Cold Comfort

Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff) – I Am the Brother of XX and Other Stories (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017)

In an interview conducted for TANK Magazine, interviewer Claudia Steinberg questions the Swiss author Fleur Jeaggy on the choice of narrative technique for her biographical work, ‘Three Possible Lives.’ Jaeggy responds, ‘I would prefer to tell you that I own a Hermes typewriter.’ She follows this with a brief description of the typewriter.

When Steinberg muses on ‘silence’ as a theme in Jaeggy’s writing, Jaeggy offers in return an account of her friendship with a swan, a friendship made a number of years ago.

The swan, which she named Erich, was a resident of a pond in Berlin. Jaeggy had been staying in an apartment near to the pond.  ‘A good friend,’ she remembers of Erich, before she describes strolling, with Erich waddling beside her, around the pond water.

The interview concludes with Jaeggy remarking, ‘We have talked very much. I hope there will be far fewer words in the magazine. Promise to mention Erich, and then say close to nothing.’

The interview, a rare thing for Jaeggy, was conducted on the occasion of publication of ‘I Am the Brother of XX.’ This is her latest collection of short stories, translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

Throughout the interview, Jaeggy resists Steinberg’s efforts to elicit explanations of her peculiar prose. She swerves questions pertaining to craft, literary influences and formative childhood experiences. Above the interview text on the TANK Magazine website is a black and white photograph of Jaeggy. She has neatly bobbed hair and a thin smile.

I first encountered Jaeggy’s work on the website of literary magazine, The Paris Review. Her short story ‘Agnes,’ was published there last spring. Like many of the stories included in the collection, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ of which it is a part, ‘Agnes’ is concerned largely with death and madness.

The narrator of the story, a jilted lover, details the fallout of an infatuation. Of the stories I read that lunchtime at work, sat listlessly before my computer, it is ‘Agnes’ that I remember very clearly. I was struck by Jaeggy’s written style. Her sentences are so terse and sharp it is like they have been spat out.

The story has a strange structure. The narrator breaks off abruptly from one train of thought before beginning on another, apparently disconnected, thread. Past events are depicted in brief, bizarre flashes. Characters appear unintroduced, except by name, and are quickly discarded. It has a disorientating effect. It is a superb piece.

The stories included in ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ are also expertly, and peculiarly, composed. It is a collection of almost unremitting bleakness, both in setting and plot. The stories are situated in isolated places; a decrepit castle, a snowed under village, a mountain-top boarding school surrounded by boulders, a massive, suspended bird cage. 

Death looms large. Whether one takes place, has taken place, or a character is pre-occupied by the thought it.

The depressed, heavily sedated narrator of the title story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls, ‘once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ And I answered, I want to die.’

Characters are described as having ‘cold’ and ‘dead’, ‘blank’ and ’empty’ eyes, a, sometimes laboured, intimation as to their inner states. Relationships are antagonistic. Denouements are brutal. Jaeggy recounts the fates of her characters very coolly.

Flowers have been placed on the coffin… a flowery meadow on our mothers’ skull,’ remarks one character observing his mother’s funeral. 

In the aforementioned interview for TANK magazine, Jaeggy remarks that she dislikes ‘effusion.’ Her descriptions and observations, indeed, are very precise. 

The narrator of the story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls of his stylish, disaffected-seeming sister, ‘She was saying she liked solitude. Meanwhile she was going out every night, coming back late, her mascara smudged.’

In one of the collection’s best stories, ‘The Black Veil,’ the narrator chances upon an old photograph of her mother. The photograph shows her, now deceased, mother at an audience with the Pope. She has a ‘desperate, depressed’ look in her eyes. For the daughter, the idea that her elegant, composed mother might have been ‘desperate’, is as startling as punch in the face. Jaeggy conveys this brilliantly.

Jaeggy writes reverently of her famed writer friends Ingrid Bachman, Oliver Sacks and Josef Brodsky. She writes warmly of animals. In the story, ‘Encounter in the Bronx,’ the narrator, dining out with two companions, describes feeling a sense of kinship with a kind eyed fish gliding about the restaurant aquarium. It is the kind of easy friendship that might have existed between Jaeggy and swan.

Such moments of relief are brief, however.

How unfortunate, the narrator reflects, that at any moment the fish will be fetched, killed and made into a meal.

– Abby Kearney

References

‘Promise to mention Erich and then say close to nothing,’ Fleur Jaeggy interview with Claudia Steinberg, Tank Magazine, The Book Issue, Summer 2017

‘Agnes’ by Fleur Jaeggy, The Paris Review, Issue 220, Spring 2017

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