Fleur Jaeggy writes about despair with such precision that her words can seem almost gentle, as if unhappiness is to be caressed and admired, like a lover’s body. Though not as startling and original as Sweet Days of Discipline, her 1993 novel about passion and reserve at a girls’ boarding school in Switzerland, Last Vanities, Jaeggy’s latest collection of stories, has the same tender frigidity that makes her work so disturbing and so haunting. Jaeggy grew up in Switzerland, lives in Italy, and writes about German-speaking Switzerland in Italian beautifully translated by Tim Parks.
The first story, “No Destiny,” begins in a garden with the words:
Then she hated her. Marie Anne had spent all afternoon pruning, more than was necessary. She gave herself up to her rage. Cleaning mainly. The soil was soft, it had rained. And looked dirty. Her garden was in a courtyard, the sun couldn’t get at the earth. Uncertain, the heat stopped at the outside wall. A small thing, that garden.
In her garden, Marie Anne is pushing her new baby daughter, in its pram, back and forth with her foot. Yet even with the introduction of a new life, even with birth and with spring, we know we are far from the garden of Eden. This garden is a cramped and barren prison.
A wealthy couple who have recently lost their own baby want to adopt Marie Anne’s, and she agrees, goes to their house and celebrates with them in their dead child’s nursery by playing with the abandoned toys, then abruptly changes her mind. “Why should that little girl she hated have a better life?” The wealthy woman hangs herself. The daughter, who is never given a name by Jaeggy, grows up and walks by the house she had been promised to. She knows how the promise was reneged on, and somehow in that moment the reader knows that every promise is destined to be broken, that hope itself is merely a prediction of disappointment, that life is no more than a prediction of death.
In this short and relatively simple story, Jaeggy calmly strips away everything vital and beautiful. The fascination with death and decay has both a gothic excess and a sleek modern simplicity. Jaeggy’s hushed inventories of despair are graceful, nuanced tallies. The mood she creates is not one of melancholy—it is too sharply drawn, too precise, almost robust in the care she takes, as if she were herself gardening. For Jaeggy, despair is alive, it blossoms in the garden with those flowers, it sparkles in the bright blue sky.
In these stories, as in the novel, Jaeggy’s skill lies less in storytelling than in observation and revelation. Even in the unsuccessful stories, Jaeggy’s numinous desolation is so lovely and so exact that it is almost enough. In “A Wife,” a woman marries a livestock farmer named Ruegg. An old woman who served Ruegg’s parents as maid and now serves …