The fragmentary tales in Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s new collection of short stories, I Am the Brother of XX (New Directions, 2017), end abruptly, and often with a lurch. Paragraphs sit uncomfortably side by side, as if something crucial was excised, and sometimes the heart of the narrative seems to have gone missing. Characters are rarely tethered to a time or place, and phrases are shorn of adjectives and adverbs. The stories read as Jaeggy’s version of geometric abstraction, with the suggestion of plot and character suspended between the narrative equivalent of a squiggle and a floating triangle.
There are exceptions. On occasion, Jaeggy will land a lugubrious string of words—flourishes that seem especially exquisite nestled among their stunted friends. “People always talk too much,” she writes in the story “Agnes,” “instead of subtracting.” Jaeggy’s praise for subtraction explains why her terseness creates such a disquieting, even violent, mood. This is not a woman of few words, but a woman who bites her tongue. I imagined her producing expansive quivering Victorian prose, and then attacking it with a hatchet. Whereas Joan Didion is said to have reworked her drafts until each sentence, as she described, was like a stone polished by a river, Jaeggy seems to have crushed a glass in her palm and tweezed out a few shards for the page. Her prose is indeed “extraordinary,” as Joseph Brodsky advertises on a back cover blurb. It is also frightening.
Jaeggy’s characters are wounded creatures, and the wounding dates to childhood. There is a theme of familial intimacy gone askew, with relationships steering toward either neglect or incest. Children languish in remote boarding schools or share a bed with their parent into adulthood. In another pattern, parents are devoted to children who hate them in return. A more conventional writer would have found her theme in how childhood pain is battled in adult lives; Jaeggy, however, is more interested in the ossification of pain. Her characters are not on a path toward emotive catharsis, but something like catatonic silence—a kind of death of the soul. The characters in I Am the Brother of XX speak of what it is to be a “shell,” for instance, and how to die without a death act. The totems of such a zombie existence—puppets, dolls, caged birds—appear continuously. In the most unsettling stories, the main character undergoes a transformation from sentient human to apparent psychopath. In Jaeggy’s telling, when inner torment outstrips the capacity of the mind or the heart, personhood gives way to an opaque, impenetrable emptiness. Her characters are humans who have lost the hallmarks of humanity.
This is not to say that Jaeggy pities her characters. In fact, she admires, even envies their determined retreat from the din of the living. Intemperate emotions have been banished to make way for stillness: “bare, white and harsh.” Several characters express worshipfulness for absence itself. In “Portrait of an Unknown Woman,” a woman gazes at a figure in a painting, yearning to possess the same stillness as an image. She rhapsodizes about the exceeding calmness of the painted figure, elevating its two-dimensionality to a religious ideal. “Her face… is absence itself, a face without expression, a shell made of deprivations. So little exists. And yet before that nothingness I have bowed my head.” In another story, a woman defends her solitary life to people who might pass judgment, explaining that even a void has nuance, and anyway, minimalism is its own kind of adornment.
Jaeggy’s women in particular have alchemized emotional pain into the height of chic. As Jaeggy writes in the eponymous story of the collection, “The clothes were a moral cover for the various crimes of sadness.” Jaeggy’s descriptions—a mother primly drinking Evian with perfectly small gold earrings, an older sister in eggplant-colored penny loafers, fingerless leather gloves, and a gold bracelet with tiny sapphires—atomize the elusive quality of glamour. We understand that Jaeggy is speaking of the kind of woman who eats as if she doesn’t feel hunger and moves without sweating: thin, clean, with a touch like paper.
Jaeggy’s fascination with this feminine archetype is explored more fully in her 1989 novel, Sweet Days of Discipline. Sweet Days of Discipline is narrated by an unnamed fourteen-year-old deposited at a boarding school in the frigid Swiss mountains. Her mother directs the child’s education from Brazil, while her ghost of a father insists they spend summer vacations on trains and in hotels. The school is a cesspool of loneliness. The girl who brags of her father’s devotion is picked up by a chauffer, another is notified of a cousin’s death with formal stationary, and the daughter of an African head of state, fondled as “the little black girl” by the Headmistress, shrinks into glassy inanimacy.
But the focus of the story is Frédérique, a new student who arrives mid-semester. Frédérique’s charm is her supreme aloofness and self-possession. She never holds hands with other girls, never shows irritation or moodiness, never tries to catch a glance of herself in a passing mirror. She evinces no need of companionship. The narrator remembers, “She had been the most disciplined, respectful, ordered, perfect girl, it almost made your flesh creep. She could even tidy the shelves of the void.” The narrator idolizes Frédérique’s apparent inviolability, and also becomes obsessed with breaking it. She speaks often of her drive to “conquer” Frédérique. Eventually Frédérique’s well-coiffed restraint gives way to insanity, and she tries to kill her mother by setting the house on fire. (The crime doesn’t dampen the narrator’s obsession.)
Unlike clothing, which can disguise the state of the soul, a person’s eyes reveal the truth. (Jaeggy’s penchant for portentously describing characters’ eyes, and using sleep and blindness as metaphors, is alternately profound and cliché.) Eyes are “mean,” “steady,” and “sad,” but also “celestial,” “vacant,” and “crystal.” One character has eyes like “a mounted deer,” another like “an ivory ruler,” and a third “stolen from some homicidal kid.” The quality of the eyes is what distinguishes the living, feeling persons from the lobotomized shells. In an especially bizarre story, a child makes a puppet of a piece of mandrake root and then demands that the puppet switch eyes with her. In another, a boy commits suicide at a waterfall overlook, the very spot his mother had dragged him as a child, commanding him to look. (The mother takes a conceptual view of the suicide, declaring it “the perfect choice.”) At the end of Sweet Days of Discipline, the narrator discovers that the boarding school in which her infatuation with Frédérique began is now a home for the blind. Schoolmates are “sunk in their perpetual sleep” and children eat sleeping pills “the way others take fruit.”
If the eyes offer a window to the soul, Jaeggy’s view is bleak. The exception in The Brother of XX is the mother and daughter in “The Black Lace Veil.” The story begins ordinarily enough. The mother is a bridge-playing hostess, “elegant, lovely jewelry, a lot of charm, Givenchy, Patou, Lanvin.” She is dead now, and the daughter is gazing at an old photo. Looking at her mother’s eyes in the photo, the daughter suddenly realizes that her mother was depressed. “I had never seen my mother so desperate, I would never have thought she could be desperate.” Trusting the truth of the photo, she reflects on her mother’s deception, on the lifelong impression that her mother had no malaise. Jaeggy lets the story end tenderly, with the daughter marveling that a photograph captured what was otherwise invisible. The daughter might be a stand-in for Jaeggy the writer, who, despite the truncated prose and macabre plots, evinces a quiet humanity in noticing wounds that have been artfully concealed. There are many shriveled souls in The Brother of XX, but Jaeggy’s is not among them.