The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 2 August 2018

I am the Brother of XX

Hello Gentle Reader

When some people discuss the act of writing and its literary endeavors, they at times make the comparison of a writer being the closest mortal being to god. Or the profession being the closest occupation to that of a divine deity. Who can blame them for their opinion though? With a stroke of their pen or a few taps of some keys; a writer can create and devastate. They haphazardly construct worlds without a second thought. They give birth to characters without consequence. Both character and world are treated with mere playful regard. When they have served their purpose or have reached their amusing capacity, they are left to drift and spin into the blind eternities of nothing; or merely killed off, where they are denied both happiness and love; their story unfinished and lacking resolution. If writers are like god(s), then surely they are the most celestial capricious characters, convicted of their own narcissism and self-importance, which is more often than not, denied in their realistic lives and world. This lack of importance or unjust disregard to their talents and character ensures they resign themselves to their worlds embraced in scaffolding, and crafted with bubble fragility. There they arbitrarily deposit their unsuspecting victims, their imagined characters; who at one moment were drafted and molded with care and concern, and the next tiresome and tedious and discarded with irritation and resentment. Those abandoned characters find themselves lost and forgotten in a landscape unfinished. The unseen construction workers are busy laying bricks, paving roads, installing windows, and setting up street lights. When they run out of materials and there is nothing on order, they pick up chalk and scribble the necessary implants for urban living on the half-finished landscape. For the characters lack the industrious purpose allocated to the construction crew, they must find a way to fit into their new landscape. Their fate had not been developed. They act the best they can in a logical order, but the landscape is inconsistent in varying stages of completion. A house may have walls and a roof; but it has neither furniture nor appliances. They sleep on dirt floors, and build fires in random rooms. It is here they must scrap some existence and some purpose, which has now only dwindled down to survival, as they have been abandoned to a half-finished world, which will slowly decay and decline, into a further state of refuse, at which point it will drift further and further away from acknowledgement and thought, until in the outer edges of amnesiac awareness, it will implode. The final end will be subtle and quiet, without bang or boom. All that will remain will be dust and a few bit of ruins littered about. Someday these little remnants will be trawled and brought back from the wastes of the afterthought and be repurposed in creating a new world, until the writer turned Prometheus, discards this world with monotonous boredom. There the unfinished heaven will drift further and further away until it too implodes and its ruined afterimage risks being lost to oblivion.

In the case of Fleury Jaeggy, she does not absent mindedly forget about her envisioned worlds. They do not generate long enough to become bored or tiresome. Right out of the gate, she immediately shatters and smashes her newly formed creations. From there, she extracts splinters, shards, and fragments, and rearranges these glistening obsidian and sapphire gems, into a twisted, complex and gothic mosaic, depicting her unique worlds in all their twisted and tortured glory. The world of Fleur Jaeggy is populated by solitary landscapes: isolated boarding schools, remnants of mansions smoldering at dusk, squandered apartment complexes, concrete low-income housing facilities, or homes for pensioners and the geriatrics (or for those who are merely waiting).  These brutalist and gothic settings are populated by the disenfranchised, forgotten, marginalized, and deranged. When charity or goodwill or even human decency is offered or displayed, the kindness is returned with malice, discontent, and extreme forms of violence, which includes but is not limited to: murder and arson.

The melodramatic histrionics of her subjects and themes would easily snare and drowned a lesser writer. Yet, Fleur Jaeggy undermines these pitfalls through her style. Where other writers would pick up pen and write long convoluted sentences, in memory of an author of the Victorian era, complete with tracery and the dramatic martyrdom of madness, seeking redemption and reveal; Jaeggy’s prose and style is clipped and terse. They are etched with steel and iron, deprived of any display of emotion. Yet beneath the cool metallic surface, lies a brewing molten undercurrent of violence, resentment, and madness. Her characters are always on the edge of eruption; even if no one is around to witness their final act of life. For her characters exist in the lonely snow peaked steep mountains; or a mansion precariously built on a cliff, hanging above the void; or the emotionally stunted world of boarding schools, where life’s rigid itinerary leaves no room for any grand displays of discontent or distress. The expectation is everything is left to simmer under the surface. This tension is slowly revealed through her lyrical prose, which only offers an inclination or a brief glimpse into the hellfire lurking beneath the cold façade of her characters, who seek refuge in their hermitages or willfully imprison themselves in solitary confinement. This immediate distrust towards life makes itself apparent quickly and early on. In the titular story (“I am the Brother of XX,”) the narrator, a young boy at the time, answers his grandmothers prodding question of what he would like to do when he grows up:

“’[ . . . ] I want to die. I want to die when I grow up. I want to die soon.”

In another story a lonely old woman who has suffered the claustrophobic confines of her solitude, which has gifted her with a greater perspective and charitable heart, decides to take in an orphan girl. After a while she bequeaths her estate and fortune to her newly acquired humanistic project. The orphan, however, has other desires and plans. She has neither care nor desire for money, and kills her benefactor and burns the mansion down. This transgression is done simply for the enjoyment of the destruction itself, which is described in Fleur Jaeggy’s cool and dispassionate prose, deprived of histrionics or other exaggerated forms of sentimentality, or pantomime carnivalesque colours.

Not all of the stories collected in “I am the Brother of XX,” are filled with extreme and sudden acts of violence and destruction. There is, however, a continual atmosphere of dread and simmering rage which moves throughout the collection. It’s just not always unleashed or released upon the world, or the unsuspecting victims and other collateral damage; which comes in complete contrast to her early short story collection: “Last Vanities,” where violence quickly explodes forth, with neither justice nor redemption in sight. There is a uncertain relationship directed towards life. The characters are not entirely sure what life and living entails. Though not as severe as the young boy in the titular story, who stated he only wishes to die when he grows up; they have an uneasy relationship with the act of living. A realization which is best explained by the nymphs who come down from their painting in order to get a taste of life only to question their decision:

“[ .  . . ] having descended to earth, they realized they were ill-disposed to living.”

Other stories—at times the most telegraphic in the collection—depict memories and reminisces of friends, as well as imagined scenes of their lives. These stories have a different mood from the others. Yet they too avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia; and retain the restrained austere steel like severity found in her fictional narratives. There is, however, a breath of fresh air presented in these stories, as she remembers her dear friend Ingeborg Bachmann, who is described as having needed: “little encouragement not to speak.” The late Italian author and folklorist, Italo Calvino, also makes an appearance; though he appears less quirky as one would care to envision him; but almost oppressively eccentric, his presence awkward and foreign. Another takes stock of Joseph Brodsky (though he is never named) on a silent solitary winter night in New York, where the famous poet reflects on his forlorn and resentful homeland, which had seen his removal. Upon them are other stories which read like short lyrical essays offering thoughts on life, with a tepid caution, always on the verge of distrust.  Once again they follow in the same vain as the boy from the titular story when he states:

“The importance of succeeding in life is a noose. It’s nothing but a noose.”

Emily Dickinson once wrote: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” Fleur Jaeggy and her characters would agree; life is startlingly, but to live is not an immediate action; but rather than an unwelcome and even frightening curse, which they seek to continually remove themselves from; or seek escape and refuge from. Her characters are not entirely sure what it means to live, and what life entails, and they have no desire to explore the idea any further. Life is an iniquitous affair, as well as ubiquitous in its oppression.

The stories in “I am the Brother of XX,” proudly display the jagged and inescapable crystalline prose of Fleur Jaeggy, but one should be hesitant in calling all the stories collected as traditional stories. Some are stories, in the lose confines of conventional narrative; while others are essayistic in form and delivery. This collection is not as concrete as her earlier collection “Last Vanities,” whereupon madness and murder exist under a frail and tense surface, which is wrapped in a cellophane atmosphere of malice. These stories varying in pitch and rhythm and are often disconnected from each other in presentation, but not in preoccupation. The austere and severe authors hand can always be found on the page; where she guides with detached apathy their course and route, whereby the characters are led to their eventual shipwrecks. What is appealing about Fleur Jaeggy though, is her complete objection to all matters considered literary conventional or familiar. She eschews these otherwise standard obligations for a form and style all her own. She inhabits her corner with assured confidence, while remaining impassive and opaque about recognition and praise. Her perspective on the world and its human inhabitants is one with measured ironic amusement, where she has no issue in exploring and exposing the dangers of life, and the ideas of salvation. When a woman steals a wooden cross from a corpse to find comfort; the object of holy relief, tortures her to madness. Another woman—a mother of the narrator—is photographed when she meets the pope, but rather than finding hope or reprieve from existence, she looks on with hopelessness and resignation. In this Fleur Jaeggy states the most apparent reality of what it means to live, which is merely the long process of rotting.

It should be noted; one should not read Fleur Jaeggy for her enjoyment of life, but rather for her crystalline prose, her lyrical language and for her unique perspective as it defies literary conventions, theories and schools. If one is seeking a writer who exists on her own terms, and writes on her own terms, it’s Fleur Jaeggy. Just be hestitant in seeking some moral uplifting message in the vein of a self-help book; or other inspirational driven book, about laughing, loving, praying, and living.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

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