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 the son watches the preparations for the wedding. She is a sort of bland, brooding, rustic Mrs. Danvers, and, grim and unmoved, she observes the happiness of her master’s new wife. “From day one she’d disliked her. She’d been dressed in white, a pretentious, overdressed peasant, with creamy cheeks, flowers and barrettes in her hair. Her train slid across freshly manured earth.”
The placid contempt the maid feels for her new mistress—that wedding train sliding across that manure—permeates the story, at first a rather straightforward tale of a narrow life. The farmer opens a slaughterhouse. The Rueggs have three daughters, not sons, which the farmer sees as a curse. The wife wants to protect the girls from the boys who work on the farm. The three daughters grow up and move away. One night, the wife uncharacteristically drinks beer and dances and the butcher admires her and says she looks like a young heifer.
The smallness of the lives, the sense of being born and raised only to die, or actually, in order to die, lends a claustrophobic doom to the story. Even Jaeggy’s descriptions of life seem to form, really, an outline of death. The flowers from the wedding are brought by the maid to her former mistress’s grave.
“These are the flowers your son’s wife was given, do with them as you see fit.”
Aside from rotting, there’s little flowers can do, and in this they are not unlike human beings.
In every birth, there is the promise of death. In flowers on a wedding day, the promise of rot. The story leaves Mrs. Ruegg walking away from her husband and the boys after the dancing, walking out the door. “The snow covers the countryside, leveling the earth in a drowsy panic.” Drowsy panic is something like what the reader has been feeling all along, what one feels throughout all of these stories. It is Jaeggy’s gift, an exact rendering of this odd and detached dread.
When Jaeggy turns away from the clarity of her catalogs and offers more overt philosophical conclusions, the spell is broken. In “A Wife,” she provides an ending in which the author of the story goes to the funeral of an eminent butcher in Zurich in order to inspire a more convincing ending to his story.
What struck one in those faces was a detachment at once profound and primitive, but not meek. Death does not move them. It is in the order of things. The savage secrecy of simple things. If they are so impassive, thought the intruder, the writer, still looking for an end to his story, perhaps it’s because they abhor words and their variations. Those proud eyes were gazing at the essence. With their passionate reserve, they were gazing, so it seemed to him, at the invisible. When they heard a sound of hunting horns, their eyes sharpened. Cautious gleams. Quiet eyebrows lifted. In the bare Gothic church, its rage of depredation, purest stone, towards the sky, the sound of horns, so human, stirred a brief echo of exaltation in their minds.
The laconic, proud, almost arrogant beauty of Jaeggy’s prose is evident even here, in this uncharacteristically overexplicit moment. But “A Wife” becomes, in the end, an obvious and blunt instrument of death. “In her desperation,” Jaeggy concludes, “Gretel will find appeasement. Let’s leave her watching the snow-covered landscape. In her sacred inertia. A last detail: the butcher’s name was Angst, Fear.”
Two other stories, “The Free House” and “Porzia,” suffer from endings in which it is lurid melodrama that breaks out from Jaeggy’s hypnotic dreamy detail. “The Free House,” also about unhappy women and death, literally bludgeons death into the reader’s mind. Mr. Heber provides free rooms for “those deprived of their civil rights.” Mrs. Heber resents his philanthropy. She dreams of his death. “She prepared his funeral like a dinner.” Mr. Heber begins sleeping with one of the tenants. Mrs. Heber spies. The two women fight. The girl kills Mrs. Heber with a hammer. This sensational ending is much less disturbing than the flat unhappiness and quiet, peaceful hatred that precede it. For it is Jaeggy’s vision, not the objects of that vision, that is so powerful and beautiful and sad.
“Porzia,” a tale of a young woman whose parents die in a car accident, and her loyal maid, is an eerie, portentous story, almost musical in its evocation of the emptiness of daily life, as if despair were a melody. Porzia, the maid, erupts at the end into a fiery madness that is unworthy of the subtlety of the preceding story, but with Jaeggy’s stories, one hardly cares. The beauty of her prose makes these flawed endings seem like what they really are—brief interruptions of the real story, which is Jaeggy’s extraordinary vision.
There is an oddly somnambulistic feeling to all the characters in this collection. All of them are suffused with their own fate. For Jaeggy, fate is not what awaits you, but what animates you in the first place. Silent, passive, stubborn, the men and women in these seven stories put one foot in front of the other in a respectable, orderly way—they never stray from their paths, even when their paths become violent and irrational.
There is only one story that can be said to embrace any possibility of happiness. In “The Promise,” a death occurs, but it is natural and comes at the end of a long and happy “marriage,” that of two middle-aged women, Ruth and Vreneli, who fall in love at the zoo and live together for thirty-two years. It is the only story in the collection in which a woman is not strangled by the conventions of her world, for in “The Promise” Ruth longs for conventions. When they first meet, she is admiring not the animals at the zoo, but the fences. When Vreneli is dying, Ruth promises to bury her in the family tomb. Here for the first time death seems not the secret meaning of life, but a gentle end, a resting place.
“The Promise” is a brief respite, however—almost mocking in its lovely, unlikely ordinariness. Ruth and Vreneli are exceptions, the story is an exception, happiness is an exception. The last two stories get back to business. There is one story about twins who carve coffins, and another, the last, from which the book gets its title, that is a wonderfully macabre joke about a man who is devastated by the fear that his wife is dying, then sinks into a depression when he finds out she is not, then slips out the window to his own death, with, possibly, a little assistance from his healthy wife. She grows vain after his death, wearing rouge and the silk nightgowns she saved from before her wedding. She is vain of her wrongdoing, as well. “To push one’s husband out of the window, using no more than words, persuasion, is a form of spirituality.”
When no one blames her for the death, Verena’s vanity is slighted. “They merely offended her, by mistaking her words for blather, the blather of an old belle.” The delicacy with which Jaeggy treats these two mad old codgers is wonderfully generous. The selfish, the foolish, the distorted—all are welcome in this almost mystical exploration of daily misery. This is the one place in which everyone fits, everyone belongs. “Verena is happy. Now she too stares at the sky, as her husband did before her. One day perhaps, to be even nearer the sky, she too will throw herself down. On the other hand, thinks Verena, throwing yourself out the window is a sin. And she would prefer a quiet atonement. Such is her way.” Not a very cheerful outlook, but there is something of the sublime in Fleur Jaeggy’s lyrical nihilistic chant.