AUGUST 7, 2017
“THE HOUSE WAS built like a fortress,” Fleur Jaeggy writes, “isolated from the rest of the village, and isolated in the mind of the rest of the world.” Jaeggy’s stories take place in boarding schools, snowy mountain ranges, and in solitary mansions on cliffs. “The town has few inhabitants. The houses are surrounded by a wall,” she writes. “There are no shops. But twice a week a siren announces that the provisions truck has arrived.” Another narrator plainly states, “I live alone. I earn enough on my salary.” Jaeggy’s characters live in a solitary abyss; maybe Jaeggy does, too.
Jaeggy was born in Switzerland but writes in Italian and lives in Milan. I Am the Brother of XX, her new story collection from New Directions and her fourth book in English, is translated by Gini Alhadeff. Her two novels and one other story collection are difficult to find: there are only a few copies left in stock on Amazon, and from where I write, in Providence, Rhode Island, just one copy of one of her books exists in the Rhode Island Public Library system.
The few interviews with Fleur Jaeggy that exist are mostly in Italian. In the single recent interview in English in TANK magazine, Jaeggy mostly redirects the interviewer’s questions about her life and writing into anecdotes about animals she has known. Her brief Wikipedia page says that when she left Switzerland and moved to Rome, she met Thomas Bernhard. The two of them make sense together: both are experimentalists, philosophers, and obsessives. Both layer narrative and lyric purposes into each line; both find the strange remote corners of the soul and recline into them. But even this relationship is shrouded in mystery — there’s no way of knowing how much time Jaeggy and Bernhard even spent together. Though she’s been publishing in Italian since 1968 and a decade hasn’t passed without one or two of her books being released, she has very little footprint in English. Like the characters in her stories, she seems to be set apart from the world.
Susan Sontag once admiringly called Jaeggy a savage writer. You need to be, to write these stories about loners and orphans with such levity. Fleur Jaeggy is like Edward Gorey without the monsters, or Lemony Snicket without the slapstick, though she can be funny, in a sinister way. “Once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, what will you do when you grow up?” Jaeggy writes in the title story about a strange pair of siblings. “I answered, I want to die. I want to die. I want to die when I grow up. I want to die soon. And I think my sister really liked that answer.”
A genius of rich, terse prose, Jaeggy writes paragraphs that are gorgeous labyrinths. One sentence pulls ahead, the next circles back to reexamine something from earlier, and the next one might dead-end or take you somewhere entirely new — but to the characters and the reader by extension, it all happens simultaneously. Like great photographs or paintings, Jaeggy’s writing pulls your attention in, and then lets it wander. You can spend a long time in a Jaeggy paragraph, staying behind for the fun of it even once you know the way out.
From the crystalline prose emerge scenarios with sinister motifs. In a story about an old unmarried woman taking in a 10-year-old orphan girl, Jaeggy writes:
The fräulein is a kind woman, wilted and very lonely. And solitude had made her even kinder, she practically apologized. Lonely people are often afraid to let their solitude show. Some are ashamed. Families are so strong. They have all of advertising on their side. But a person alone is nothing but a shipwreck. First they cast it adrift, then they let it sink […] That afternoon, the air was becoming stifling. “I am about to faint,” said Fraulein von Oelix. It was a lucky thing that the girl was there. So calm, tranquil, not gripped by panic.
The building is on fire, and Hannelore, the orphan, is so calm that she enjoys the blazing experience during her escape. She doesn’t even call the firefighters. She admires the fire’s ability to annihilate. “She doesn’t even have a past. Or a birthday,” Jaeggy writes. “She sprang from trash and to trash will return. She sprang from the swamps of the dead. And to the swamps she will return. That is why the fraulein took her in.”
In a story about a small girl who takes wicked advantage of a lonely old woman — not for her money, but for the joy of destruction — Jaeggy achieves the surreal pitch of conveying that this is a fulfilling situation for them both. In one scene, the fraulein watches Hannelore dress her naked body. Jaeggy writes: “Hannelore did so slowly, almost like a professional. To please the fraulein.” The fraulein decides to sign over her entire estate. She announces, “[Hannelore], you will be my heir.” She’s exhilarated by the prospect of leaving everything to a destitute girl. Soon after that, Hannelore burns the Fraulein von Oelix’s house down and kills her. Not for the money. Not for any reason, really. “[E]veryone believes there is a why, in human gestures and impulses,” Jaeggy writes. “The girl saw her thoughts on the window panes like insects swollen with blood on the walls of a room. Her thoughts distant, detached, as though someone else’s […] What does thinking matter? Thinking is iniquitous.”
Jaeggy’s interest in her characters alternates fluidly between amusement and disregard. In a story about a cat killing a butterfly, an apt metaphor for the way Jaeggy handles her creatures, she writes, “It’s as though [the cat] has forgotten the fluttering wings that only moments earlier had inspired his total dedication. That which had possessed him before, as though it were an idea, a thought. Now he pulls away. Looks elsewhere.” The brief moments when Jaeggy shows a version of warmth toward her characters are quickly abandoned; she more often leaves people physically and emotionally stranded.
But somehow Jaeggy doesn’t treat her characters unkindly; she treats them in the manner in which they have grown comfortable. In a story in which a woman shares a moment with a fish in the restaurant tank, the woman observes about herself, “My hands get cold. My neck. I am cold in a way I am tempted to call internal, a terrible word, but never mind. An internal cold. Frost within.” The woman is uncomfortable around other people, particularly her easily overheated husband. She’d rather just be alone.
In a story fittingly titled “The Last of the Line,” Jaeggy writes about a rich man named Caspar. Caspar’s parents and brothers are dead, and Caspar is all that is left of his family. His dogs follow him through the house, submissive, exhausted, and shaking with tremors. Caspar stands looking at his families’ portraits in the long hallway:
The last generation are children. Anton, seven years old, and Stefan, nine. They stand, their apathetic expressions sweet as can be. They are Caspar’s brothers. After sitting for the portrait, they seem to say: “We are no longer here.” And more or less that’s what happened.
This story captures the tension in Jaeggy’s writing between the desire to be apart from the world and the expectation to stay within it. Again and again, Caspar returns to the long hallway where he watches his dead family members watching him. Did they expect something more from him? Probably yes, just as they probably imagined something different for themselves. Caspar draws up a will, even though he has nobody to leave anything to, not even the dogs after he shoots them. Then at the age of 79, he turns the gun on himself. “The funeral was grand,” Jaeggy writes at the end of the story. “The old people of Rhäzüns and the children, too, followed the carriage, dancing almost. The carriage like a dead ship, slid over the snow, giddy and mute.”
The writer Fleur Jaeggy most reminds me of, though Danish and from a different generation, is Dorthe Nors. Nors had her English language debut with a slim collection called Karate Chop, then a combined set of experimental novellas called So Much for That Winter. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, is coming to the United States in 2018. Jaeggy and Nors both formulate sentences and paragraphs that demonstrate faith in the reader, that don’t stop to explain or fill you in but barrel forward with the accurate understanding that if you surround a reader with vivid sensory detail, they’ll come with you. They’ll want to chase you. They’ll catch up.
In Nors’s story “Do You Know Jussi?” she writes about a suitor leaving a family’s home right after he has possibly molested the daughter upstairs. The story starts after the act has already ended, and there is just stillness and household noises and smells. Nors writes,
[E]verything is quiet again, apart from her older brother turning on the shower across the hall […] [S]he is lying on the bed with a pillow between her knees. She can still feel the wetness of his saliva just beneath her nose, and his fingers. He made an effort to be nice, that was it, and she turns on the TV.
Like Jaeggy, Nors will stop and study something, then skip three moves ahead, then go back to a thought from earlier. Thrillingly, she keeps the reader with her.
In “Adelaide,” one of the more heartwarming stories in Jaeggy’s collection, an abandoned mother and son share a love for payback. The story opens with Adelaide drinking beer by herself in the dark kitchen. Her baby is in his outgrown crib in the next room. She’s thinking about the priest who wronged her, who wouldn’t baptize her son. The priest judges her for having a child out of wedlock, though Adelaide is thinking about how this man had preyed on her and her sister. “And you dip your filthy fingers into the holy water,” Adelaide thinks. “You’ll kneel before me so that I might punish you with a whip.”
The pitch-black setup and pursuit here epitomizes the register of a Jaeggy story. A mother wants to kill the priest who once seduced her and now won’t baptize her son, but she’s too timid to do it on her own, so she waits for her son to grow up and help her. While too much darkness can be claustrophobic, in Jaeggy’s case it lends itself to expansiveness and explosions. You don’t know what’s coming next, but you keep running into things. In “Adelaide,” the boy’s deadbeat father comes to visit, and the son drives a knife through his father’s heart. The mother and son get drunk, then take the body and bury it. “[N]ow it was the priest’s turn. They had waited too long already,” Jaeggy writes. “Together they got to work.”
Jaeggy seems nearly on the verge of dropping from cultural awareness, though perhaps this year that will change, with the release of I Am the Brother of XX alongside a set of her essays. She achieves more in a paragraph than many can pull off in an entire story; there’s very little out there that resembles Jaeggy’s dark and surreal intensity. Though I’m inclined to say Fleur Jaeggy deserves to be popular, based on her characters, stories, and her slim biography, she seems to like being left alone. Maybe there’s a good reason she’s not a bigger literary figure. Maybe that’s how she prefers it.