Sacred Inertia | Review of I Am the Brother of XX & These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy — Joseph Schreiber
Her new short story collection, I Am the Brother of XX, serves to showcase her exceptional ability to create an atmosphere of brittle, gothic claustrophobia with a contained, simmering intimation of violence that, on occasion, rises to the surface. And the three brief biographical essays that comprise These Possible Lives are a delight. — Joseph Schreiber
I Am the Brother of XX
Translated by Gini Alhadeff
128 pages; $14.95
These Possible Lives
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
64 pages; $12.95
One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.”  You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.
Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”
Subsequent publications, a collection of dark gothic fable-like stories, La paura del cielo (1994) and the autobiographical novel, Proleterka (2001) found their way into English translation as Last Vanities (Tim Parks, 1998) and SS Proleterka (Alistair McEwen, 2003) respectively, but to date, her earlier works remain untranslated. Consequently, the announcement that two new, relatively recent (2015), releases—I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three tightly abbreviated literary biographical essays—would be forthcoming from New Directions was received with anticipation and a revived interest in this notoriously elusive author. For the attentive reader, one of the greatest rewards of this renewed attention, is the publication of a rare English language interview in the Summer 2017 issue of TANK Magazine.
Jaeggy is a reserved and reluctant interviewee, but her modest responses are simultaneously generous and mysterious. She is clearly uncomfortable talking about her craft, unwilling perhaps to even acknowledge her role in the creative process as more than a passive one. She describes her precious manual typewriter—a swamp green Hermes—as the generative source of the letters and words that appear on the page. “I believe you can almost write without me,” she says. “Once I have finished a book, it doesn’t count any more; I don’t want anything to do with it any more.” As to the works she keeps close at hand, she admits to reading little new literature. Beyond a fondness for W.G. Sebald and, of course, her friend Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina, her reading tends to the mystical:
. . .Francis of Assisi and Angela di Foligno, who was born in 1248 in Tuscany and left everything behind. The saints are truly wonderful writers. But more than anyone else I read Meister Eckhart. I almost know him by heart. He is always close to my Hermes. One should read pretty much everything by him. He was for renunciation.
This admission, if surprising given the dark undertones of so much of Jaeggy’s writing, goes a long way towards explaining the eerie, intangible and otherworldly beauty of her work.
Her new short story collection, I Am the Brother of XX, serves to showcase her exceptional ability to create an atmosphere of brittle, gothic claustrophobia with a contained, simmering intimation of violence that, on occasion, rises to the surface. With twenty-one stories in 128 pages, some of the pieces are no more than two or three pages long—exercises in tightly condensed sentiment. There are, however, a number of tales that have a more reflective, nostalgic, and personal tone. Some of these even feature appearances from real-life friends and acquaintances like Ingeborg Bachmann, Joseph Brodsky, Italo Calvino, and Oliver Sacks. The translation by Gini Alhadeff, captures well the crisp poetry of her prose.
The title story, easily one of the stand-out pieces, is a finely executed exploration of a territory Jaeggy visits frequently—the uncanny landscape of dysfunctional family dynamics. The narrator, a melancholic young man, obsesses about the strange nature of his relationship with his older sister, whom he refers to as XX. He is convinced that she has long been spying on him, determined to write his future and ultimately, write him out of his own life. With a pensive, melodramatic spirit, fueled, in part, by his mother’s early regimen of dosing her children with sleeping pills, the narrator’s distrust of his sister’s intent grows, especially after their mother dies and she makes his future her concern:
She, my sister XX, leaves the room. And I am alone with my books, the desk, and I find myself, the brother of the voice that has just spoken, having a great urge to hang myself somewhere. Coming to my own aid, I think again of solitude, of the solitude that surrounds my existence. And that thought, always so lugubrious, distressing, now, after the importance of succeeding in life, becomes almost light. Words have a weight. Importance is weightier than solitude. Though I know that solitude is harsher. But the importance of succeeding in life is a noose. It’s nothing but a noose.
So articulate and careful in his account, it is impossible to tell if his paranoia is justified, or part of a deeply imbedded neurosis, and if his gradual unravelling is allegorical or real. Either way, in this story, as in much of Jaeggy’s fiction, her characters often demonstrate an emotional detachment and indifference to pain, in themselves or others, that makes them strangely tragic and engaging. It is not unlike catching a sideways glimpse of oneself in a darkened mirror.
“The Visitor,” another particularly impressive, beautifully rendered piece, is a fantastical little tale featuring one of her favourite mystics, Angela di Foligno. On an undated day, Angela, patron saint of those afflicted by sexual temptation, makes an appearance at the Archaeological Museum of Naples. As she passes through the halls, the inanimate inhabitants quiver and come to life, slipping off their pedestals and emerging from the surface of the frescoes.
The Nymphs step out of their representations, step down from the painted garden decorating the wall. The wall closes in on itself like a sepulchre. They are nearly all minute, damp, rapacious. They are still cloaked—Angela knows this—in a somber voluptuousness and a wild inebriation with which she identifies. The Nymphs give the impression that they listen to dreams. Not entirely awake, like those returning from an apparent death, they blindly contemplated the halls of the museum, without daring to move. The light wounded them. A pallid terror flutters across their eyelids. There is silence. Only the sound of shards falling was heard, colored shards, as they have left their mooring. A silence of dust.
Released, the Nymphs panic, desperate to return to the security of mindless existence in painted terra-cotta. The drama of their brief taste of freedom and desired renunciation returns them to a state of dark happiness as the museum resumes its formerly static existence.
Short story collections can present particular challenges. It can be difficult to maintain a consistent level of quality while avoiding a sameness that blurs the distinction between the stories. The twenty-one pieces here cover a range of styles, and although definite themes recur, Jaeggy’s inimitable style is such that there are bound to be passages that redeem even the weakest offerings. But it must be said that a few of the pieces do feel more like writing exercises than finished works, even for a writer who is well known for her suspended imagery and willingness to leave much unsaid. By contrast, the few more conventional gothic horror stories—“Agnes,” “The Heir,” and “The Aviary”—also seem slightly less satisfying because they are a little too neat, the protagonists too obviously sociopathological. The language and mood is still classic Jaeggy (“A modest gray afternoon. Vitreous.”), but it could be argued that there is something more unsettling when her characters’ neuroses are less clearly defined, more ambivalent, a little closer to home.
Entirely different in scale and intent, the three brief biographical essays that comprise These Possible Lives are a delight. Here she enters into the worlds of three writers she has either translated or written about—Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob—to create ultra-compressed, finely detailed portraits that capture the essentials of their lives, and the details of their deaths, from her own unique vantage point. Her prose, translated here by Minna Zallman Proctor, is precise and poetic, but with a hyper-focused, intentional quality that is less apparent in her fictional works. Like hand-painted miniatures, she pays attention to the appearance and style of each of her subjects, while filling in the background with curious diversions that allow for an intensely personal, unforgettable encounter.
With each of her subjects, Jaeggy’s concern is with choice elements of life experience—background, education, inspiration, adventure—as forces driving their creative energy, rather than with the works they produced. One might say that she imagines each writer as a character in his own life and death, to craft an essay that assumes a space somewhere between biography and literary folk legend. Her intention is to glance into their hearts. With Thomas De Quincey she introduces him as an imaginative, visionary child, follows him through his early experiments with laudanum, diverting her attention briefly to catalogue his literary contemporaries’ obsessions with the quality of their dreams, and then proceeds to chronicle his growing eccentricity and eventual descent (or ascent?) to a state of madness:
He was sometimes overcome with sleepiness in his studio and dropped, pulling the candles down with him. Ash reliefs adorned his manuscripts. When the flames got too high he’d run to block the door, afraid someone would burst in and throw water on his papers. He put out fires with his robe, or the rug—a thin cleric wrapped words in smoke, chains, links, captivity, bondage. When invited to dinner, he promised attendance, holding forth on the subject of the enchantments of punctuality. At the appointed time, however, he was elsewhere. Perhaps he was studying pages piled up like bales of hay in one of the many shelters that he never remembered having rented. Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust.
The John Keats essay begins with a reflection on the barbaric nature of the children’s toys popular in the early years of the nineteenth century and ends with an extended account of the young poet’s tragically romantic death. This is the longest piece, while the shortest is a brilliant, dizzying distillation of the impressive lineage, unconventional life and exotic adventures of Marcel Schwob. Remarkably, each one of these perfect little portraits leaves one eager to explore further the writer’s life and work. And that is quite an accomplishment for a book that is only 64 pages long. But then, this is the meticulous magic one comes to expect from Fleur Jaeggy.
— Joseph Schreiber
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts
- Fleur Jaeggy, “The Wife,” in Last Vanities, trans. Tim Parks (New York: New Directions, 1998), 24↵
what a tasty review. thanks for paying such close attention to these and so many more books