“The Black Lace Veil” is one of the stories from Fleur Jaeggy’s collection, I Am the Brother of XX. It was translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff.
— Joseph Schreiber
My mother had an audience with the Pope. I found this out from a photograph of the Holy Father with her looking at him, wearing a black veil. From that photograph I understood, perceived, in fact clearly saw, that my mother was depressed. Depressed in a definitive way. The smile is sad, the glance, which is trying to be kind, is without hope. Mother was a rather sociable person, elegant, lovely jewelry, a lot of charm, Givenchy, Patou, Lanvin — in fact many aesthetic qualities which are not dissimilar to internal ones. In the photograph I noticed for the first time that Mother was all in all a desperate woman — or almost desperate. In spite of her little bridge tables. She entertained a great deal, now some of the bridge tables have been left to me and sometimes I hear the calls: sans atout, passe, hearts. Then I ask myself why she went to see the Pope. I am her daughter and would never have thought of going. What made her seek the blessing of the Holy Father? Maybe her despair: she wanted to be blessed. Wearing the dark lace veil, partly obscuring her face that was so sad. There is something frightful in realizing from a photograph that one’s own mother was depressed. Definitively depressed. Or perhaps she only was at that moment. The presence of the Holy Father threw her into such a state of bewilderment that it made her expression unhappy. With no way out. As she desperately tried to smile and the eyes were already in darkness. They are — one could say right away — extinguished, dead, closed. Yet she was still beautiful. Beauty could not conceal the despair, as the grim veil she wore on her head could not hide her beauty.
Now I’d like to know why she went to see the Holy Father. Did she seek solace? Maybe I was wrong. It was the first impression that made me say that her gaze was desperate. She looked the Holy Father in the eye, with a distant and very direct gaze. She looked him straight in the eye. Even though her gaze was far from cheerful. It was cold and hopeless. She had no hope. Her son was beside her. And he, too, had a sad expression in his eyes. And so her son looked at the Holy Father in the bored manner of a little boy who doesn’t believe in anything. The mother wants to take him to the Pope, an audience for the very few. It is a luxury to be able to see the Holy Father, they say. I don’t know if the word luxury is a suitable one, but it is not common to be received by the Holy Father, so close that one can kiss his ring or bow one’s head or genuflect. Perhaps genuflecting is too much. I don’t know a great deal about ritual behavior toward the Holy Father. But my mother who knows the etiquette and was immediately granted an audience, she must have bowed as she started to bow before destiny. Before a not too favorable destiny that was undermining her life. Her beauty hadn’t altogether faded, there were still flashes of it, which to a careful glance might have been quite fascinating and moving. Her daughter, who does not have the depth of the mother, has always believed in the surface of things. And so in beauty. In appearance. What does she care about what is inside? Inside where? And what is the inside? Anyway the daughter believes more in photographs than in the people portrayed. A photograph might tell more than a person. Perhaps. Naturally perhaps. Always perhaps. No affirmation could lead her to grant total credence to the affirmation itself. So, to return to despair. A theme that is dear to her. What could be better than despair? If one discovers from looking at her in a photograph that a person is desperate, after the first shock a kind of calm sets in. A remission. I had never seen my mother so desperate, I would never have thought she could be desperate. It was we, her daughter and her son, who always thought we were — the two of us, he and I — desperate. Not Mother. That was our prerogative. Mother does not even know what despair might be, we thought. Well, she deceived us. To put it crudely. The card player, and perhaps a player in life, the woman who for a while protected us, who protected her children — and then let them go. Because all that was around her left her. Like a flash of lightning, there is an instant that descends, wounds, and is gone. And leaves an aura of spoliation. All it took was a photograph, the photograph of Mother in the presence of the Holy Father, to convince her daughter that she was desperate. She will continue to repeat that word, because she, the mother, never uttered it. She never uttered a word that concerned her. That concerned any malaise of hers. Any possible malaise of hers.
Even now, though many years have gone by and Mother is no longer here, I’d like to know what made her go to the Pope. Why the audience? And why that look in her eyes. If she felt the desire to see the Pope, and perhaps receive his blessing, why did she have that terribly sad look in her eyes? So much so that her daughter, many years later, was jolted — as though her mother were alive at that moment and told her that she’s had enough of life. Sufficit. The daughter was jolted, felt a pang of love for her mother who perhaps had always hidden from her that she was terribly unhappy and let herself be found out in a photograph.
— Fleur Jaeggy, Translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff
Published with permission from New Directions Publishing Company.
Fleur Jaeggy (1940– ) was born in Zurich, Switzerland and lives in Milano, Italy. In addition to her own work, she has translated the works of Marcel Schwob and Thomas de Quincey into Italian as well as written texts on them and Keats. The London Times Literary Supplement named Jaeggy’s S.S.Proleterka a Best Book of the Year: and her Sweet Days of Discipline won the Premio Bagutta as well as the Premio Speciale Rapallo.