it can’t be an accident that the first bit of German in her most famous book, Sweet Days of Discipline (1989), is the word for ‘duty’, Zwang. Of the eight books she has published in Italy, translation has been haphazard, UK publication even more so. Her first two books remain untranslated; The Water Statues, her third – the one with Beeklam in it – first came out in 1980. Sweet Days of Discipline came next, then a short story collection in 1998, Proleterka (2001), These Possible Lives (2009) and I Am the Brother of XX (2014). In the US, Tim Parks’s version of Sweet Days of Discipline was published in 1993; Last Vanities, his translation of the short stories, followed in 1998; and Alastair McEwen’s Proleterka came out in 2003. In the UK, however, Jaeggy’s books have appeared in a different order: I Am the Brother of XX (2017), Sweet Days of Discipline (2018), Proleterka (2019), The Water Statues (2022).
These Possible Lives was translated by Minna Zallman Proctor and published in the US in 2017. It’s tiny, the size of a promotional freebie, and composed of three short, pictorial essays about three dope-fiend authors, Thomas de Quincey, Marcel Schwob and John Keats. The essays are clearly the product of much reading – Jaeggy has translated Schwob’s Vies imaginaires and De Quincey’s Last Days of Immanuel Kant into Italian – though it’s the reading not of a scholar but an artist, interested only in what Schwob called ‘the unique’. Wordsworth cut the pages of Burke’s Reflections with ‘a buttery knife’. ‘In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy.’ ‘TDQ’, in his last days, did not suffer from senilis stultitia quae deliratio appellari solet – the fun for Jaeggy being that the architect of Pure Reason, according to De Quincey, did.
Jaeggy’s fiction has a similar interest in the perverse. The books are perfectionist-thin – 89 pages, 113 pages, 93 pages – and tell stories that appear to move briskly forwards, but on thin ledges, surrounded by awful infinities – ‘trees, mountains, silence’, beckoning from all sides. Sentences are short and simple, except that they dart about a lot, past and present, champ and contre-champ, in and out. Meanings are pool-clear but also hidden, tucked just below the threshold of attention. You can read a piece a dozen times and still be startled by things you hadn’t noticed: the lace curtains, the duplicating teapots, the sleeping pills, the objects floating ‘between the eyelids and the eyes’. With most authors, you can get away with skipping ends of sentences and bottoms of pages, but not with Jaeggy, and less and less so in her later works, as her method grows more refined. ‘The windows overlook the tracks. Anja would like to say something to Basia. To her kind forbearance … Basia seems to prevent it.’ ‘I spy on her. We are two wretches, I think. She and I. If important things no longer are, what’s important? I am too tired to answer.’
The covers of the UK editions, published by And Other Stories, add to a reader’s worry she might be missing important clues. Each has a smudged, Sebaldy photo of Jaeggy herself, blonde and bony, ultramontane – the books don’t say the pictures are of the author, but most of them are identifiable from elsewhere. A girl with plaits sits in the mountains with a brother: ‘There is one spot there, high up on the cliff, from which the limestone humps descend ceremoniously and lethargically down to the water; and it’s as though a faint recollection were telling me that I’d lived there – or in the water long ago.’ A toothy teen in a sinister national costume: ‘the Tracht … with the black bonnet trimmed in white lace’. A model on a contact sheet, a crocodile on her jumper: Jaeggy did indeed work as a model, after finishing school in the 1950s. Older, in a deckchair smoking, wearing a hairclip and a demonic, doll-like smirk: ‘that depth toys have, that impassive, fatuous rigidity, that stupor of good little children’. The photos, I was told, came from Adelphi, Jaeggy’s Italian publisher – from 1968 until his death in 2021, Jaeggy was married to the writer Roberto Calasso, who was also Adelphi’s editor-in-chief. The photographs, the relationship with Calasso, certain friendships – especially that with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann – are important to the iconography, the personal mythology, that Jaeggy builds in her books.
Jaeggy’s best two novels are Sweet Days of Discipline and Proleterka – it’s the name of a ship. Both refer to what look like a common set of images, memories, stories, perhaps, of an author’s life. There’s a blighted, poor-little-rich-girl childhood, abandoned to a series of chilly boarding schools by an absent, bolted mother – Italian, Catholic, a pianist, remarried – and an ageing Protestant Swiss-German father. There may be a brother, maybe dead, there may be a grandmother who likes flowers better than people (‘It only seems like a nice thing. Taking an interest in nature’). It’s a world of fine houses, good clothes, ‘distinguished, well-groomed faces’, holidays taken in grand hotels; a world of suicides and murders, car crash after car crash, death after death after death by fire. It’s the world, in short, of what Jaeggy calls ‘the Confederation’, a land of pretty churches and villagers with pitchforks, ‘the entire landscape feign[ing] happiness’, ‘apples and pears on the branches … pastureland and barbed wire’. And rocks and crags and ‘narrow chasms pointing downwards’, jagged gorges, the void.
And expensive schools and expensive clinics, expensive treatments, expensive deaths. The school in which the sweet days happen is not the Chalet School, except in the million creepy ways it sort of is: dorms, pashes, nuns and Nazis, Kaffee und Kuchen; that occult fascination with illness you so often find in girls’ school stories, especially at schools that promise lots of exercise and healthy mountain air. ‘You have this feeling that inside something serenely gloomy and a little sick is going on.’ Jaeggy takes particular interest in the rancid trope of the bewitchingly frail favourite, whom she does as ‘the black girl’, the daughter of an African president and the school’s pariah, supposedly on account of the fuss the teachers make of her, if you want to go along with that. Words such as Krieg and Hitler are never mentioned, although the narrator’s much loathed roommate was born in Nuremberg ‘just in time to see the Germans march their goosestep and the geraniums in the windows’. ‘Perhaps innocence has something crude, pedantic and affected about it, as if we were all dressed in plus fours and long socks.’
The narrator is fourteen, has been a boarder at one school or another for years already and seems at first resigned, pretty much, to the death-in-life to which she has been condemned. ‘A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, in the other she lies on a bed covered by a lace shroud’: pupils are ‘cellmates’ and later ‘stylites’, the locker room a columbarium, ‘our minds … a series of graves in a wall’. But then it happens, one day in the Speisesaal, at lunch: a new girl, her looks ‘those of an idol, disdainful’, pullovers ‘loose’ and ‘elegant’, hair ‘straight and shiny as blades’. Her name is Frédérique, she’s the daughter of a banker in Geneva, and ‘the first thing I thought was: she had been further than I had.’ In class she is ‘top in everything’ and out of it, rolls her own cigarettes. She talks of a man friend, ‘of a man as of a completed parabola’. ‘She was eloquent. She didn’t talk about justice. Nor about good and evil … Her words flew.’ And so, the narrator is determined to ‘conquer’ her. ‘Even now, I can’t bring myself to say I was in love with Frédérique, it’s such an easy thing to say.’
Frédérique, however, cannot be ‘conquered’ in this way, because Frédérique, as the narrator dimly recognises, is already lost. Out of school one day, in the village cake shop, keeping an eye out for passing men, ‘I saw a strange light in her eyes, like the snowflakes, mad and pointless, hanging still in the air.’ Playing Beethoven, she is ‘absolute and impregnable … confronting a power we know nothing of’. Another new girl arrives, ‘extrovert’, Belgian, promising everybody invitations to ‘her great ball, the most extravagant party in Europe’, where her ‘daddy’ will flirt and dance with everybody – ‘Sehr elegant, rassig, die Neue,’ as the hated German roommate says. And so, the narrator throws Frédérique over. ‘What mattered was that there should be movement, confusion, applause and Daddy … What Micheline wanted from life was to have a good time and wasn’t that what I wanted too?’
Good times, ‘movement, confusion’, ‘the other part of the world, the male part’ come to the fore in Proleterka, in which the narrator takes a final holiday with her broken father on a Yugoslav cruise ship chartered by the father’s Zunft, a guild or brotherhood of some sort that he joined as a young man. The father, Johannes, is from a rich family who ‘lost their fortune’, we learn, in caring for an ‘invalid’ twin brother. The narrator, ‘the daughter of Johannes’, lives for a time with the mother of ‘Johannes’s wife, my mother’, who is ‘by then another man’s wife, always far away’. On the Proleterka her aim is to catch up with ‘my friend, Sebastian (that’s what she wanted to be called)’, who has provoked her with her talk of sex with strangers: ‘Ja te ljubim,’ she eagerly tells the second mate in his cabin. ‘I don’t like it, I don’t like it, she thinks. Yet she does it all the same.’
Johannes dies, and strange things happen. His daughter is sent two birth certificates, dated a year apart. And then, decades later, another man says that, actually, he’s her real father, meaning that his dead son would have been her little brother: ‘I have always known I have a brother. I have never been alone.’ But why, Johannes’s daughter asks, has this man decided to approach her only now? ‘Wahrheitsliebe, for love of the truth.’ He’s ninety years old and beginning to lose his memory and has scattered notes to self about his daughter all over his apartment, ‘as if sheets of paper were suddenly sprouting from the floor’. Johannes’s daughter is unimpressed. ‘The malevolent and idolatrous passion for the truth … When it is useless. The stubborn frivolity of the old.’
‘The truth has no ornaments,’ she says. ‘Like a washed corpse’: she is thinking about the dead Johannes, readied for Calvinist cremation, and of her mother on her deathbed, begging ‘furtively’ for extreme unction while refusing to confess. But she’d be thinking about death anyway, because it’s everywhere, in youth, in promises, in similes, in objects. It’s death, not character or temporal succession, that makes things happen, body to corpse to memory to statue, ‘from image to image’ in a story of a ‘migration’, as Barthes wrote about Bataille and his mighty Eye, a ‘cycle of … avatars … down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it’, and it is surely somewhere in the Bataille tradition that Jaeggy most belongs. ‘The world becomes blurred; properties are no longer separate … and the whole … signifies in the manner of a vibration that always gives the same sound (but what sound)?’
A single note can contain mansions, as the stories collected in I Am the Brother of XX show. The basic theme, ‘What could be better than despair?’ Variation 1, the title story, with that sinister refrain it has: ‘The importance of succeeding in life is a noose.’ Variation 2, the famous allegro, ‘Regula appreciates the void, in all its nuances.’ Three, the final larghetto, a coin-toss with a coin ‘stamped with tails on both sides’. Some stories have folkish and/or modern gothic settings: a lone twin and a mandrake in a Hummel figurine village, a wife commanded to writhe naked in front of her husband’s dead mother’s clothes. One church has heavy doors and an enormous lunging wooden angel. Another is visited not for worship but admiration of ‘the vestments’: ‘I have no knowledge of the liturgy. The crucifixion is to me without a body. Without a soul.’ The saint Angela da Foligno makes an appearance – she was a great favourite of Bataille also, for having lain with Christ in his sepulchre, and speaking of ‘a certain taste of the Host that spread in her mouth’. The less canonical Agnes Blannbekin comes in too, turning ‘again and again … in her mouth’ the sacred foreskin, ‘tender as egg-skin and very sweet’.
Quieter stories are structured around paintings and looking at paintings, those details, ‘imperious and hidden’, that you notice, except that you didn’t, not properly, and so you have to keep going back. In one of them, a lizard looks out at the woman who is looking at the portrait in which he features, ‘intrigued by the possibility that a being could be endowed with such large stores of unhappiness. He didn’t know what it was, he would have liked to taste some.’ In another, nymphs and goddesses step free from the frescoes, only to beg and burrow until, in a final great ‘ceremony of non-existence’, they return to their ‘painted prison’, ‘happy, darkly happy’, ‘observing one’s own void’.
Several pieces appear to be based on personal reminiscences. ‘Negde’ is about Iosif, i.e. Josef Brodsky. ‘An Encounter in the Bronx’ features Oliver Sacks. ‘FK’ tells of a girl who sounds like Frédérique, but older; ‘Cat’ – ‘the butterfly dances its agony’ – is about the author’s cat. Two pieces feature Bachmann. ‘The Aseptic Room’ visits her in hospital in 1973, where she is dying of burns after falling asleep over a lighted cigarette: ‘He thought of the ending of one book: Water is a burnt body,’ Jaeggy observes of Beeklam in The Water Statues, dedicated to Bachmann and published a few years later (the line is from Balzac). ‘The Saltwater House’ remembers a group holiday in Italy in 1971. Ominously, we see a servant give ‘Ingeborg’ five injections, of ‘vitamins’, or so it’s said – it was Bachmann’s alcohol and drug use that caused her to set the fire that would kill her, and her suffering was exacerbated by untreated substance withdrawal. (Curiously, Calasso also appears in this story, as ‘a friend of Ingeborg’s’. By 1971, Jaeggy and Calasso had been married for three years.)
A side effect of these little memoir pieces – as with the photos on the covers – is the proof they offer that no matter how improbable this seems, Fleur Jaeggy really is Fleur Jaeggy, an actual single human being, self-identical. Unlike, say, Elena Ferrante, about whom so many people aren’t sure. There are other ways in which Jaeggy is a kind of anti-Ferrante. The sprawling mess of all those intertangled working-class families, the ‘dissolving margins’ and the ‘unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world’; the huge, sloppy ethical and political questions, the incontinent, unseemly splurge of all those enormous books. As early as The Water Statues, Jaeggy could be bothered with none of it: ‘Such outpourings are always rather exhausting … Communal life ends up draining the innocence that people who live alone possess.’ Which is not to say, note, that she was not interested in power, violence, confusion in female friendship: ‘We never held hands. We would have thought it ridiculous.’ ‘I never stopped expecting a letter from her.’ ‘I could, if questioned, perhaps admit I was in love with Frédérique.’
‘Jaeggy always snags her mysticism on the whetted edge of a decorative object,’ Audrey Wollen wrote in the New York Review of Books last year. ‘She’s writing about longing in the face of an endless abyss, after all, which means writing about fashion.’ ‘Clothes, furniture, adornments, floral arrangements, personalised stationery’ are among the examples Wollen collected, as well as the vestments and the crucifix, accessorised with its ‘nails and a crown of thorns’. Fashion, the It-girl Alexa Chung once said, is just what happens when you have been wearing one thing for ages, then get bored with it. Is this the reason Jaeggy has become so fashionable, because readers are tired of big books and humanist fiction, all that inwardness that isn’t really inward, all those vulgar, boring families with ‘all of the advertising’, as Jaeggy once put it, ‘on their side’? Chung again, explaining a ‘sensation’ she gets from clothes she becomes ‘obsessed with’: ‘At first I find them almost grotesque, they make me feel a bit sick. Then I look at them again, and realise it’s not repulsion, but desire.’
In 2021 the New Yorker published an interview with Jaeggy by Dylan Byron, who found her ‘impeccably elegant in crisp whites and royal blues, her fine silver hair clipped back in a signature tortoiseshell barrette’. Jaeggy twice complimented Byron on his tie and noted that his red socks were the same as hers. She showed him ‘Hermes’, which is the name she gives her ‘swamp-green’ typewriter. She told him about ‘Erich’, a swan she met on a visit to Germany, somewhere near Berlin. Byron pressed her on the form of The Water Statues, much of which is laid out like a play: hadn’t she done that as a homage to Bachmann’s 1971 novel, Malina? ‘Who knows?’ Jaeggy said. ‘Ingeborg was my lifelong friend. We had a lot of fun together … Today I wish she were still alive.’
The final piece in I Am the Brother of XX is the holiday with Bachmann memoir, which closes in German, on a quotation from one of Bachmann’s prose pieces, ‘The Thirtieth Year’ (1961): ‘Schattenschlaf, geflügelte Heiterkeit über Abgründe’, or ‘Shadow sleep, winged cheer flitting over abysses’. The more I looked at I Am the Brother of XX, the more deliberate the placement of the pieces appeared. ‘We retire to our rooms, we saw life pass by beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks,’ the narrator says in Sweet Days of Discipline. ‘And perhaps now and then we saw a tall, marbly figure stand out stark before us: it is Frédérique, passing through our lives, and maybe we’d like to go back.’
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