Fleur Jaeggy is an insomniac. She nods off at dawn after lying immobile on a bed. She has thought of nothing the night before. How, she asks, is it possible I have anything at all to say? Jaeggy demures, coyly telling one interviewer that the words come from her typewriter. Before writing, Jaeggy enters her own vuoto, the Italian for “empty space,” “vacuum,” “nothingness,” “hole.” The vuoto, she says, is a species of solitudine: the solitude of a wilderness and the absence of relations.
Jaeggy, who resides in Milan, was born in Zurich in 1940, where she attended boarding schools throughout her adolescence. As a teenager she moved to Rome, living pleasantly and blandly, visiting boys, riding horseback. She attended schools in Villa Pacis and Zug, where nuns explained how to govern households. After a stint as a model in Europe and the United States, she enrolled at the University of Rome and met the man who would become her husband, the author and publisher Roberto Calasso. Jaeggy published her first novel, Il dito in bocca (1968), in her late twenties. She wasn’t known to English-speaking audiences until 1993, when the British author Tim Parks translated Sweet Days of Discipline (I beati anni del castigo), a novel set at a Swiss boarding school for girls in the years following World War II, for which Jaeggy received the Bagutta and Rapallo prizes. Called by some the heir apparent of the postwar writer Elsa Morante, Jaeggy became one of the few female recipients of the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa International Prize. The prize was awarded unanimously in 2015 for a book of 21 compact stories, I Am the Brother of XX (Sono il fratello di XX), translated into English this year by Gini Alhadeff. Minna Proctor’s translation of These Possible Lives (Vite congetturali), a slim volume of nonfiction about three writers, was published around the same time.
Jaeggy’s many plaudits, her ambivalent relationship with the press, her meditations on relationships between women (particularly her own intense bond with the late Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann), and her use of alter egos invite comparison to Elena Ferrante and, widening the lens beyond Italy, to Karl Ove Knausgaard—two European writers widely associated with a recent trend toward novels that combine autobiographical and fictional elements, known as “autofiction.” Yet Jaeggy asks different questions of her alter egos than her better-known contemporaries. Knausgaard’s readers are left to wonder when his alter ego is speaking: Is it the young boy afraid of his father, or the wizened man churning out volumes of My Struggle? Ferrante’s critics, meanwhile, have debated whether the author identifies more closely with Lila or Lenù, the two girls who grow up together and drift apart (only one of them to become a writer) in her Neapolitan novels. Jaeggy’s fictions, on the other hand, threaten to undermine any notion of difference, whether temporal or ontological. Instead they converge toward a communion—alternately terrifying and blissful—rooted in suffering, sleight of hand and self-abnegation.