These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy (tr. Minna Proctor). New Directions. $12.95, 64pp.
Consider Oliver Munday’s striking cover for These Possible Lives, one of the slim, sharp, dark works of Swiss/Italian author Fleur Jaeggy. The tile motif, bearing eight gray, equal segments from historical portraits of the book’s subjects, is immediately captivating; one glimpses mouths and eyes, poignant gazes into a mercurial unknown, or unsettling direct eye contact that seems to say, there are truths within this small book, but whose truth may they be? This obfuscation is furthered by Munday’s decision to create a ninth tile without image, choosing instead a tilted red box containing that imprecise, strange word, “Essays.” I pick up the book, read the title, These Possible Lives, and think to myself, what is possible about historically recorded lives. A simple red backslash wants to point me down, to the broken mosaic of possibility below, however, I realize red warns, and the indirect backslash conveys hesitation. This cover does a wonderful job trying to dissuade one from any clear preconceptions of the text within, while equally stoking my intense curiosity.
True to Munday’s design, the book contains portraits. The first piece, whose subject, fittingly, was a master of reverie and the essay, begins with: “Thomas De Quincey became a visionary in 1791 when he was six years old.” This bold proclamation sets a tone for the remaining pages, and it is followed by, “His older brother William was looking for a way to walk on the ceiling upside down like a fly.”
Jaeggy begins to weave her striking statements, typically short, and often strange, enticing, and beautiful, beckoning the reader further into a nebulous world of images, impressions, memory, and record. Is it documentation we are reading? From whom do the memories stem? Is it the author’s years of private dialog with her favorite writers reflected outward, personal interpretation?
For instance, the following sentence clearly comes from the historical record: “At the Grammar School of Bath he was subject to corporal punishment if he made mistakes.” Yet only a few sentences later, after Thomas De Quincey (or TDQ as he is styled in the essay) has run away and is living with a moneylender, mice watch him “grow agitated in his sleep, motoring his legs upward only to stop short intermittently, his gears slipping like a machine. They heard him call out his own name, heard him moan and then cock his ear in silence, listening for the sound to repeat.”
Jaeggy has taken the written and anecdotal record of her Romantics, Creatives (each ill and delicate in his own way), and wraps them in the shroud of her slow-burning melancholic rumination. By claiming De Quincey as a visionary in the opening sentence, she enters the realm of dreams and storytelling; she depicts pirates and depressives, fairy tales, death, and grandeur — through their lives, she makes contact with the very fabric of these artists work. For our sake (and likely hers), she burrows beneath the veneer of history that allows us to rest comfortably in order to detach these men from ready caricature, to ensure we inhabit the emotional and literary forces that motivated them. This allows Jaeggy, in such short pieces, to feel for the essence of her subjects, and effectively, bring them that much closer to the reader.
There are anecdotes of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Fuseli and Southey. TDQ is seen through the eyes of publisher James Hogg. When his candle’s flame creates a conflagration in his paper filled studio, he bars the door, fearful that a benevolent person will throw water on his work. He is unreliable, he loses children, he suffers; he is “distant from the terrors of the living.”
In early December, at seventy-four years of age, TDQ takes his leave of the world, and they “didn’t allow the morning light into the room and at nine they lit the candles.” In a few pages, Jaeggy captures the metaphysical existence of her subject, but allows for him to be held at an ethereal distance.
Jaeggy opens her next essay, on John Keats, with rumination on the guillotine as childhood toy, imitation, and war. “Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery? Massacres in those little fairy-dust minds?” This pessimism, these dark turns, seem indicative of Jaeggy’s worldview, although it may be too simple to call her perspective deliberately negative in the shallow shock lesser writers attempt. She exercises an important control factor, partially through balanced sentences, but also in pushing the reader further into contemplation than distress; she explores the angularity of being human, the effect layered substrata has on motivations and pain.
Her nursery examination leads us to Keats’ youthful impulses to violence, his early proclivity for battle, but Jaeggy juxtaposes this with a softening poetic tendency; he becomes an occasional melancholic, and transforms himself into a poet. Much like she draws TDQ in the first essay, she shows Keats in more pronounced terms. The nature of his character seems to be one of coming and going, infectious conversation and diminished dreaminess, confrontation and retreat.
We are there with the dying Keats and Severn in Rome, the long illness dominating his existence, the famous last portrait of the fevered Keats in sleep. When given a flower by his friend, the response is “I hope to no longer be alive in spring.”
Jaeggy gives the impression that the inscription on Keats’ gravestone, told here as, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” is a point of contact for her. She writes, “His words are set into the stone as if on a mirror, touching everything and not touched by anything — strange asymmetry.” This resembles her melancholic figures and their strange asymmetrical lives of power, creation, life, and ghostly depictions.
The third and final life is that of French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. After deftly laying out a history of intellect, knowledge, uses of morphine and adventure in the “footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson,” this short but full life vanishes. Here again, Jaeggy shows her skill at writing in few words the power and drama of finality.
His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.
It is one of the strangest segments I have read in a while. Unlike so much “odd” or “haunting” or “surreal” writing, it is not trying to catch us out in the open; rather, it is so simply stated, so calmly handled, that this image of a mask of gold in a room smoking with sadness feels entirely beautiful, believable, a hard reality after so much ether.
These Possible Lives as a whole could be said to be reflected in those two images. These may not be essays in the expected form, and the reader is left with more questions and impressions than knowledge, but in this Fleur Jaeggy is excellent. I want to read her sentences again, and I want to read the words of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. To grasp at possible lives seems a worthy endeavor.
Alan Kitchen has been a bookseller for ten years, and has occasionally exhibited his paintings. He is the proprietor of the online used bookshop Black Forest Bookshop, with a focus on literature in translation and the arts. After crossing the country, he has ended up in the Pacific Northwest, where he hopes to become a better bookseller, painter, and writer.
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