OCTOBER 1, 2017
OF ADMIRABLE BOOKS written by less-than-admirable men, friends of mine often say: How glad we are to have come across this — and how equally glad not to have dated the person who produced it. Take Nietzsche, for example. It’s wonderful to read him on the page, but I’m not sure I’d let him buy me a drink.
This logic — that what one seeks in art isn’t always what one looks for in life — extends to the cast of characters in Swiss author Fleur Jaeggy’s I Am the Brother of XX, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff and out from New Directions this past July. Jaeggy’s impish, tortured provocateurs hail from a realm of devilish and contrary convention. They are haughty, comic, and often cruel — so utterly absorbed by their own private dramas as to be totally unconcerned with how they might come across to others. One story features an orphan who burns down her caretaker’s home sans apology or shame; in another, a boy attends his mother’s funeral in “idle joy.” In these 21 beautiful, darkly comic vignettes, such Nietzschean dismantling of received morality is the norm: “For us, creatures of the streets, instinct is our dwelling. And a total disregard for the good.”
Jaeggy has written six previous novels and short story collections, three of which have been translated into English. Many readers will remember her for the bracing 1993 novella Sweet Days of Discipline, about an unnamed woman reflecting on her childhood infatuation with the inscrutable Frédérique, a former classmate and friend. Set at an all-female boarding school in the Swiss Alps during World War II, the novella was a first introduction for English-language readers to Jaeggy’s uncanny, menacing, and isolated worlds, and quickly captured the attention of the literary elite. As early admirer Joseph Brodsky raved, “Reading time is approximately four hours. Remembering time, as for its author: the rest of one’s life.”
Trying to capture the feel of Jaeggy’s work often leaves reviewers grasping at stylistic antinomies. Her deceptively casual, very beautiful prose is often described as austere, while the aberrant behaviors she depicts border on the decadent. Though the mood is pegged to postmodern disaffection, her characters are animated and agitated by small desires; aesthetic obsessions bring them to life. Comparing her wardrobe to Frédérique’s loose jumpers and blouses, the narrator of Sweet Days bemoans her own collection of “tight pullovers and wide skirts.” “I pulled the waist as tight as possible,” she says. “And that is not elegance.”
It is this muted comedy — the undue importance that characters assign to everyday choices — that first drew me to Jaeggy’s work. Jaeggy’s sense of humor is subtle but sustained, and she delights in small ironies and allusions. The boarding school, for example, situated mere miles from the mental hospital where Robert Walser was interred, is presented more or less as an old folk’s home, a place where weary, bourgeois parents can discard their disturbed and demented daughters. I couldn’t help but crack a smile at the narrator’s overwrought descriptions, as she reports on her “senile childhood,” the “mortuary” look of the girls, or the exaggerated effect of nuns’ veils that “confer majesty and mystery. And treachery.” A certain bossiness heightens the comic effect — as with Nietzsche, the narrator’s imperiousness approaches comedy.
I Am the Brother of XX is also a slim but powerful volume, one that retains the anti-ethos and gallows humor of Jaeggy’s earlier work. However, it is more menacing and discomfiting than Sweet Days, less plotted, and more concerned with mood and turns of phrase than developing story lines. The narrative momentum here is generated mostly at the level of the sentence, and there are many startling and standalone lines. Flowers placed atop a coffin are “little sweets, little strawberries, a flowery meadow on our mother’s skull.” One can read this collection the way one walks along a beach, gathering strange and remarkable sentences like shells.
At the same time, this is hardly a quiet or understated book. The historical and geographical scope is massive, sprawling across centuries and continents, and a heightened sense of menace follows us wherever we go. We are transported from Switzerland to Brazil, the Bronx, Auschwitz, seaside sanitoriums. Oliver Sacks dies. A 13th-century saint takes a turn through the Archeological Museum in present-day Naples. For all its expansiveness, however, the collection never bursts its container. Consistent characterization and repeated motifs tether each vignette to the same narrative space. Household objects, photographs, and paintings frequently come alive. Characters contemplate “the void, in all its nuances,” and harbor obsessive sartorial preferences for a “certain blue coat” or “eggplant-colored penny loafers.” They form profound friendships with crockery and pets, as when a lonely woman sits in her kitchen speaking to teacups (“They kept her company”), or when a diner catches the eye of a fish in a restaurant aquarium, concluding: “He is already a friend.” These moments offer a poignant, comic counterpoint to more upsetting stories like the “Aviary,” in which a man locks his wife, a descendant of Nazis, in a birdcage that “hangs from a hook” in a closet filled with his dead mother’s insect-infested belongings. In short, Jaeggy’s usual mix of comedy, insanity, and violence is on display.
It is the narrators’ underlying shamelessness, however, that lends the best stories their seductive quality. Take the gleeful pyromania of the orphan in “The Heir,” for instance, or the narrator of my favorite story, “Agnes,” who is unapologetically numb to a widower’s pain: “I imagine a man mad with grief in the lovely garden. He is beside himself […] I am slightly bored […] He adds, instead of subtracting. I am calm.” Jaeggy understands, intuitively, that there is something spellbinding about a character who doesn’t care how her actions will be received by outsiders. Indeed, this shamelessness is what first attracts the narrator of Sweet Days to Frédérique, a “nihilist” with “no passion” and a “gallows laugh,” a woman whose “complete freedom,” she says, “made her all the more intriguing to me.” The same can be said for the reader, as well.
And yet, what are we to make of Frédérique’s exaggerated indifference when it breaches everyday life? Jaeggy’s cavalier pursuit of moral extremes sometimes begs justification, and there are moments when we wonder: Are these works of real philosophical and literary power, or the personal notes of an aggrieved and cantankerous storyteller — someone who would toss aside all convention for the sake of contrarian thrill? When the orphan in “The Heir” burns down her caretaker’s house (along with the old woman, who burns to death inside), she does so for nothing more than the “blasted glory of it […] Should she have to answer to a ridiculous why?” Jaeggy is unconcerned with motive, and her stories can seem like havens for eccentric, senseless, and inexplicable acts of violence.
With such a cavalier approach to good and evil, the usual concerns of contemporary English-language fiction feel conspicuously absent from this book. There is no critique of capitalism, no sex, no enemy, no clear oppressor nor oppressed, only a spare and searing instinct; Jaeggy cuts closer to the id than the ego. Her interest lies in isolating individuals from the world rather than in investigating the relationship between individuals and the sociopolitical landscape. While this approach may strike some readers — the American reader, especially — as flinching away from issues of urgency, from another view, Jaeggy’s isolated consciousnesses have profound, if deviant and discomfiting, implications. After all, consensus understanding of the individual psyche fundamentally shapes our institutions: capitalists believe man is driven primarily by self-interest and avarice; Marxists, by the desire to produce; Freudians, by impulses of pleasure and aggression. Though each of these wills has a coda in I Am the Brother of XX, Jaeggy’s take on human nature is ultimately more ambiguous. In these stories, the individual’s primary impetus is a kind of “terrible longing. For what she didn’t have. For what she’d never had,” and the object of that longing remains tragi-comically unclear. Perhaps it’s certainty. Perhaps it’s intimacy. Perhaps it’s sorrow itself, an emotion that returns, after extended absence, to the callous narrator of “Agnes” “like a grace received.”
In the end Jaeggy (arguably, like Nietzsche) is more a stylist than a philosopher, and so the value of her approach lies in the performance, in demonstrating modes of being that prompt us to reflect on the value of the status quo. What would we be without the veneer of social convention: petty, destructive, deeply alone? Is that a self we should embrace? What else do we find when gazing into the abyss if not, as Nietzsche might say, more abyss?
For all its contrarian arrogance and fascination with “the void,” I Am the Brother of XX sets itself apart from the work of Nietzsche in one crucial way: its hint of humility. The titular story serves as an extended grievance against writers and writing, as “the brother of XX” complains about his sister, once “[a] big old spy in the house,” and now a writer herself. XX is arrogant, ambitious, unavailable, a stand-in for writers themselves. When it comes to the value of such literary ambitions, it is her brother who has the final say: “They think they know. My sister thought she knew. Knew the human race. She was highly annoying.”
J. Jezewska Stevens is a writer living in New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, BOMB Magazine, Guernica, The Rumpus, and The Columbia Journal Online. Follow her on Twitter @JezewskaJ.