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Fleur Jaeggy’s Mourning Exercise

On the rain-soaked tribute of The Water Statues

The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy, trans. Gini Alhadeff. New Directions, 96 pages.

In the summer of 1971, the Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy spent a month in Poveromo, a small village outside the town of Massa in Tuscany, with her friend, the Austrian novelist and poet Ingeborg Bachmann.

Recalling the experience later in a short story, Jaeggy presents the trip as a listless idyll, a bout of relative solitude punctuated occasionally by visits from literary figures like her husband Roberto Calasso, Italo Calvino, and Uwe Johnson. The defining feature of the trip, in Jaeggy’s account, is the mineral tang of the water in their vacation home. “The house we had rented was vast, with a garden,” she writes. “But the water was salty. Our first pot of tea was disgusting.”

Short, discontinuous, and driftless, the story, collected in 2014’s I Am the Brother of XX, speaks to several distinctive aspects of Jaeggy’s oeuvre. First, there’s the biographical reticence that runs through her career. Wary of interviews, Jaeggy, who currently lives in Milan, is an enigmatic figure; what we know about her life is mostly available to us through the handful of roughly autobiographical novels and stories she’s produced over the past fifty years, austere and eclectic works defined by their angular prose, gothic mise-en-scène, and detached, even misanthropic worldview.

You could describe her as an anatomist of cloistered repression.

Then there’s the fleetness of the story’s form, the strange and imagistic emphases, the sense that time and tense have gone off the rails, as though all that were available to be represented were the most immediate impressions, the quicksilver and crystalline glitter of reality’s surface. Like one of her key influences, the late Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey, Jaeggy writes sentences that are at once tense, opulent, and visionary, carefully attuned to the ways that even unaltered perception can approach the hallucinatory.

And of course, there’s the character of Bachmann, the dedicatee of Jaeggy’s latest work to appear in English, The Water Statues. (Translated by Gini Alhadeff, the novel originally appeared in Italian in 1980, seven years after Bachmann’s death.) There is something saintly in Jaeggy’s depiction of Bachmann—private and imperious, secretive and soignée, imbued with an “ineluctable delicacy of spirit”—that underscores a curious dynamic in their relationship. While the two were intimate friends, Jaeggy seems always to have been in the worshipful position. To Bachmann, Jaeggy was piccolo leone, the little lion, while for Jaeggy, the other was always, and respectfully, Ingeborg.

In at least one sense, this relation makes sense. There’s a monumentality to Bachmann’s writing—from the semi-allegorical descriptions of the interplay between patriarchy and fascism found in her sole completed novel, Malina, to the interest in geopolitical conflicts like the Suez Crisis exhibited in later, unfinished works like The Book of Franza—that’s absent in Jaeggy’s work. Where Bachmann took a macroscopic view of gendered repression and sought to link it, sometimes directly, and sometimes associatively, to everything from her own Nazi upbringing (her father, a high school teacher in Klagenfurt, joined the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party in 1932) to postcolonial struggles in the sixties and beyond, Jaeggy tends more toward a scalpel’s-eye view. You could describe her as an anatomist of cloistered repression.

Born in Zurich in 1940 into an upper middle-class family, Jaeggy’s upbringing was marked paradoxically by both chaos and rigor. When she was still young, her mother moved to South America and remarried; in the later story “Tropics,” an imagined half-brother becomes a point of jealousy, his tropical upbringing, counterpoised against Jaeggy’s own bland Mitteleuropean childhood, feeding an impenetrable fernweh—a desire, whatever the cost, to be elsewhere.

Her mother, an elegant socialite and talented pianist who would play Chopin on the Steinway she had shipped to Italy, was nevertheless a sad woman, “depressed . . . in a definitive way,” as Jaeggy put it in a later short story that plays with her own biography. But it’s the figure of Jaeggy’s father that crops up most frequently in her writings. An itinerant, ineffectual, Zweigian hotel-dweller, Jaeggy’s father was, as she recalled in an interview, “always very distant, far away from everything and also far away from himself.” Under his direction, her youth was spent shuttling between various boarding schools, while on holidays she would join him in his hotel du jour. This period provides the material for her most famous novel, Sweet Days of Discipline, in which the narrator’s father is depicted as an icon of Alpine detachment, with “white hair and ice-clear, sad eyes.” Perpetual displacement was the rule of Jaeggy’s early life.

Given this less-than-nuclear upbringing, it isn’t really surprising that The Water Statues concerns itself with the decay of familial structures—and the attempts made by its cast of eccentrics to reconstitute some semblance of community. Set in Amsterdam at an indeterminate point in time, the novel focuses on a character named Beeklam, who lives in a house near the harbor. As a young boy, Beeklam was oddly precocious; his mother, Thelma, died when he was young, and since then his father, Reginald, has remained airily distant from him. Rounding out the cast are a handful of misbegotten souls beset by an almost Dickensian series of misfortunes—there’s Lampe, the displaced descendant of an aristocratic family, who becomes Reginald’s servant after Thelma’s death; Victor, who similarly becomes Beeklam’s servant; and a young orphan, Katrin, who shacks up with another widower, Kaspar, later in the book.

Jaeggy’s rain-soaked expressionism does a great job of capturing the quiet, refined mania that her characters experience.

The novel’s setting and atmospherics are inescapably gothic. Its characters pause to converse in dilapidated gardens where cabbage leaves are stippled by a plague of snails; stroll along misty canals and rainy streets lashed with puddles; dwell in cavernous old houses, their outsize opulence reduced to ruin; and ruminate in a waterlogged basement where the eponymous statues are kept. Throughout, the narrative presence is porous. While the text opens with an older Beeklam recollecting his childhood, it shifts into a diluted counterpoint reminiscent of The Waves in which characters directly converse with one another, and occasionally settles down into a portentous, omniscient narration. Notably, the book opens with a dramatis personae and contains dialogic passages, establishing a loose theatrical armature that, besides further destabilizing the narrative presence, forces Jaeggy’s characters to externalize their maladies in clouds of opaque expectoration.

Interpersonal relationships are similarly leaky. Victor enters Beeklam’s employ after a single short conversation in a botanical garden, accepting the position with a surreal sangfroid. Wandering in search of a new master after his mistress’s death, Lampe finds in Reginald what he’s been looking for, “a solitude not unlike his own.” For the most part, the characters in The Water Statues are frustrated monads, persistently soliloquizing or else over-explaining themselves, unwitting analogues to the half-submerged statuary glistening in the basement damp.

But for all its looseness, The Water Statues remains a hermetic book, a sealed system of glyptic motifs, personal allusions, and oblique, lapidary images. From early childhood, we learn, Beeklam has “been drawn to figurative imitations of grief and stillness,” and while the water statues dutifully serve this commemorative role, they’re also canvases of a sort, steadily accreting metaphors and meanings:

BEEKLAM: In my basement humidity flows everywhere—it’s almost as though the irrigated statues were walking about aimlessly, like wading birds, sinking toward darkness, falling below the horizon; but that’s just an effect of the watery light, and of my impatience perhaps. I’ve found it hard sometimes to turn my back on the natural call of the waves, and I don’t envy the temperament of vultures or of stars.

If the basement with its cadre of stony witnesses can seem an outsize, Bachelardian symbol of familial trauma hidden away—one of Beeklam’s statues bears the name of his dead mother—Jaeggy’s rain-soaked expressionism does a great job of capturing the quiet, refined mania that her characters experience. The Water Statues is a sodden book, a book about gradual deterioration; its characters’ mental states are so rapturously baroque that we seem to have caught them at the far end of mental decline.

It’s at just this point that eccentric motions begin to peek through. Jaeggy’s is a superficial fiction in the best sense, obsessed with surfaces, reflections, and angled perceptions, with telling gestures and the erotic potentialities of missed touch. In many ways, her writings hew closely to the program espoused by the French proto-fabulist Marcel Schwob in the preface to his Imaginary Lives, which Jaeggy translated into Italian in 1972. Art, as Schwob writes, “stands in opposition to general ideas, describing only the individual, desiring only the unique.” Like Imaginary Lives, Jaeggy’s stories and novels can read like exercises in erasure, deriving their occasionally surreal profluency from the disappearance of generalities and intermediate terms.

The privilege of the protagonist is another casualty of Jaeggy’s war of subtraction—Beeklam drifts in and out of the text, disappearing for great chunks of time, until the book abruptly adopts a new protagonist in its second half, zeroing in on the story of the young Katrin and her friendship with the widower Kaspar. Events, as ever, are strange—occasionally, in the evening, Katrin yields to Kaspar’s advances; at one point she spies a crow outside and carries on a brief, portentous conversation with it; she sits on a beloved stone water trough, which she’s drawn to by “an unshakeable tendency toward concrete things.” Standing atop a dune, she looks out in reverie:

Before Katrin’s eyes lay the earth where she was perhaps born and where she lived, a gigantic fatal hotel for unaccompanied children who chewed on boredom, and maybe the land of her childhood was really down there, steeped in shadow where the cliffs end, where the water starts to move, shielded from the oppression of celestial light.

As Beeklam notes at one point, an orphan “always possesses what we might call a theological ability to live alone, an infallible instinct for classifying people as boring.” The knotted tangle of solitude, boredom, repression, and desire is a favorite theme of Jaeggy’s, but what stands out here is the final observation—there is something charring about grace, something caustic and fixative in salvation.

Water, oversaturated with meaning in The Water Statues, can feel like an element foreign to Jaeggy’s typical concerns. The slow, geologic ruination of the water statues—accreting time, drop by drop, like stalagmites—suggests that sorrow is a process, a melancholy lining up of moments en seriatim.

Jaeggy’s characters, in contrast, tend to be obsessed with cataclysms, with the “instant that descends, wounds, and is gone.” The agent of destruction, more often than not, is fire. Great conflagrations, both accidental and intended, are scattered throughout Jaeggy’s writings. In These Possible Lives, Jaeggy describes how, in Thomas De Quincey’s crowded, candle-lit study, his papers and books and even hair would often catch light, so that he was forced to “put out [the] fires with his robe, or the rug.” Ashes settled on his manuscripts; a pall of smoke hovered everywhere.

It isn’t strange that fire should occasionally present, in Jaeggy’s work, as the ultimate divestment from one’s life and work. Bachmann’s death in 1973 was the result of burns she suffered after falling asleep while smoking and setting her nightgown aflame. Her final days, spent in a burn unit in the Sant’Eugenio Hospital in Rome, are recounted in “The Aseptic Room,” a story from I Am the Brother of XX. In the hospital room, Jaeggy brings up the subject of old age, but Bachmann smiles noncommittally. “I imagined a longevity without death, a house in the country, a wall, I described to her the external architecture and I bound her with a rope,” Jaeggy writes. “And a garden within the walls and again I said to her the two of us. I was terribly convinced.”

The Water Statues can read like a corrupted version of this domestic daydream, a summer idyll seen through a glass darkly—but insisting too strongly on the book’s unhomely distortions risks missing the palliative coolness that runs through its pages. A memorial impulse is at the heart of The Water Statues, one that goes beyond the dedication to Bachmann and the commemorative tendencies of statuary.

In at least one small sense, the book functions as a continuation of Bachmann’s unfinished oeuvre, drawing on a central image in her incomplete manuscript The Book of Franza. Set largely in Egypt in 1964, The Book of Franza features as a set piece the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which necessitated the relocation of several temples and archaeological sites located in the dam’s reservoir zone—including the twin temples at Abu Simbel (featured in the novel) and the Temple of Philae, whose statues and monuments had already been subjected to intermittent flooding as a result of an earlier dam’s construction. Even Jaeggy’s tribute is ruinous—an act of commemorative spoliation.

Stability is hard to come by in The Water Statues. Deaths and disappearances disrupt the characters’ circumstances, while their personalities themselves seem to warp and shift. When, at the age of seventy, Reginald runs away, it’s an unexpected spasm of activity. “Just as he’s about to disappear,” one character observes, “he displays, on turning around, the liveliness of a young man.”

Such elegant fragments of characterization crop up occasionally. At one point, Beeklam observes of his father that “his constant labor on earthly ministrations was nothing but a devout homage to life,” an almost classical aperçu that might have been ripped from the pages of a nineteenth-century novel. But these are quickly lost in the associative shimmer like so much Jamesian dross.

A memorial impulse is at the heart of The Water Statues.

If The Water Statues is a baroque text—and it very much is—it’s baroque in a pretty precise sense, endlessly elaborating surfaces instead of interrogating depths. And while it feels counterintuitive to describe any work by Jaeggy as maximalist, The Water Statues is certainly maximalist on her own terms. The book’s formal constraints—its unabashedly surreal ethos, willful diffusion of time, and playful monologizing—allow Jaeggy to bring her usual effects to a more refined edge. In other words, for all its strangeness, you’d be surprised how familiar it feels.

And of course, to stay on the surface—to be, like a statue, all surface—is one way of achieving stasis, of eluding, if not time, then at least what the critic Brian Dillon has called “the ever-present possibility of sudden horror, catastrophe” that haunts Jaeggy’s characters. At the book’s close, the characters stand around a sundial, which “goes on marking time, with its small angular shadow, black and slithery on the tepid stone.” Cool, congealed, and continuous, time in The Water Statues is the opposite of the sort of apocalyptic, ruptural time Jaeggy normally deals in—closer to perpetual mourning than anything else.