Love Letter

SS Proleterka

by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen
New Directions, 122 pp., $17.95 (paper)

When teaching the limits and possibilities of literary translation, one tends to consider those writers whose highly individual styles pose special problems. For some years I have been putting the following passage from Fleur Jaeggy’s novel of 1989, Sweet Days of Discipline, before my students in Milan. The Swiss-born Jaeggy lives in Italy and writes in Italian, but her narrator here is speaking of her girlhood in a Swiss boarding school, presumably in the early 1950s:

I hardly got any letters. They were handed out at mealtimes. It wasn’t nice not to get much post. So I began to write to my father, mindless letters saying nothing. I hoped he was well, I was well. He answered at once, sticking Pro Juventute stamps on the envelopes. He asked me why on earth I wrote to him so often. Both his letters and mine were short. Every month a banknote would be enclosed, my argent de poche. I wrote to him because I knew he was the only person who did as I asked, even though it was my mother who was legally in charge of me and it was to her decisions I had to submit. She sent her orders from Brasil. I had to have a German room-mate because I had to speak German. And I spoke to the German, she gave me presents, chocolates she was always eating, American chewing gum, and art books. In German. With German reproductions. Blauer Reiter. Even her underwear was German. And yet I can’t find her name in the pigeon holes of my mind; girls lost in my memory. Who was she? She was such a non-entity for me, and yet I do remember her face and body. Perhaps, thanks to some malign trick, those we didn’t pay any attention to rise up again. Their features are more deeply impressed on us than those we did give time to. Our minds are a series of graves in a wall. Our non-entities are all there when the register is called, gluttonous creatures; sometimes they fly up like vultures to hide the faces of those we loved. A multitude of faces dwell in the graves, a rich pasturage. While I write, the German girl is sketching out, as in a police station, her own particulars. What is her name? Her name is lost. But it’s not enough to forget a name to have forgotten the person. She’s all there, in her grave in the wall.

Like virtually everything Jaeggy writes, the passage accomplishes surprising shifts of register, tense, and narrative focus with disconcerting ease, as if they were the most normal things in the world. It opens with an apparently straightforward realism, but reporting—and again this is common with Jaeggy—an absence rather than an abundance, a disappointment rather than a fulfillment. The girl receives very few letters. To rectify the situation, she writes to her father. And we arrive at once at a second “absence.” He is a dutiful correspondent, but has…

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