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Few Things Are Necessary

By Anna Aslanyan.

Fleur Jaeggy

Three Possible Lives, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor (2017, New Directions)

I Am the Brother of XX, translated by Gini Alhadeff (2018, And Other Stories)

Sweet Days of Discipline, translated by Tim Parks (2018, And Other Stories)

Proleterka, translated by Alastair McEwen (2019, And Other Stories)

‘Poetry makes nothing happen,’ W. H. Auden wrote, a statement Fleur Jaeggy would probably agree with. Her work often reads like prose poetry: stark, spare, precise, its clipped sentences resonating in the space around them. When something does ‘happen’ in this space – death or sex, a walk or a conversation – these things are never as perfect as their absence.

Born in Switzerland in 1940, Jaeggy has lived most of her life in Italy and writes in Italian. She is not a prolific author; these four books, recently translated into English for the first time (a collection of essays and a collection of short stories) or reissued (two novels), make up half of her oeuvre. As the few interviews she’s given suggest, much of her fiction draws on personal experience, particularly on a childhood and adolescence spent being shunted between boarding schools. These institutions, with their hierarchies of control and submission, a cross between a barracks and a harem, cut you off from life, making you acutely aware of its passage outside, desperate to learn everything there is to learn about it. Jaeggy’s baggage is heavier than what most contemporary authors working in the personal key have to declare, yet her protagonists never seek a ‘happier place’, let alone lament their lot. Their sober reflections produce a far more staggering effect than anything the ubiquitous misery memoir can offer. Having lost a friend, the heroine of Sweet Days of Discipline reports: ‘I went back to the school and spent my time with my misery, which is a way like any other of spending time.’

‘A school is a factory is a poem is a prison’ – these words, from an essay by Joseph Brodsky, spring to mind as you read ‘Negde’, an exquisite prose poem dedicated to him, in I Am the Brother of XX. Wherever he happened to be, Jaeggy writes of her dead friend, for him it was just another version of nowhere; an existential choice similar to her own desire to be in a void, as she once said. She echoes Brodsky’s maxim in her conversations with another friend, Ingeborg Bachmann: ‘Old age, she said, is horrible. It’s all horrible, I’d tell her… and I meant it.’ Life and death, by the same logic, are also parts of that equation. The nowhere her poets – among them Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob, each the subject of an essay in Three Possible Lives – have gone to is a place Jaeggy visits as regularly as she did the burns unit where Bachmann was dying.

Death is a recurring theme in Jaeggy’s work. When the narrator of the story ‘I Am the Brother of XX’ says, ‘I want to die when I grow up’, it’s not meant to shock but to remind us of the death drive that sleeps next to our own child selves, buried inside us. Another important motif is cold: a necessary condition for feeling, thinking, expressing yourself. In Sweet Days, one of the protagonist’s happiest memories is of a night she spent in her friend’s bare, freezing room. The friend burns some alcohol in a saucepan on the floor, and when the flame dies the cold returns, biting into their bones as they stand by the window watching the dawn. This is not hardship but ‘a spiritual or aesthetic exercise’. Being cold, physically and emotionally, brings you closer to that perfect state, nothingness, which shouldn’t be confused with emptiness, for ‘what we do not possess belongs to us’.

The heroine of Proleterka (a kind of sequel to Sweet Days) thinks about death no less often than she does about life. She is fifteen, on holiday from boarding school, taking a cruise on SS Proleterka with her father: the first fortnight they will spend together, and also the last, although she doesn’t know it yet. After her parents’ divorce, the girl lived with her maternal grandmother before being ‘consigned to others’, sent away from home. The narrative cuts between her childhood and adolescence, between first and third person, switching faster than one can say ‘intimacy’. Her father, who was rarely allowed to visit her, is referred to as Johannes; her absent mother is ‘Johannes’s wife’ or ‘no longer a wife’; ‘my father’ and ‘my mother’ are used infrequently, as are any other words that risk becoming superfluous. ‘Parents are not necessary. Few things are necessary.’

One of the unnecessary things the narrator recalls is her maternal family, a family of ‘aspiring suicides’, held together by death. Their women ‘have a tendency, almost a vocation, to punish men’, and they continue to do so from beyond the grave: ‘I think they send me bags of the finest quality earth to promote… feelings of hatred for the male gender’. The dead have been a constant presence in the heroine’s life, doing ‘exactly the same things they did when alive’. Thanatos is so firmly lodged in her conscience that Eros has to force its way into it. It’s a no-holds-barred intrusion. Let the void created by the absence of intimacy be briefly flooded with physical desire, so that it can wash away any residue of emotion, leaving nothing in its wake. Sex has to be learned the hard way, fast. The ship’s crew will do, and if a man’s face is hidden in the shadow, his words hard to make out, so much the better. There is no time to be wasted on Johannes: he can have his meals in the dining room, alone, as he always does, or lie in his bunk in their cabin.

As if following the family tradition, the heroine runs over ‘numerous versions of hatred towards that man who attracted me and who I did not know’. The next day, standing naked before this stranger, ‘she does not want tenderness’: all she wants is to experience everything she missed while shut away from the world; she has to get it over and done with, immunise herself for life. The physical and the emotional must remain apart. The man ‘bears down on her with violence. Every move with violence. Every caress.’ He hardly talks, doesn’t take off his uniform. ‘She feels pleasure in the disgust. I don’t like it, I don’t like it, she thinks. Yet she does it all the same. She no longer has much time.’ The voyage over, the stranger who taught her a lesson in adulthood ‘disappeared as if he had never existed… As if I had not existed.’ Abandoned by its passengers, the Proleterka looms behind like a mausoleum. Pleasure and disgust have finally dissolved in a ‘kind of annihilation’: absence made perfect. ‘Nothingness,’ she has known all along, ‘is the stuff of thought.’

The austere simplicity of Jaeggy’s prose is without bitterness or affectation; her characters genuinely believe in the aesthetic ideal of nothingness. It needn’t be understood in a simplistic, literal way. We still want things, Jaeggy appears to be saying, but in our pursuit of them we have to remember that ‘it is only distractions, uncertainty, distance that bring us closer to our targets, and then it is the target that strikes us’. The knowledge that ‘few things are necessary’ leaves her no choice but to use only the right words in the right order. What makes her writing so free of convention, so powerful in its asceticism is her ability to freeze out all that’s unnecessary, to say only what cannot be kept to herself, dropping the rest so as to remain suspended in the void, wishing for nothing to happen.

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant, and Zadie Smith.

This is the second in a series of essays on the Republic of Consciousness Book(s) of the Month (the first one is here). The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 27th, 2019.