The truth has no ornaments: SS Proleterka by Fleur Jaeggy

You don’t tell the story of your own life, there’s no time. Life began the moment in which we got on board. The beginning is the Proleterka.

SS Proleterka was the last of Fleur Jaeggy’s currently available translated works that I had left to read and I did not want it to end. I used to think Sweet Days of Discipline was my favourite but this novel is far more subtle, real, and painful. And with none of the gothic overtones that creep into so much of her other work. A most dispassionate and restrained coming of age story, it is cold, calculated, yet charged with a deep, sorrowful beauty.

Central to this novella is the account of a cruise to Greece that the unnamed narrator and her father take when she is fifteen years old. It will turn out to be the last opportunity they have to get to know each other. Her parents separated when she was young, and she was deposited with her maternal grandmother, leaving her father effectively exiled from her life, forced to request time with his daughter—applications that were frequently denied or strictly curtailed. To have two weeks together over the Easter holidays is unprecedented, and precious, but unlikely to resolve the existing distance between parent and child. They are too much alike, too accustomed to emotional self-preservation. But, with almost surgical precision, Jaeggy’s crystalline prose exposes the currents of repressed affection that run deep beneath the surface of their relationship.

Our protagonist is looking back from mid-life, at her childhood and youth. She offers an unsentimental, clinical assessment of her own experiences, emotions, and interactions. It is a learned response to the world. Occasionally she speaks of “my father”, but most commonly she refers to him by his first name, Johannes. With respect to herself, she alternates between first person and third, talking of “Johannes’ daughter,” “she” or “the girl”—at times employing all three in the same paragraph. She is thus able to step back and place herself within the regard (or lack thereof) of others. Detachment is her means of coping.

As a young girl, she tells us, she lived with Orsola, her mistress or “the mother of my mother, of her who had been Johannes’ wife.” After her own parents’ divorce, her father’s parents who had moved south for the health of their other son, an invalid, lost the textile factory that had been in the family for generations. Johannes lost his inheritance and his wealth. For the narrator, her father’s family hold a tragic fascination. She does not know them beyond their photographic images. But then she hardly knows her father any better. It is her mother’s family who control her destiny, which will ultimately be boarding school. She is disposable and knows it early on. Still, she describes her “quasi-glacial” relationship with her maternal grandmother as the most intense she ever had, even if she is at a loss to know if she felt affection for the woman:

Orsola treats me like an adult. Like a peer. Obedience does not mean subordination. I close all the shutters. I do not open them in the mornings. A continuous closing. I close the day. Closing is order. It is a form of detachment. An ephemeral preparation for death. An exercise. It was entirely natural that that woman and the garden corresponded to the vision of a happy land. How much time did I still have at my disposal? The curtains at the window are fragile, almost dust. And she, the mistress, looks like a white plaster bust.

If her relationship with Orsola is formal and defined by expectation, her mother exists almost entirely in absentia. She is “Johannes’ wife.” By the time the protagonist is recounting her tale, she too is dead. Her daughter has only her jewels and her piano to remember her by. It is the Steinway, purchased in New York and carried across the ocean to Europe, that is the narrator’s closest connection to her mother. As an object resting in a specially prepared room, she endows it with personality, demonstrating an intimacy she could never find with the pianist who once played it:

You do not want me to touch your keys yet. My fingers are unfamiliar to you. That slight hint of carnality. But I am sitting beside you. I watch over you. In the first years I always kept the door closed. I wanted to be sure that no one came in. You alone, locked in. Now no longer. Now I allow you more freedom. And at the same time I allow myself more freedom too. I have become wiser. Before, if I felt resentment, it seeped into my veins, my eyes, my thoughts. An insomniac resentment.

Aboard the SS Proleterka, the connection between father and daughter is marked by a formality that neither can seem to breach. They have, she has told us, always been able to “perceive the exceedingly fine line between equilibrium and desperation.” By the time they are on this shared voyage, the daughter on the cusp of womanhood and the father aging quickly, they can no longer negotiate that line. The ship has been chartered by the Guild to which Johannes has belonged since he was a student. Having fallen into poverty, he is treated by his peers with a measure of pity. He is awkward, out of step. His daughter, meanwhile, is looking to test other waters while they are out to sea. As the voyage progresses, she engages in a number of rather abrupt sexual encounters with several of the officers. She is being used and she knows it, but she wants the experience. She likes and dislikes it at once. Having been raised by a family who could not show love, she seems unable to accept more than brute affection. Yet there is also the sense that she wants to evoke a reaction in Johannes, protective, angry, disappointed—anything—but if he registers her absences from their cabin he refuses to show it.

Day by day, their extended visit slips away. Trips ashore to visit ruins and others sites, exhaust Johannes and confuse his daughter. At Knossos, for example, his sadness weighs on her and distracts her:

I should pay attention to the woman’s explanations, says Johannes; I continue to look at her white gloves, the seams of her stockings. Her calves. Höre, höre zu,says Johannes, listen. I cannot catch her words. Only in my mind’s eye can I grasp what I see. The words are too much. And the light is extremely bright. The journey is important for Johannes. The journey to Greece, father and daughter. The last and first chance to be together. But we do not know this. Or perhaps he does.

There will be no magic breakthrough on this voyage, nor in any of the remaining visits the narrator makes to have dinner with her father in the hotel where he lives. There is an emotional stasis that defines their relationship and in a strange way it suits them. The narrator’s father will be long dead before she really confronts the importance of their bond. And even then it is stretched taut and unarticulated.

Perfectly paced and tightly controlled, the devastating power of SS Proleterka lies in the way Jaeggy manages to capture the complicated and unexpressed affection that underlie even the most strained parent-child relationships, while demonstrating the lengths to which a child who knows they have been disposed of will go to maintain a sense of identity. Self-preservation requires distance. If the narrator seems dispassionate at times, she is also resilient and real.

SS Proleterka is translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen who maintains a remarkably clean, even tone throughout, seamlessly incorporating the German dialogue, and allowing the stark beauty of Jeaggy’s prose to shine. Highly recommended. Available from New Directions.

Fans of Fleur Jaeggy rejoice: A link to my review of I Am the Brother of XX and These Possible Lives at Numéro Cinq

Any one who has fallen under the spell of the shimmering spare prose of Swiss-born Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy is well aware of her uncanny ability to evoke subtle shades of darkness and weave tales that linger in the imagination. However, for English speaking readers it has been a long wait for new work to emerge in translation. Fourteen years to be precise. That patience is finally rewarded, as this month sees the highly anticipated release of not one, but two recent collections: I Am the Brother of XX, a compilation of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three hyper-condensed biographical essays.

These works, not surprisingly, reflect a more personal, reflective quality than her earlier fiction, directly featuring, at times, other writers with whom she became friends over the years. Familiar themes are also revisited, lines between light and dark are blurred. Her prose is, as ever, sharp, essential, charged with spine-tingling beauty. And applied to biographical subjects—De Quincey, Keats and Marcel Schwob—it is quite wonderful indeed.

I invite you to read my full review of these new releases at Numéro Cinq. Here is a taste. Please link through at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Sacred Inertia | Review of I Am the Brother of XX & These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy — Joseph Schreiber

One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.” You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.

Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”

Continue reading here:

Read the story “The Black Lace Veil” here:

“Childhood is ancient”: Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

The bell rings, we get up. The bell rings again, we go to bed. We retire to our rooms; we saw life pass beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks, watched the seasons change. It was always a reflection, a reflection that seemed to freeze on our windowsills. And perhaps now we saw a tall marbly figure stand out before us: it is Frédérique passing through our lives and maybe we’d like to go back, but we don’t need anything, anymore. We imagined the world. What else can we imagine now if not our own deaths? The bell rings and it’s all over.

Switzerland, the Appenzell: the area where Robert Walser took his walks, including his final snowy outing, and the location of the boarding school where the narrator of Fleur Jaeggy’s hauntingly pristine first novel is living, at the age of fourteen. She regrets that they didn’t know of the writer’s existence at the time, but the perfection of his death, and the season, set the tone for the story that she is about to share—a chilling winter tone that persists even as the months and years pass and the harsh, spare beauty of Sweet Days of Discipline works its way right through to the bone.

sweetdaysThis novella is marked by a tightly controlled narrative voice. It is a tale of obsession. There is little action, it is the narrator’s emotional intensity that drives the story forward. Looking back on the years she spent in a series of boarding schools, from the age of eight to seventeen, she zeroes in on this one particular year, at the Bausler Institut, where Frédérique—beautiful, remote, and obedient—first entered her life. She sets out to conquer this newcomer who, only a few months older, has come from the outside with a certain detached worldliness that instantly sets her apart from the other girls.

The narrator, whose education is directed, long distance, by her mother in Brazil, is a seasoned veteran of boarding schools where, as she puts it, “a sort of senile childhood was protracted almost to insanity.” She knows the game, and how to play it, which she does with a healthy measure of cynicism:

Part of your education is learning how to thank with a smile. An awful smile. There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls. A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, in the other she lies on a bed covered in a lace shroud. It’s her own skin has embroidered it.

She is, however, only an average student—a fact that does not trouble her at all. At one point she admits that all she remembers from her school years is Baudelaire. No surprise. She seems to have almost absorbed his dark poetic soul. Her narrative is liberally strewn with metaphorical references to graves, coffins, corpses, and death.

She befriends Frédérique, in good part because the others find the new girl too distant, and keep their distance in return. They take walks together, and she listens with sometimes exhausted attention, as Frédérique talks of literature, philosophy, and travel. Her own obsession borders, she supposes, on love. But it is a chaste, almost brittle affection.

Spring thawThere is a simmering violence that runs beneath the surface of the narrative. The narrator, long neglected by her own family, harbours a bitterness that colours her detailed, frequently nasty, appraisals of the appearance and idiosyncrasies of others—the headmistress and her husband, her German roommate, the little black girl, and more. When Micheline, a gregarious new student arrives, she suddenly turns her back on her precious Frédérique, more it seems, out of a sadistic streak than affection for the newcomer. She registers no remorse until Frédérique’s father dies, causing her to leave the school for good.

This novella is filled with conflicted, often dark, emotion. The tension lies not so much in what happens, as in the sombre frostiness of the prose. Frédérique, it turns out, is deeply troubled; however, the nameless narrator, is perhaps more unsettling and tragic. Either way, the result is a tale—captured so deftly in this translation by Tim Parks—of stark, poetic beauty:

I persevered in the pleasure of taking my sadness to the limit, the way one does with some practical joke. The pleasure of disappointment. It wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it ever since I was eight years old, a boarder in my first, religious, school. And perhaps they were the best years, I thought. Those years of discipline. There was a kind of elation, faint but constant throughout all those days of discipline, the sweet days of discipline.

Fleur Jaeggy is an Italian speaking, Swiss-born writer. Sweet Days of Discipline is published by New Directions. Two newly translated works will be coming out, July 2017, from New Directions in North America and And Other Stories in the UK. (Sweet Days of Discipline is now available outside North America from And Other Stories)