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)

 

The longing to belong: The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese

‘I don’t know where I was born. There isn’t a house or a piece of land or any bones in this part of the world about which I could say, “This is what I was before I was born.” I don’t know if I come from the hill or the valley, from the woods or from a house with balconies.’

A foundling raised in poverty in a rural community in northwest Italy, the narrator of The Moon and the Bonfires, has returned, after twenty years away, to the place where he grew up. He has made his fortune in America, but he has come back with mixed emotions and intentions. As he wanders along the roads, past the places where he lived and worked, he is retracing the footsteps of his younger self – barefooted or shod in wooden shoes – over fields, through vineyards, over the tiled floors of his master’s house. A self-made man, a success, he is now seeking to find traces of the world he knew, a world changed, not only by the ravages of time and the upheaval of war, but by something deep within himself. One of the saddest truths of this melancholic novel is that the idea of home and the reality of the place, any place, may never coincide.

BonfiresPavese’s protagonist is an inveterate outsider. His experience of exile is deeply internalized. Known only by his nickname Eel, he is nostalgic for a time when he was a nobody; he longs for a simpler place in the world. He may have been groundless in the place where he grew up, but he was equally groundless in America, unable to settle, continually on the move. Back in Italy now, his foil is Nuto, a childhood friend. Three years his senior, the narrator had idolized this confident, clarinet-playing boy who travelled the region with his band, had a way with the ladies, and was the first to go off to war. Twenty years on they are both grown men. Nuto, who had once seemed so worldly, has inherited his father’s house and carpentry business, and is married with a young family. It is the narrator who has navigated far horizons. One is bound to the destiny he was born to, while the other had to leave to search for his own.

The relationship between Eel and Nuto is complicated. There are currents of envy and resentment that course beneath the surface of their interactions and conversations. Much is left unsaid – the truth behind the protagonist’s decision to set sail and the shocking fate of the beautiful young daughter of the wealthy family with whom Eel spent his teenaged years – are only revealed as the latter’s visit is drawing to a close. Political tensions simmer between the two friends as a consequence of their very different experiences. As corpses surface in fields and streams, the narrator’s alienation from those who stayed and endured the years of Fascist rule and wartime devastation is heightened. After his many years in America, pictured in Pavese’s account as a rather idealized place with its own hard won set of rules, our hero is surprised to find that the superstitions borne of the old country – the power of bonfires to “fatten” the soil, the rule of the moon to govern activities on the farm – are still adhered to with a seriousness he can no longer imagine.

Yet, this is a book not only about returning to the past, it is also a lament for the lost innocence of youth. In an effort to reach into his past, almost in the way that we sometimes fantasize about going back to advise our younger selves, our protagonist becomes attached to Cinto, a crippled young boy who lives with his aunt, grandmother and explosively violent father in the hut where Eel spent his earliest years with the family that first adopted him. In this boy he sees himself and he is struck with a pained nostalgia mixed with a desire to offer Cinto hope of a future, an encouragement to look beyond the nearest horizon. The bond they forge is touching, and becomes central to one of the most intense episodes in the novel.

Moving back and forth between the past and the present, The Moon and the Bonfires unfolds over the course of 32 short chapters. The language is devastatingly spare, contemplative and measured. A wistful beauty plays out against recurring images of harsh brutality, while the rolling hills and the valleys of the regional landscape form a constant and abiding presence. What the narrator cannot find in buildings, towns or people – most of which are irrevocably changed or gone – still exists in the sights, scents and sounds of summer and, as he discovers, it has permeated his very being:

‘There’s a sun on these hills, a reflection from the dry soil and volcanic stone, that I’d forgotten. Instead of coming down from the sky our heat rises from below – from the ground, from the ditch between the vines where every trace of green seems to have been eaten up and turned to dry twigs. I like this heat, I like its smell: there’s something of me in the smell, too, many grape harvests and haymakings and cornhuskings in the autumn, many tastes and desires I didn’t know I still had.’

The persistent longing to belong to a place that underscores this slim, melancholic novel raises questions that are not easily answered. It is not clear that the narrator really knows what he expected to find in coming back. Although he could buy himself land or a house, he is no more capable of making that sort of commitment now than he was during the many years he spent in America. He still has business overseas, although the exact nature of that business is not revealed. If working for his keep from an early age gave him anything, it ingrained in him a deep resourcefulness and resilience that he has been able to exploit to his advantage. But without roots, without knowledge of the people he is connected to in his bones, as he likes to describe it, he has found himself incapable of building solid relationships. He had to leave to find himself, but in the process he may have sacrificed the possibility of ever having a home.

‘One night, under the moon and the black hills, Nuto asked me what it was like to ship out for America, whether I would do it again if I could have twenty years back and another chance. I told him it hadn’t been America so much as my rage at being nobody, a mania not so much to leave as, one fine day, to come home after everyone had given me up for dead.’

The themes of longing and loss that run through The Moon and the Bonfires are likely to reverberate with anyone who wonders what it would feel like to truly feel grounded, to know that you are in the place you are meant to be. I would argue that one can live in the same place for decades and still feel out of synch, groundless. It is less a question of space than of being. These same themes haunt all of Pavese’s work, and never more sharply than in this, the last work he published before taking his life in 1950 at the age of 41.

Cesare Pavese was an Italian poet, novelist and translator. He was, in his lifetime, the pre-eminent Italian translator of American literature, known especially for his translation of Moby Dick. His love of American literature and culture informed his work. This edition from NYRB Classics features the 2002 translation by R. W. Flint and an Introduction by Mark Rudman.

Forged by suffering: Bloodlines by Marcello Fois

“All they have is their love: Obstinate, unyielding, banal and blind.”

I am not one for family trees. My parents met and married in New York City and moved to settle in western Canada almost 3000 kms from the rest of our extended family. I have changed my own name twice, and through my unique life history I have redefined my relationship with the tree from which I have fallen. In our modern era I suspect that is not an entirely uncommon experience for many. But in Sardinia at the turn of the twentieth century, family history – a bloodline – was a critical measure of a man’s place in his community and his corner of the world.

untitledAt the heart of Bloodlines, an epic tale told with charm and affection by Italian novelist Marcello Fois, lies a love story between two orphaned souls who endure a familial version of the Divine Comedy set in the author’s native Sardinia spanning the years from 1889 to 1943. Theirs is a tale of hard times, success, joys and unbearable losses – uniting their family and tearing it apart – as modernization, world wars and fascism mould and shape the world in which they live.

Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai are both orphans. He was rescued from an orphanage by a widowed blacksmith who saw in the boy someone who might provide companionship and an apprentice to his trade, while she had been taken into domestic employment at an early age. Their first encounter, in the chapel, is love at first sight. Their union, with no history behind it, holds the promise of building a new family line, a fresh start at the dawn of a new century.

“The Chironi family was the fruit of outcasts, of two negatives combining to make a positive, in itself enough to condemn their union as a rash one.”

They bring neither money nor prestige to the union but they have a certain advantage:

“…when they looked at each other, they had no inheritance to protect and not even a story to tell; they were at the beginning of everything: he an apprentice blacksmith and she already made of iron.”

Over the years, the family enjoys apparent successes; their business thrives as the town expands and the demand for wrought iron railings increase, their family grows and they have to expand their house. No small amount of envy is felt by townsfolk who resent their lack of claim to heritage in the area, while Michele Angelo fears that God is also expressing His displeasure at their worldly success as they suffer a series of cruel loses. He feels his efforts to build a strong family history continually threatened. Is it fate? Or is it simply that life is harsh?

The fledgling Chironi bloodline is granted a chivalrous element of glory through the “discovery” of an elaborate and exciting tale of a knight and a an Inquisitor which explains the origin of the family name from De Quiròn via Kirone to Chironi. This transmutation is facilitated though a story created, told and retold by the youngest son, Luigi Ippolito, the only educated member of the family. As he regales his parents and siblings with these heroic accounts, his father sees no need to admit that his last name is accidental, acquired from the Inspector General at the orphanage where he was raised.

“Though illiterate, he knew one fact that can never be taught: that it doesn’t matter if a story is true or false; the only thing that is really important is that someone should tell it.”

At just over 200 pages, the scope of this novel is epic. The spare, crystalline language is translated with poignant beauty by Silvester Mazarella. The landscape, the art of working metal, and the many measures of love – romantic, parental, filial and forbidden – shape the storytelling. There is much sadness and heartache here, but also an acknowledgement that the pleasures of life are many and essential, even if they tend to slip to the sidelines in the favour of the pains and horrors that dominate our histories. As such Bloodlines is a testament to memory, or rather, the act of remembering: choosing to remember or refusing to accept what has happened. The characters engage closely with their dreams, their ghosts, and their imagined selves as they attempt to forge a bloodline against all odds.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I knew nothing of this book until I saw the longlist. It is a seemingly simple tale that has worked its way into my affection the more I reflect on it. I am not certain whether it will make the short list but I am glad to have been introduced to this author and his novel.

The fiction of remembering, the realities of forgetting: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

The damaged hero of Italian author Diego Marani’s first novel New Finnish Grammar, which was originally published in 2000, but only released in English in 2011 (translated by Judith Landry), is a mystery to himself and to those who find him. World War II is raging, when a badly beaten man is found on a dock in Trieste with no clue to his identification beyond a Finnish name sown into the collar of the naval jacket he wears. When emerges from a coma with, what would presumably be a severe traumatic brain injury, he has no memory and no ability to use language. He does know who he is or where he comes from but, by coincidence, the doctor who attends to him is a Finnish-German who has never overcome his own longing for his homeland. He becomes convinced that the best medicine for his amnesiac patient is to send him to Finland so that he can connect with what is assumed to be his land and language, and in doing so, retrieve the past that has escaped him.

maraniAs much as I wanted to love this book, this is where I started to have problems. Firstly, the storytelling approach is awkward. It is the doctor who takes on the task of
curating a selection of notebooks, journal entries and letters belonging to “Sampo”, our erstwhile Finnish patient, to both honour him and make amends. He frames and fills in the tale with his own reflections, corrections and assumptions. Somehow, we are asked to believe that a man with a brain injury severe enough to trigger such a complete loss of memory and language could manage to develop sufficient facility in a notoriously complex language to be able to report his earliest memories post injury, or even find his way around a strange city. Yes, his mastery of the language is never comfortable, he relies on his notebook and endless practice, and he is emotionally lost and eventually unable to find a grounding or the past he seeks. Meanwhile, the language and mythology of Finland were clearly chosen by the Italian linguist author as a template for the exploration of memory and identity, but I could just not suspend disbelief long enough to fully surrender myself to the story.

This is not to imply that there are not breathtaking moments in this novel. There is a heartbreaking sadness and loneliness that haunts our dislocated hero. As war closes in around him, he is the walking wounded, an invisible casualty in a place to which he so desperately wants to belong. But my practical side, the side that spent the last decade working with real survivors of traumatic and acquired brain injury, could not let go of the idea that the main character’s overall functionality did not mesh with his complete loss of identity and language. The assumption is that his memory loss is psychological in nature and that the return of language will release it. In reality though, his injuries would indicate traumatic causes and with such severe long term memory loss some elements would still typically remain intact, while short term memory would be greatly impacted hindering his ability to learn new things easily. A complicated “new” language? I find that especially hard to accept.

I suppose I will have to admit that I am not the ideal reader for this book. I don’t regret reading it and I am sure that there are moments that will continue to linger. Memory is one of the most fertile landscapes for a writer to explore. Even without the added impact of illness or injury, memory is a fleeting, nebulous and fundamentally subjective phenomenon. However, I opened New Finnish Grammar with too much experience with brain injury to fully appreciate the work. And, for that matter, I could not help but wonder how a reader with too much native experience with Finnish language and mythology would respond. Perhaps with an equivalent amount of skepticism.

I don’t know.