Published 7.25.2017. New York: New Directions. Translated by Gini Alhadeff. 125 pages.
Cover Design by Oliver Munday
In reading criticism of Fleur Jaeggy’s writing in English, an unusual theme recurs that “Jaeggy does not so much write as” does something finer, more etherial than writing—in paint so well dabbed, we stare at framed reality!—but to the extent a writer has methods and not merely geysers forth amniotic prose from their subglobal oomphalos, a critic may notice and describe those methods, however uninformedly, which—available information in English about Jaeggy being scanty (beyond her own books, anyway)—is very much so. Swiss-born, Jaeggy writes in Italian and has produced some prose works intermittently over the decades, her early career being roughly contemporary with such acquaintances as Italo Calvino, Ingebourg Bachman and Robert Calasso, with whom she was at one time married (though not being well-acquainted with those authors, I can’t really speak to their influence.)
What I can say is that Jaeggy’s prose is neither so forbidding nor her characters so humorless as might be gathered by reading this review of her work by Sheila Heti in The New Yorker, which makes the author seem like a stand-offish grimdark minimalist. Translator Gini Alhadeff told Heti that Jaeggy is a “monumental loner” who “has few friends, rarely goes out, and turns down practically every request for an interview.” Some people might take this as discrediting, others as adding to the author’s mystique. (I once bonded with someone who everyone else regarded as a grumpy old man. It turned out he had some fascinating and rather unexpected passions in life, and some bitter memories that made it hard for him to connect with people, but I had one of my perverse compulsions and felt a strong desire to make myself his friend.) Anyway, nobody can be all sadfaced who has her narrator say:
Once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, what will you do when you grow up? And I answered, I want to die. I want to die when I grow up. I want to die soon.
Now granted, this is humor only someone perpendicularly bent would think up, and the title story in Jaeggy’s collection I Am The Brother of XX, in which that line appears, is both sad and funny, its humor drawn from the “thought to be autistic” narrator’s—I like this descriptor—perpendicular worldview. The narrator, for the record, denies being autistic but justifies his disquieting silence as a way of foiling his in any case extremely neurotypical sister, who is writing a book about him that seems like a send-up of the “autism mom” genre:
Here’s what she wrote. She went to visit her brother at the school . . . and he was so sad, so unhappy that she got a lump in her throat—supposedly she got a lump in her throat, she who only a few minutes later was already writing that I, and I’m putting it in italics, was sad, that I wanted to die. And she paints and confabulates that desolate place in order to report on her brother’s sadness, and make it into a poetic scene. Because desolation and sadness go well together.
Jaeggy is not penning an aphorism with that last line so much as parodying the sister, who proposes to title this book, I Am The Brother of XX. But the first line of the story pointedly does not mirror her lilting title; instead the narrator simply says, “I am XX’s sister”—a subtle first signal that while the bald fact may be correct, its presentation is all wrong.
A crucial point about this story (and one that is apparently easy to miss) is that the narrator is not onboard with his sister’s interpretations of his motives, nor with her plans for his life. And he doesn’t merely disagree with her advice about going to college and the meaning of success. He also disagrees on the basic level of what words mean, what loaded ideas they contain:
But one does have to give words some credit. One has to at least pretend that they more or less resemble their meaning. Their shady meaning.
Here, as elsewhere, the narrator continually repeats (but alters) what was said; Far from narrowing the possible universe of expression, Jaeggy’s style of writing expands our sense of what is askable by almost constantly interrogating language—both that of her wonderfully self-hearing narrators and of other characters whose linguistic tics these narrators are also attuned to. Her style is halting not merely in the sense that her sentences quickly stop (though not always), but in the sense that Jaeggy halts ideas in their tracks. If free indirect prose typically rides the winds of thought, Jaeggy’s prose trips it up, snags it, catches it in mid-flight; it catches mundane (though loaded) thoughts in the act of being formed, and shows us what’s inside them; hence why the narrator quickly corrects himself, as he spies his sister “spying” on their family at the kitchen table: “She watched my mother, ours, my father, ours, and me.” Throughout the story, the narrator’s revisions and hesitations unpack disjunctions between his and his sister’s worldviews, justifying him when he faults his sister for her incomprehension of his actual motives:
People, nearly all of them, don’t know how to worry about others without being presumptuous, with finesse, with modesty. They think they know. My sister thought she knew. Knew the human race. . . . Knowledge doesn’t know. But that’s something few understand.
“I Am The Brother of XX” is the longest and most traditionally story-like of the pieces in the collection, most of which come in at just a few pages long, or long enough to convey a sort of evocative tone poem rather than what we might traditionally regard as a plot. For example, “Negde” depicts a pensive Joseph Brodsky walking the streets of Brooklyn and yearning for home, for the Neva river and “an arcane hyperborean breeze on the branches of the trees.” There are many emotionally evocative details in this sketch, the laughing children, the contents of his writing desk, and “the glint of evil” seen on the day the towers fell. It is a touching tribute that even seems to incorporate bits of Brodsky’s writing, but not much happens storywise.
One stylistic constant in I Am The Brother of XX is the terse, fractal quality of Jaeggy’s sentences, and the cinematic (more specifically, Tarkovskian) quality of telling the story in snatches of significant moments and enigmatic half-whispered questions, rather than outright telling the reader what happened. This can be observed in “The Last of the Line,” in which a young master of a manor house, Caspar, ruminates upon the portraits of his ancestors and laments the loss of his siblings, “Anton, seven years old, and Stefan, nine.” We are shown an idyllic scene of a “white landscape,” frozen lakes, Caspar skating. “Was he chasing them perhaps? Immortality didn’t quite convince them.” Later he complains of the loss of these siblings to a woeful “chorus” of servants:
“Have you by any chance dared to look for those who no longer exist?” They answered in a chorus. They do not go looking for miracles, or for sacrificial lambs.
We flit from terse expression to terse expression, each depicting a significant moment and allowing the reader to fill in the unnarrated space between them. This particular story has something of the cartoonish irreality of Jeff Vandermeer’s brand of “weird fantasy,” or as the back cover summary of the book rather confusingly describes it, “champagne gothic.” Something that reminds me of Terence Malick’s later films is how imagery is included that is symbolically suggestive—Sleeping Beauty in the backyard, a little boy blessing his brother, the afterlife scene on the beach, to cite three examples from Tree of Life alone—but confoundingly disjunctive if taken literally. I would say this occurs more in the “gothic” stories in the collection as opposed to the majority in Jaeggy’s more soberly realist mode.
Another story in the collection, “The Perfect Choice,” seems a companion piece to the title story, with the son who commits suicide being once again inscrutable to a family member, in this case his mother. Whereas the mother consoles herself by regarding the suicide as “the perfect choice” (since God caused it to happen, and he never errs), the son is one of those “who have an inborn gift for not being deceived in life. Neither by food gone bad, nor by the Holy Ghost.” A recurring theme here is the impossibility of restoring the scales to one’s eyes once they’ve been taken off. Similarly in the penultimate story, “F.K.”, the narrator goes to visit her schizophrenic friend in a sanatorium located on a spectacular lake area in Switzerland. Despite the scenery, it is impossible to escape the sadness. The lake and vineyards are deception:
They feign happiness. Who could blame them? The entire landscape feigns happiness. That is what moves and saddens one. As though something were missing no matter what.
The latter line haunts me: it evokes a fear (and maybe even a conviction) I’ve long had that it is possible for a person to simply be “miss” something essential, to be born inherently unwhole and uncompletable. Incidentally, there is another story in the collection which is peculiarly of interest to me for reasons both related to this theme and personal to me: about five years ago, I wrote a memoir essay (maybe I’ll post it sometime; it was in many ways a narrative experiment for me, penned by a vainglorious 22-year-old misanthrope drunk on the influence of Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, and Charles Stross, and not altogether that terrible despite that!) about a trip I had taken with my father and brother when I was 17, the last leg of which (and the focus of the piece) being our time spent at Auschwitz.
I did not have a pleasant time; there was something overwhelming and irredeemable about the place, not merely in terms of what it had been, but also what it has been turned into. It was also the site of a profound, shattering epiphany I had whose consequences are still working themselves out to this day; how fascinated was I then to find Jaeggy had written a story, “Names,” wherein the main characters visited and astonishingly noticed many of the same things I observed—the obnoxious tourists, the detached matter-of-factness of the docents, the fraught morality of posing for pictures, “the ostentation of grief” (which in my memoir they put on when we entered the gas chamber; a certain family member of mine stood out, let us say, by being too ostentatious)—and the two main characters, Basia and Anja, feel some of the things I felt. Jaeggy too has noticed that sound you hear, the song of the dead, which is not so much a sound as a crushing presence. It is an oppressive place, even today, because one feels there the incompletion of the world, the sense that the world is sick and there is so much that needs to be done to make it whole. To Jaeggy’s undeceived, scrupulously honest-with-themselves characters, a place like Auschwitz must carry multiple layers of meaning: the meanings you’re supposed to come away with, the meanings most people come away with, and the meanings one comes away with who is self-searching, alive to the pleadings of history and the struggle for the human soul.