Essays by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
Review by John Venegas
I imagine that most of us are worried, on some level, how we will be remembered. A lot of that is the standard issue fear of mortality that helps keep us alive. Some of it is philosophical and existential, the kind of question that you only arrive at when you get some hint of the scale of what is around you. Will your life fit into a book? How about sixty pages? How about ten? I hold no pretense that I will be deserving of such a thing, but I can’t lie: I now want Fleur Jaeggy to write of me when I am dead. Her short essay collection, These Possible Lives, explores the lives, deaths, and worlds of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. At less than sixty pages that are maybe three and a half by five inches, this was the kind of book that, as a reviewer, I immediately assume I will have to pair with something else to write a review of decent length. I enjoy being wrong. Jaeggy’s minimalist style and ethereal technique crafted such depth that I feel like I have stepped into an ocean of time.
On the most basic level, These Possible Lives is an examination of the personalities of writers and the toll the art can take. The essays render the lives of the ahead-of-his-time De Quincey, the vibrant Keats, and melancholic Schwob into impressionistic paintings. They standard historical fare – the circumstances of births, marriages, addictions, and deaths – but with such precisely wrought language that you could be forgiven for wondering whether or not you’d strayed far from the history itself. There is a whimsy here, not driven by lack of curiosity or impulsiveness, but by the currents of time. We can only experience fragments of the lives on display, through our mutual connection to the zeitgeist, so we are compelled to fill the unoccupied sections with our own perspectives. Jaeggy is our guide through this process, eloquently and elegantly rendering the fragments in such a way the authors of which she speaks can only be human. Jaeggy becomes a ghost of literature’s past, to borrow from Dickens, showing us only what we need to see.
This process starts with the trimming of the fat. Think about what Jaeggy is trying to do. She is encompassing the lives of three authors in less than sixty pages, in a manner that is both true to history and artistically creative. Most of us would consider such a thing impossible, and rightly so, because most of us can’t do it, or do it well. The trick, it seems, is in parsing out what it is that truly matters, not just in a text, but in a life. This is carving a statue out from within another statue, with the end result being more meaningful and engrossing than the original.
It would be necessary to reassure him of the identity of objects in the room. At times he discerned the ‘footprints of angels’ and would address himself to the deceased.
A simple, beautifully efficient way to reminisce about a touched mind. There is no wasted space, no hyperbole to lionize or demonize how De Quincey’s mind worked. And yet it is like a match to the kindling in our imaginations, leaving us to see what we will, be it actual angels in conversation with a poet or a slow, burgeoning freedom from sanity. And every possibility between.
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.
Here we are presented with the death mask of Marcel Schwob, one of the most influential and (here in the United States) criminally under-recognized writers of the late nineteenth century. Assuming that a piece of literature exists in conversation with itself, what does the quote above have to say to Dickinson’s depictions of death? Or Shelley’s fallen pharaoh? Jaeggy has painted Schwob as a man whose resolve could not be broken in the end, who passed in a manner that kings of old could only emulate at great expense.
But the text, for all its hidden depth and intensity, does not pretend to be above a soul of wit and charm. There are moments of quiet levity and delicious word play, especially when the text is fleshing out the world these artists lived in. Henry Fuseli is described as having eaten “raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams”. Wordsworth is described as using a “buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke”. It comes across as an acknowledgment that, for all our seriousness and for all the dramatic consequences of our actions, the lives of writers are strange and, at times, nonsensical. We are a weird folk, neither the demi-gods that history would make of us nor the vagrants our cultures often accuse us of being, but shamans with our fungi and tin-foil hats, never quite sure to whom we are speaking.
A special note must be made for the other major voice at play here: translator Minna Zallman Proctor. I do not speak Italian, but what has been presented here in English is nothing short of truly beautiful, and Parker’s work is no small part of that. I can only imagine the difficulty of translating something that so acutely focuses on brevity and efficiency. To pour over the proper word choice, to capture the essence of something so precise – it is awe-inspiring, a worthy tribute to the original text and its author simply by existing as it does.
In case you cannot tell, I highly recommend this book. I have soft spots for the most efficient uses of language (even if I don’t even come close to managing it myself) and deceptively deep work that challenges our assumptions of fact and fiction, and I struggle to think of a better example of either than These Possible Lives.
These Possible Lives is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.