Fleur Jaeggy’s Portraits of Past Lives

Fleur Jaeggy’s Portraits of Past Lives


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Fleur Jaeggy

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New Directions

I AM THE BROTHER OF XX
By Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Gini Alhadeff
128 pp. New Directions. $14.95.

THESE POSSIBLE LIVES
By Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallmann Proctor
60 pp. New Directions. $12.95.

If Fleur Jaeggy is less well known than many of her European contemporaries — writers like Joseph Brodsky and Thomas Bernhard — it’s perhaps because her books are small and few. But over the past four decades the 77-year-old Swiss Italian writer has given us at least two real masterpieces: “Sweet Days of Discipline” (1989, translated by Tim Parks), and “S.S. Proleterka” (2001, translated by Alastair McEwen). These are haunting books, both with narrators struggling to retrieve a past that exists only in their memory and through notes and photographs. Like W. G. Sebald’s novels, they depict the mind in a holding pattern, circling around subjects that, being absent, can never be reached.

In both these books, Jaeggy recounts a Swiss childhood in the 1940s and 1950s, seemingly a lot like her own: boarding school, a tyrannical grandmother, a divorced mother and father both geographically and emotionally remote. As a writer, she is foremost a portraitist, describing figures from the past as they moved into and out of her narrators’ lives. A fellow student “had a fine, high forehead, the kind of forehead that makes thought tangible.” A father’s journal entries, read years after he has died, are “silent and absent. Names and dates. Nothing else. Written by a man even more absent, precise in his absence.” It’s hard to capture in a line or two the strange precision of Jaeggy’s prose, even harder to explain why her often halting short sentences and sudden shifts in tense or perspective are wonderful rather than irritating. The writing moves the way a camera might, circling around, trying to capture its subject from various angles at once. Out of many perspectives emerge people rescued from paling memory, and “if their faces are forgotten, if certain features have faded, as in a painting, all that remains are our own voices, which we feel can’t be answered.”

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Now two new Fleur Jaeggy books arrive, very different from one another, both turning her interest in portraiture into a theme in itself. The first, “I Am the Brother of XX,” is a collection of stories, monologues and memoir, less cohesive than her previous books but with the same stark, surprising prose, here translated by Gini Alhadeff. These are grim tales, often violent. In “The Heir,” an old woman signs over her estate to a young assistant who leaves her to die in a house fire. In “The Aviary,” a man psychologically tortures his wife out of an obsessive love for his dead mother. The title story and a few others are less traumatic, and there are some lovely personal remembrances, mostly of literary friends. Yet even in these softer, melancholic pieces, darkness seems never far away, and literally isn’t, since much of the book is filled with tales of death and madness.

It is also filled, to an uncanny degree, with actual portraits. In “The Last of the Line,” an old man sits before paintings of his long-dead siblings before shooting his dogs and committing suicide. In “The Black Lace Veil,” a woman holding a photograph of her dead mother sees desperation in her eyes, “and felt a pang of love for her mother who perhaps had always hidden from her that she was terribly unhappy and let herself be discovered in a photograph.” For Jaeggy, a painting or photograph is a doorway to the dead, and entering through it involves existential risk. “It is the unknown,” she writes. “It is the abyss.”

That same abyss is visited with a lighter heart and more graceful wit in “These Possible Lives,” a collection of three biographical essays, lyrically translated by Minna Zallman Proctor. It’s an eclectic group: Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and the late-19th century French symbolist Marcel Schwob (who is woefully underrepresented in English, though his books are now being published by Wakefield Press). Other than shared roots in Romanticism, the only thing these three seem to have in common is that Jaeggy is the Italian translator of both De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” and Schwob’s “Imaginary Lives,” two books that take an elliptical approach to biography, less interested in historical events than in rendering the tone of a life, its uniqueness. “The book that describes a man in all his irregularities will be a work of art,” Schwob wrote. A true biographer, he declared, “must create human characteristics amidst the chaos.”

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With “These Possible Lives,” Jaeggy becomes an heir to this genre of biography, with Schwob and De Quincey now subjects and Keats a poetic third. “His sister Jane lived three years,” she writes of De Quincey. “When she died, Thomas thought that she would come back, like a crocus. Children who grow up in the country know about death; they can, in a manner of speaking, see their own bones out the window.” Keats, we learn, “is unable to contemplate himself,” though Wordsworth “predicted great acclaim for him based on his appearance.” Schwob “inherited an ample forehead, sensual mouth, and a sad half smile in his eyes.” All his life he longed for an adventure, though when he finally had one it proved disappointing.

Brilliant, associative and short, Jaeggy’s essays have the beauty and economy of poems but the souls of portraits, discovering “human characteristics amidst the chaos” — which fairly describes her project overall.



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