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.
In “F.K.,” one of the stories in I Am the Brother of XX, the nameless protagonist goes to her friend’s apartment and discovers that she has vanished. She contacts the police at a contrôle de l’habitant, “a kind of lost persons bureau,” hoping they can locate the missing woman, F.K. But it is an open question whether F.K.—who has been in and out of a psychiatric hospital, a “mute home” whose inmates refuse to speak—wants to be found:
When people disappear they know that they have disappeared. And if they haven’t altogether disappeared, they track them down. And that’s what happened with my friend. They, the bureau of lost persons, found her. For me, who had sought news of her. One day, I believe, if I were to disappear, maybe someone will inquire after me at the lost persons bureau. Maybe not. And then it would be sad if no one wanted to know what had become of me, or to testify to my existence.
Disappearance is, for Jaeggy, less a crisis than the lead-in to a riddle or a joke: If you are “lost” to enough people, are you anything at all? In her stories, awareness of selfhood is often blunted by a triad of dissociative forces: narcotics, death and sleep. All three disentangle us from a world full of watchers: not only surveillance apparatuses, but also museum patrons, concerned friends and even close relatives. Jaeggy’s wonderland is one in which we are permanently freed from our bodies and the social pressures that govern them. It is “an enamel landscape, innocuous, mute,” where the voices are not too loud and the signs of our existence are as faint as footprints in snow.
Commentaries on Jaeggy’s fiction tend to settle on similar adjectives: chilly, taciturn, perverse, nihilistic, decadent, feral. Some have noted the author’s “strict decorum of language and sentiment” (Sheila Heti, the New Yorker), while others have focused on the relationships between her characters, which are “filled with riddling misfortune and ineluctable emptiness” (Emily LaBarge, the Los Angeles Review of Books). Is the rationale behind these choices to be found in Jaeggy’s hazy personal life—as many have implied—or might the style be the consequence of an underlying idea?
More than a decade ago, the Italianist Francesca Parmeggiani remarked that Jaeggy seems “to limit her presence to the function of observer and chronicler,” and yet, in story after story, “on the contrary, she orchestrates the reduction of pluralism and difference into oneness and sameness, that is, the blending of different beings and experiences into fewer master figures.” The relationship Parmeggiani suggests between two recurring dynamics in Jaeggy’s fiction—we might call them detachment and depersonalization—evoke the figure Jaeggy has cited more than any other in interviews about her work, whose name also appears in a pivotal passage of These Possible Lives: the German Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart. Born around 1260 near Gotha, Eckhart made his name in Germany and France as a preacher and academic. Famous today for his bold commentaries on God, the Trinity and the soul, in his lifetime he was accused (though never condemned) of heresy and subject to inquisitional proceedings led by the archbishop of Cologne. Central to his heterodoxy was his assertion of a primordial unity between the natures of man and God—that is, the assertion that what church authorities presented as fundamentally “different beings” were, when seen from the right and true vantage, indistinguishable.
Eckhart maintained, in line with church doctrine, that our human fall from grace severed us from divinity. But he diverged radically in arguing that this condition needn’t be permanent, nor was it necessary that an individual seek clerical mediation to achieve redemption. In fact only an individual willing to renounce all finite things could attain redemption, for only this person would be in want of nothing: neither the performance of good works nor even the kingdom of God. “There is neither distinction in the nature of God nor in the Persons of the Trinity according to the unity of their nature,” wrote Eckhart, in On the Noble Man. “Distinction is born, exists and is possessed only where this Oneness no longer obtains.”
Perhaps no theologian had as many ways of saying “nothing” as Eckhart did—a fact that has led some critics to accuse him of dressing up atheism in religious garb. But it would be more accurate to say that Eckhart does the opposite: as in Jaeggy’s fiction, nothingness emerges as a condition for divinity, not as a negation of it. In the Sophist, Plato describes “nothing” not as absolute nothingness or nonbeing, but as some other kind of being—one that can be illustrated by Eckhart’s analogy of a burning piece of coal. If the hand that held that piece of coal contained the nature of fire, Eckhart says, it could not be burned. The hand is burned because the hand is not coal. This not is the ancient source of pain and the original wound that has riven one thing from another, as it has human beings from God. Jaeggy’s story “The Heir” can be read as a droll homage to the allegory of coal. A ten-year-old orphan, Hannelore, becomes the ward of Fräulein von Oelix, a docile, lonely dowager. This orphan “doesn’t even have a past. Or a birthday. She sprang from trash and to trash will return. She sprang from the swamps of the dead.” A conflagration originates from no place at all, suddenly, consuming the fräulein. Hannelore is unharmed. She speculates that “it is God who sends the flames into the apartment with its Biedermeier furniture.” But unlike the coal holder, the fräulein feels no pain, just “a terrible longing” for “what she’d never had.”
The perfected soul, Eckhart’s “noble man,” is the one who is able to detach himself from his ego and the physical body that enables it, thereby finding a holy conformity both within himself and between all things. Jaeggy takes up where Eckhart left off by investigating what the pursuit of such a detached life entails in practice. Is it possible to engage the body virtuously and yet without purpose? The animal kingdom is full of laudable exemplars. Jaeggy may have been thinking of her own pet, Tsanga, when she wrote the following passage in “Cat”:
On reaching a target, suddenly a cat becomes distracted. Animal behaviorists call this movement Übersprung. It happens just before the deadly blow. … The butterfly dances its agony. It vibrates imperceptibly, and this attracts further interest from the cat. And then he looks away. Walks away. Calmly, he changes route. Changes the mental route. It is like a dead moment. Stasis. It’s as if nothing interests him. … It is a turning away, going on to something else, manifesting a gesture of detachment, like a good-bye.
Jaeggy’s human characters often seem in danger not only of “going on to something else,” but also of disappearing altogether—or of being musealized, like the wax corpses and fetuses in the Museo di Palazzo Poggi. The narrator in “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” venerates the painting of a lady whose “sad bitter eyes look in no direction, because she does not need to look.” (The woman’s face, “up above, as though on a lookout, is absence itself, a face without expression, a shell made of deprivations.”) When the protagonist in “The Gentleman and the Lizard” compares her bald room to the adorned walls of a museum, she recalls a portrait of a “young man turning the pages of a book, but not looking at them. His gaze was distant, toward the unknown that pulled him elsewhere.” The lizard beside him identifies this unknown as “the wing of the abyss” (why should man be the privileged speaker after all?). The subjects in these paintings, like religious ecstatics, seem stuck somewhere between a trance and a prayer, as immobile in their fixity as frames on a wall.
There is an alarming sequence in “The Visitor,” among I Am the Brother of XX’s most enchanting stories, when nymphs from the frescoes and mosaics of the Archaeological Museum in Naples, having slipped from their tableaux vivants, clamber the spalled walls to escape a corridor where visitors pass through. Venus has alighted from her post, a fresco “tinged with the void,” and marble statues part in deference to the goddess. She has seen herself “repeated, reflected in many museums” and yet her demeanor suggests placid resignation. There are many replicas of the goddess elsewhere, a fact that hardly perturbs her. The nymphs, however, are not “entirely awake,” like those returning from an apparent death; beyond their surface representations, “they are no longer even images” and “have no proof of themselves.” “Ill-disposed to living” in this world, they swarm to re-enter painted sepulchers. Jaeggy leaves us with the chilling suggestion that the paintings and photographs we encounter daily see us, albeit under dingy light, and choose to look elsewhere, through our bodies or over our shoulders.
“Nothing” is a volatile word that can be both liberatory and suffocating. In one formulation—the one traceable to Eckhart—it suggests the opening of oneself to a communal or divine spirit, a true alter ego (a “second self,” the “other I”). But “nothing” can be dreadful, too, a state of utter absence and suffering without cause. In Jaeggy’s story “The Last of the Line,” Caspar, the irascible heir to the fortune of a long-dead Swiss ancestor, is stunned by the deaths of his younger brothers. The children, Anton and Stefan, are quickly excised from the text after sitting for their family portrait, as though they were raptured or assumed (“They had played together and suddenly they had grown pale, as though struck by witchcraft. In short, Anton and Stefan are dead”). Caspar searches for answers:
Not knowing what it [the Godhead] might be, other than darkly, he appealed to Nothing. And Nothing took on the name of Godhead. He put forth the name before his brothers’ portraits. According to him, they must know the Godhead, his brothers, inevitably … Of Nothing he had yet to form a suitable view. To conjure it one had only to say, “Nothing.” It was like a game. The servants heard him say, “Nothing.” They thought he had gone mad.
In “The Perfect Choice,” Jaeggy confronts the inevitable dilemma of suicide, a willful conversion to nothingness. A mother, initially disturbed by her son Jörg’s decision to let himself “fall off a rock,” is quickly converted into an enthusiastic supporter. Of the various ways of dying, the mother reasons, one that ensured violent injury to the body (“the sharp edges of the rocks had … torn him apart”) was preferred. Jörg’s mother had forced him as a child to stare down into the gorge he’d one day slip into; she brought him food he despised; and when Jörg suffered from insomnia, she got him hooked on sleeping pills. But these acts of cruelty can be read as odd gestures of kindness when we consider the multivalent work of “nothing.” “The Perfect Choice” sees Jaeggy using doublespeak: to become nothing—a thing happily divorced from the body’s pains and the pernicious overreach of other people, in this case the authoritarian mother—Jörg must reduce himself to nothing, a corpse slashed and scattered by rocks.
In pictures, Jaeggy dresses dandily in vests, scarves and blazers, with pens or handkerchiefs popping from the pockets, the stern effect offset by barrettes, pearl earrings and necklaces. One thinks of the attire of XX, the casually sadistic sister in the title story of I Am the Brother of XX, who delights in her child brother’s emotional distress. She wears “a fabulous casual checked Sunday shirt, very gentlemanly, with button-down collar, the sleeves pulled up to the elbows, slim swamp-colored or rotten-fall-colored or rotten-leaf-colored slacks and eggplant-colored penny loafers. And also a thin gold bracelet, with small round sapphires.” But clothes for Jaeggy don’t necessarily hint at what lies beneath them—like Jaeggy’s own elusive prose style, they both invite attention and defer visibility.
Indeed, Jaeggy turns the commonplace notion that clothes conceal a body, reasonable elsewhere, into pure supposition. In “The Black Lace Veil,” she recreates her postmortem discovery of a picture of her mother. Curiously, the narrator is nameless; you wouldn’t know Jaeggy had taken the incident from her own life unless you’d read the fleeting mention of it in one of her interviews. The mother, who had once held an audience with the Pope, fancied elegant jewelry and designer brands. The daughter, who “has always believed in the surface of things,” fails to decipher her mother’s despair underneath the “grim veil she wore on her head.” “What does she care about what is inside?” Jaeggy writes. “Inside where? And what is the inside?” Is it negde(a variant of nigde, “nowhere” in Russian), a “mental city” we cannot know but might dream of?
The brother of XX’s attire is similarly described as “a moral cover for the various crimes of sadness, as they would say in a court of law.” The protagonist’s identity dangles from a tenuous thread, and he hides his “terrible sense of solitude beneath a coat and a Morris Mini.” When he wounds his head in a minor car accident, he feels “as if my body had left me. And I was by myself. Without a shell. But with clothes on.” Sleeping pills, which used to give him “twelve hours of absolute distance from the world,” also lose their potency. The same applies to everyone in his family, who are “burning like logs in a fireplace”:
It’s not clear when we stopped being ourselves and became something else. We turned into we don’t know what. I used to be the brother of the big spy, I had a name, a precise identity—now I’ve become something else. I realized that the body did not follow my thoughts, my commands. … The external aspect—forgive me but I am not convinced that there is an internal one—remained the same, apparently. All was appearance. I myself felt apparent.
There is room for lightheartedness in this passage, but even Jaeggy’s puns and wordplay have a sinister edge. In “Osmosis,” Protestant parents give thanks for their young daughter, Franzi, whose twin—a pun embodied—died at birth. A cold and emotionally vacant child, like a changeling of folklore, Franzi’s affection is reserved for a “puppet” she finds on a trail, which turns out to be a humanlike mandrake root. “I know that when I was born I was not alone,” Franzi admits. “Someone else was born with me. And that someone is stealing my life. Because of you.”
Desperate to appease the child, Franzi’s mother Ruth prepares two dresses. “Every dress had its double. The sewing machine ran by itself. She dressed Franzi and the other girl. It seemed to her that each object imitated the other. The teapot duplicated itself and the pages of the Bible appeared to be made of stone.” Does “the other girl” refer to Franzi’s dead twin, Theresia, or the mandrake root, which “more and more resembled her daughter”? And which one of her daughters? There are no clear answers, as linguistic ambiguity smooths over any discrepancies between the twins and the puppet. One’s absence can be filled by the other, just as the sacred gives way almost imperceptibly to the profane. Seeking to annihilate the source of her confusion, Ruth sets fire to her house as Franzi watches. For an instant, “the flames seemed to back away before a small being with incandescent eyes.”
In a 2o15 interview with La Repubblica, Jaeggy described writing as “creating tensions or enduring them with a goal in sight”:
What goal? Surviving, staying afloat, protecting yourself. And when resistance no longer does the trick, abandonment follows. It’s like swimming. … You fool yourself into thinking you’re defeating the sea, resisting it. And when you don’t have strength anymore, you abandon yourself to it. Calm supplants disorder, as peace supplants frenzy.
The lines betray her signature aesthetic in a surprisingly public moment of confession: the writer’s struggle, like that of so many of Jaeggy’s characters, is to find a balance between self-effacement and self-assertion. Hence Jaeggy’s attraction to the biographical give and take of autofiction. Though the stories in I Am the Brother of XX are predominantly fictional, the author’s family and friends make sudden appearances. In “The Aseptic Room,” Jaeggy recalls her visits to Ingeborg Bachmann’s burn unit in a Roman hospital, following what turned out to be a fatal fire in her friend’s apartment. While they speak of old age, Bachmann seems “kind and somewhat distracted,” like someone who has forgotten her own body. Likewise, the reader is inattentive to the other figure in the room: Jaeggy herself.
Jaeggy deflects the reader’s gaze in other ways in her nonfiction, and These Possible Lives can be read as a writer’s statement from one who prefers to say as little as she can get away with. Originally published in 2009, the book contains three biographical essays, on the essayist Thomas De Quincey, the Romantic poet John Keats and the French Symbolist Marcel Schwob. Psychotropic dramas of decrepitude and decay, lightly speckled with tales of friendship and love, the biographies are practical but imperfect maps of detached living. The similarities between them are striking enough that any one could, with minimal effort, be translated into another. De Quincey and Keats both idolize and come into contact with Wordsworth and at various points economic disaster compels them to live frugally. Schwob and Keats die quite young from fatal afflictions and De Quincey, though he lived long, never got rid of his miscellaneous pains. Schwob and De Quincey are both addicted to pain medication. All three incline steeply toward solitude when things do not go their way.
Here, as in I Am the Brother of XX, Jaeggy endows children with a superlative awareness of their own dependency, and we are not exempt from seeing them suffer (some of them can “see their own bones out the window, in the frugal garden plots”). We’re reminded how lucky we are that Charlotte and Emily Brontë did not die, like their sisters, from typhoid. De Quincey and his young siblings look “malevolent and lucid,” like “those who frolic with nightmares.” Thomas quickly takes “leave of youth, like a caliph takes leave of his rosebush” (his juvenile aspect won’t return until he dies at 74, seeming “a boy of fourteen”). He begins to write, dictating his thoughts “to the airless quiet, to the ashes, to destiny’s whispering ways.” In London, where he ends up after a stint at Oxford, he is sustained by a moneylender’s hand-me-downs and takes his first dive into a numbing, nullifying cloud of opiates. “TDQ” is painted as an odd sort, the kind whose maids fear him as one might a noble sorcerer. He is an enigma who grooms his manuscripts with a brush and wears a hole-pocked wool cape, at a time when his contemporaries are experimenting with laughing gas and indigestible foods for a good high.
Schwob faces his own tragedies. His school friend Georges Guieysse commits suicide at twenty and Louise, his jejune and childlike lover, yields to tuberculosis. Schwob has the spirit of an intrepid adventurer, and with a Chinese manservant journeys to the South Seas where, Jaeggy tells us bluntly, he “didn’t find what he was looking for.” Keats writes in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Jaeggy notes, with a hint of surprise, that he and other children of his time play with “toy cannons that fire real gunpowder, puzzles depicting the great battles of England.” Though Keats is prideful and robust as a child, the would-be surgeon-cum-poet grows placid and disillusioned near the end of his curtailed life. In what is arguably the book’s central passage, Jaeggy lifts a mirror to the beautiful boy’s face:
If a face … is nothing more than a Spiegelkammer[mirror chamber] of the spirit, then we should be a little frightened of Keats’s variety of expressions. Even doubt insinuates itself. When Keats wrote, “I thought a lot about Poetry,” we can’t see in that a mirror reflection of Keats. The mirror is empty, uninhabited. The idea has no facial features and could look like anything, but theologically it’s more beautiful empty. Keats is unable to contemplate himself. … The identity of a person who is in the room with him presses in and cancels his own out in a flash. When Keats speaks, he’s not sure that he’s the one talking.
Taken together, I Am the Brother of XX and These Possible Liveswork as solemn parodies of the autofictional tradition; to varying degrees, they are both about the dissolution of the ego, whether that of the artist or the figures around her. When Jaeggy writes of herself, she is also inevitably writing of someone else—and vice versa. In this, Jaeggy may be taking another cue from Eckhart, who in one sermon remarks on the overabundance of God: “The One always remains, which wells forth within itself. ‘Ego,’ the Latin word for ‘I,’ can be used properly by God alone in his unity. … This means that ‘ego’ and ‘vos,’ ‘I’ and ‘you,’ refer to unity.” As she elides the differences between “you” and “I,” Jaeggy’s biographies become indistinguishable from her autofictions.
Traditionally and dirgelike, Jaeggy’s possible lives close with the deaths of the authors. De Quincey, a long sufferer of dyspepsia, can barely keep his eyes open to read his dictionary when he begins hearing the footsteps of angels and seeing visions of his deceased children. It’s unclear which bodily afflictions his opium was meant to relieve. He is a “good sick man” who dies not from a specified illness, but just because. After a life of chronic intestinal pains and recurring bouts of pneumonia and the flu, Schwob is tired and finds it hard to breathe. We hear about the things he didn’t do and the titles of books he would never write. The dying man’s face turns into “a mask of gold.” Keats hopes to die alone, at first, but changes his mind and leaves for Rome with his portraitist Joseph Severn, bidding adieu to his friends. His veins swollen, and in the final stages of tuberculosis, Keats was hemorrhaging blood. Neither the pleasantries of equestrianship nor the warm climate appease his hunger. He wishes to feel the violets grow over his grave. Before the police strip the walls and floor of his apartment, the young poet grows impatient for the end. His immortality, we read on the tombstone’s epitaph, is forever “writ in water.”