Up In Flames

I Am the Brother of XX BY Fleur Jaeggy. New Directions. Paperback, 125 pages. $14.
These Possible Lives BY Fleur Jaeggy. New Directions. Paperback, 64 pages. $12.

In a story in Fleur Jaeggy’s I Am the Brother of XX, a tour guide takes a seat on a bench outside Auschwitz, leaving her client, Anja, to walk through the former concentration camp on her own. Basia, the guide, makes this pointed refusal because she understands that the horrors of history have been reduced to the sanitized procedures of museum voyeurism. The guidebook instructs visitors to climb to the top of the tower in the adjacent town of Birkenau for an excellent view. Seeking mementos, visitors scurry about the camp taking snapshots and posing in front of the cremation ovens, unaware that the deportees found great importance in photographs, a fact that the narrator reveals to the reader: Photographs showed the deportees all that they had lost of their former lives. In the permanent exhibitions, Anja finds herself behind another visitor, a blind woman following her dog. Though sightless, this woman, the story suggests, sees far more than Anja and the other tourists, who want to understand the past but are unable to comprehend the suffering.

The last line of the story confronts the reader: “If you want to know more . . . then go ahead and become . . . the victim.” We should read this statement as a call to empathy. The blind woman can “see” the objects in the exhibition because she has an extraordinary capacity to feel: “To Anja it seemed that the blind woman’s eyes were . . . a precision instrument.” In such precision we recognize Jaeggy’s own project as a prose writer: Through exact language she constructs miniature narratives that catalogue the small moments in life that point the way to beauty—or to dread and destruction.

The compressed stories in I Am the Brother of XX often build on anecdotes that find existential weight in ordinary objects and situations. Jaeggy begins “An Encounter in the Bronx” by telling us about an evening she spent with Oliver Sacks at his home and a nearby restaurant, setting up the expectation that we will be privy to some revelation about the celebrated neurologist and author. Instead, Jaeggy shifts her interest to a fish inside the restaurant’s aquarium: “He seems to respond to my gaze. I had the very precise impression that he understood. . . . He knows he must die. . . . For a moment I think that his fate is not different from mine.”

In her fiction, Jaeggy’s meditative pessimism never opens up into any kind of overarching truth or understanding. Religious and mythical experiences are always brought down to earth. “The Visitor” tells the story of a supposed ghostly appearance. “On a day without a date,” the thirteenth-century mystic Angela da Foligno “appeared in the halls of the Archaeological Museum in Naples.” A fresco in the museum is “the first to become aware of the presence of Angela.” The story ends with the nymphs stepping out of another fresco in a “ceremony of nonexistence.” Art supersedes the sublime and the supernatural for the sober purpose of “observing one’s own void.” We see this idea again in “The Hanging Angel.” At a church in Germany, a large wooden angel holds meaning only as a formidable object. “As soon as one enters the church, it feels as though the giant might lunge. It strikes terror.” Indeed, in all of Jaeggy’s stories, objects—things—mark the fragility of the human body and mind. At a dinner gathering of writers and their spouses, Chichita Calvino shatters her opal ring. Moments later, Ingeborg Bachmann breaks the heel of one of her shoes on a footpath. Such is the dangerous unpredictability of life.

Human behavior is volatile in Jaeggy’s work. In “The Heir,” a ten-year-old vagrant named Hannelore immolates the kind, elderly woman who takes her into her home. Hannelore’s actions are as perplexing as they are evil: “She wanted the destruction of that woman who was good to her. To destroy for the blasted glory of it. . . . Should she have to answer to a ridiculous why? Because everyone believes there is a why, in human gestures and impulses. A reason.” What is certain is that Hannelore is highly aware: “The girl saw her thoughts on the window panes like insects swollen with blood on the walls of a room.” Her murderous act of arson makes external an internal impulse, for as Jaeggy’s narrator tells us, “Souls are dangerous. Often enflamed.”

Given the many instances in which fire appears in her work, Jaeggy seems drawn to the image as a way of addressing the polar extremes of creation and destruction, two of her key concerns. In “The Aseptic Room,” she recounts elements of her friendship with the much-older Bachmann, who tells her, “Old age . . . is horrible.” Hoping to lighten her mood, Jaeggy responds, “It’s all truly horrible,” not knowing the horror that later befalls Bachmann: When her home catches fire, she suffers third-degree burns that cause her to spend the last days of her life in excruciating pain.

Laurent Chéhère, En Feu (On Fire), 2012, C-print, dimensions variable. From the series “Flying Houses,” 2009–. © Laurent Chéhère.

Jaeggy’s meditations on decline and annihilation have their counterpart in her deep interest in the murky processes of creativity, namely those moments of being that cause one to become a writer. The narrator in the collection’s title story tells us that at the age of eight he saw himself as a writer, which is also when he decided that he would kill himself when he grew up. The origins of his fixation on suicide are not clear. What we know is that he came from an unhappy family, in which his mother insisted that everyone in the home take sleeping pills, a precursor to the narrator’s later addiction to prescription drugs. As a teenager, he is “sent to a school on top of a mountain,” and one day his older sister, the “spy,” comes to visit. “When she stops talking about the importance of the exams, about the importance of succeeding in life, about the importance of a degree, about the importance of living, I feel finished off. . . . And I am alone with my books, the desk, and I find myself . . . having a great urge to hang myself somewhere.”

The narrator informs us that he is now twenty-five years old and without direction, stuck. Despite graduating cum laude, he seems totally unequipped to deal with life. Or is it that he is actually dead? One night he crashes his car and suffers a head wound. “From that day on I realized that I don’t feel physical pain.” Now he thinks he is “apt to disappear,” belittled by a sister who “went around saying that I killed myself.” It’s as if he is narrating the story from the grave. Jaeggy suggests that artistic creation is the flip side to existential doubt, dread, and nihilism.

Put differently, Jaeggy singles out unhappy family life, isolation, addiction, and melancholia as the forces that make a writer—or certainly many writers. She explores these subjects in her strange book of nonfiction, These Possible Lives, which offers lyrical sketches of three precocious talents who died before achieving their full literary potential. Jaeggy suggests that the talent inside these three writers was too much for their bodies to contain.

In the same way that one of her characters became a writer at age eight, Jaeggy tells us, Thomas De Quincey became a visionary when he was six years old. After his three-year-old sister died, he thought she would be resurrected in the family garden, as in a tale from Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp. A second sister fell sick and died, then “old age descended on the child. Thomas took his leave of youth, like a caliph takes leave of his rosebush. . . . The boy set about writing.”

He began using opium around age twenty. Hazy with the drug, he often sat next to the fireplace when he wrote. People “generally thought of him as an incendiary. ‘Papa’ one of his daughters said, ‘your hair is on fire.’. . . He was sometimes overcome with sleepiness in his studio and nodded off, pulling the candles down with him. Ash reliefs adorned his manuscripts.”

In the book’s second essay, Jaeggy tells us that John Keats, from his beginnings, also seemed to be a being of fire. As a boy he found “a peculiar compulsion” in fighting, “an impetuous fury” that consumed his time before he discovered books and started writing poetry. In what “was almost a matter of sorcery,” the bookish and melancholic Keats took an intense interest in Fanny Brawne, a woman who had a “fire in her heart.” The engagement was short-lived: Keats would soon contract consumption and come to a painful end. The fearful witnesses to his death “stripped the walls and floor and burned all of the furniture.” Could it be that Keats’s passion for words and life was of such a high intensity that it literally set fire to his body from the inside out?

Jaeggy takes up the fire metaphor again in the final essay in the book, about French writer Mayer André Marcel Schwob. Already a “delicate child” who was “too precocious, too intelligent,” he contracted a “brain fever.” Said illness made him long to venture to exotic locales one day. The other crucial event in his life took place in May 1889, when Schwob was a twenty-two-year-old university student. His friend Georges Guieysse committed suicide. “From that point on, Marcel took up residence in the severe, often deserted halls and archives of the Bibliothèque Mazarine where he unearthed papers about François Villon and the band of Coquillards. He turned into a writer.”

He soon developed an addiction to morphine, which “provided moments of great solitude.” Then, in 1900, he started embarking on the extended sea journeys that he had dreamed of as a feverish child. Such travel would consume his existence. As one friend noted, “He lives his stories before dying.” Indeed, he succumbed to a chronic illness only five years later in Paris, dying before he could begin work on several books he planned to write about his travels.

Despite its division into three sections, These Possible Lives is a single narrative of layered linkages. Small surprise, then, that Jaeggy concludes the book by returning to motifs she had used earlier. On his deathbed, Schwob appeared as a visionary whose “eyes stayed open imperiously.” So it is that, after he died, “the room smoked of grief.”

Jeffery Renard Allen, a professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia, is the author of several books, including the novels Rails Under My Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) and Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press, 2014).