The Austere Fiction of Fleur Jaeggy – The New Yorker
Few writers push the reader away with the coolness, dignity, and faint melancholy of Fleur Jaeggy. In her new story collection, â€œI Am the Brother of XXâ€ (New Directions), she praises her friend Ingeborg Bachmann, one of the most celebrated Austrian writers of the twentieth century, for needing â€œlittle encouragement not to speak.â€ Similarly commendable is a suicidal man, in one of her novels, who lives near a church, and who makes sure that â€œthe striking of the hour coincided with the revolver shot. That way no one heard.â€ Elsewhere, we meet nymphs who have stepped down from their paintings into a darkened museum; they wish to try out life. But, â€œhaving descended to earth, they realized they were ill-disposed to living.Â .Â .Â . They abhor all manner of effusion.â€ How embarrassing to read Jaeggyâ€™s stories, and to see oneâ€™s own life through her eyes. Yes, itâ€™s â€œall manner of effusion.â€
Jaeggy is seventy-six years old. She was born in 1940, into an upper-middle-class family in Zurich, and grew up speaking French, German, and Italian. In Italy, where she has lived the past five decades, she has won nearly every literary prize of noteâ€”she writes exclusively in Italianâ€”and is acknowledged as one of the countryâ€™s most original authors. She is also one of its most reclusive. Gini Alhadeff, who translated the new collection, describes her as a â€œmonumental loner,â€ who â€œhas few friends, rarely goes out, and turns down practically every request for an interview.â€ At home, Jaeggy writes on a swamp-green Hermes typewriter, which she goes to, she says, â€œas though to a piano. I practice. I do scales.â€
Jaeggy spent her childhood and adolescence in boarding school, before modelling, gloomily, for several years in the United States and Europe. Then she moved to Rome, a period she describes in a characteristically distilled way: â€œI went out with some boys. I rode horses. A pleasant and at once meaningless existence.â€ It was in Rome that she met Bachmann, who was to become a lifelong friend, and the writer Roberto Calasso, whom she married, in 1968, before moving to Milan. Calasso went on to become the editor of Adelphi Editions, which under his watch became one of Europeâ€™s most highly regarded publishing houses, its authors including Bachmann, Djuna Barnes, and Thomas Bernhard.
Jaeggyâ€™s fourth novel, â€œSweet Days of Disciplineâ€ (translated by Tim Parks), made her name, in 1989. She has described writing the book, which is semi-autobiographical, as â€œan exercise in self-punishment.â€ The story is set in the nineteen-fifties, at a Swiss boarding school, where life is repeatedly portrayed as a penitential, even psychosexual condition. The girls wash quickly, like prisoners; there is â€œa faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractiveâ€ of them. For those living there, â€œa sort of senile childhood was protracted almost to insanity.â€
The plot follows the teen-age narratorâ€™s relationship with a new girl, FrÃ©dÃ©rique. FrÃ©dÃ©rique is the daughter of a banker in Geneva and, being new to boarding school, she bears markers of the outside worldâ€”a male friend, elegant style. Her looks are â€œthose of an idol, disdainful.â€ The narratorâ€™s desire to win her friendship is immediate and strong. But, when she does, the dynamic is unsettling. In conversation, there is â€œan atmosphere of punishment,â€ and spending time with FrÃ©dÃ©rique entails â€œbecoming accomplices, disdaining all the others.â€ In loving this new girl, the narrator transfers the object of her submission from boarding school, which she didnâ€™t choose, to FrÃ©dÃ©rique, whom she did.
And, while some take a dark pleasure in being cut off from their natureâ€”in being unable to be fully, because of the domineering belovedâ€”the narrator is conflicted. Besides, she and FrÃ©dÃ©rique have never touched, never kissed. When another girl arrivesâ€”the giggling, spontaneous Michelineâ€”the narrator more or less dumps FrÃ©dÃ©rique, and reacts defensively to her silent disapproval: â€œWhat Micheline wanted from life was to have a good time, and wasnâ€™t that what I wanted too?â€
Yet here she tragically misunderstands herselfâ€”the way we do when we believe that we must want what everybody else wants. (Why should we be singled out to be so different, so perverse?) She cannot enjoy the simple happiness that Micheline offers. She has been in boarding schools for seven years. She has been altered: what she needs from love is something chillier, more strict. When FrÃ©dÃ©rique is withdrawn from the school on account of her fatherâ€™s death, the narratorâ€™s small, secret dream of rekindling their friendship dies. She realizes, â€œI had lost what was most important in my life.â€
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