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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 nothing to say. That he can’t understand why she writes so often suggests she has nothing to say either. “Both his letters and mine were short.” At this point we have only a comedy of anxiety for contact on the one hand and incomprehension on the other. That the stamps bear the slogan Pro Juventute (“For Youth”) is one of Jaeggy’s frequent and quiet ironies.

In place of all that she is missing, the girl receives money, “my argent de poche.” The use of the foreign language here is significant, and not just to carry the authenticity of a polyglot Swiss education. Again and again in Jaeggy’s writing, the occasional surrogates offered for intimacy and understanding present themselves in fragments of French or, above all, German, and almost always in the form of some commonplace. In the last line of the first paragraph of Sweet Days we are given the word Zwang, a duty or imposition. How ominously it clangs in the liquid, multisyllabic Italian. The last pages of Jaeggy’s new novel, SS Proleterka, echo with the German composites Wahrheitsliebe, love of the truth, and Leidtragende, she who bears the grief. It is as if, whenever we hoped to arrive at something essential, an unhappy distraction is imposed from without, some disturbing splinter of a foreign tongue, not part of the narrator’s native pattern of thought. Indeed, it’s not long before the reader realizes that our narrator is the only character in these stories who is actually thinking in Italian, the language of the narration. Her mind will never be integrated with the surrounding reality, which is pervaded with French and German.

As if fearing she has given too much away, the narrator now supplies a different reason for her letter-writing: she writes to her father not out of a need for contact, but because he is the only one who would do as she says. She presents herself as spoiled, manipulative, not fragile at all. But the characteristic defensive posturing of Jaeggy’s narrators, so convincing from the psychological point of view, never yields much by way of a plot. We never hear what the girl asks for or gets. On the contrary, the reflection brings her at once to think of her mother, who holds the real power. And here the English version (my own in this case) parts company with the original, which, translated literally, reads: “although my life had to be under the legal will of my mother.” It is hard in elegant English to convey the abrupt violence of this. Neither “be under” nor “submit” carries the punch of the Italian sottostare. The mother figure is at once remote (“from Brazil she gave her orders,” in the original Italian sentence) and all-powerful. She imposes German on a daughter she never sees, imposes a companion who is not the girl the narrator was eager to spend time with.

The bitter little comedy of the German roommate with her German art books and underwear but American chewing gum (unwanted gifts with foreign names) then leads to one of those shifts of perspective typical of Jaeggy’s work. The roommate’s name is not available in the “pigeon holes of my mind” (in Italian, casellario, a series of boxes, for filing). Yet her face flies up like a vulture and hides the faces of those the narrator loved. For now the mind is no longer a filing system but a series of loculi (originally, burial niches, but used in modern Italian to refer to the system of slotting coffins into cemetery walls). The rapid shift of thought, somewhat muddled in English, from filing systems to graves is more characteristic of poetry than prose.

Then comes the most dramatic change of tense, the most unsettling switch of narrative focus. “While I write, the German girl is sketching out, as in a police station, her own particulars.” Just as we appreciate that these “filing systems”—the pigeonholes of the mind, the names on rows of graves, the roll call of the schoolgirls—rather than aiding the memory, actually work against it, and, at the same time, that the unwanted (with the complicity of such authorities as private schools and police forces) always substitutes itself for the intimate, we reach the point where the narrative is most disorienting. The past will not stay in the past. The memory is not easily governable. At the same time, and largely because of the sudden, disturbing transitions, we become anxious about the mental health of our storyteller. Has she survived her “sweet days of discipline”? What has life brought her to?

All this is by way of extended introduction to Jaeggy’s most recent work, SS Proleterka,* which in many ways must be read as complementary to the earlier novel. The Proleterka is a Yugoslav passenger ship on which a fifteen-year-old girl will take a two-week spring cruise around the Mediterranean. The ship’s name means, literally, proletarian girl, exactly what Jaeggy’s at once well-to-do and deprived alter ego in these two novels is not. If the Swiss boarding schools of Sweet Days of Discipline were places where experience was systematically denied (“there was always a shortage of men,” we hear with characteristic wryness, anywhere near these schools), the Proleterka, on the other hand, is the very “locus of experience.” Which is to say, its decks are stalked by swarthy Slav crew-men. The adolescent girl immediately sees her chance and seizes it. Having barely spoken to him, she has sex with the second mate. Nor does she stop there. “By the time the voyage is over, she must know everything. At the end of the voyage, [she] will be able to say: never again, not ever. No experience ever again.” Initiation, in Jaeggy’s world, does not take a character through trial into fulfillment, a shared, purposeful life with other initiates, but into nothingness, withdrawal, even death. The spring cruise will not blossom into summer.

As in Sweet Days of Discipline, the main character of SS Proleterka is un-named. She begins to speak in the first person, but constantly lapses into the third, as if wary of identifying entirely with her narrated self. Similarly and with chilling, often satirical detachment, many of the characters will not be referred to by name, but by their role, or relationship to someone else: “Johannes’s former wife,” “Professor Z.’s son.” It is as if a process of bureaucratic classification were constantly obscuring whatever inner being there might be.

The girl’s family is recognizably that of the earlier novel. There is an absent mother who exercises legal guardianship from South America. Vindictively, she restricts her daughter’s contact with the divorced father to a minimum. But at least he has a name now: Johannes. Sick, close to death, Johannes is granted the right to take his daughter on a two-week cruise. The process of getting to know him will also be a farewell. Insofar as Proleterka is a beautiful as well as a disturbing novel, it is so because, precisely through the medium of its determined restraint, it reads like a passionate love letter, not to the Slav sailors, but to Johannes.

Johannes is not an easy person to know. Deprived early of the family business and fortune, all spent nursing his twin brother through an incurable illness, he is a man who has lost the core of his life and, with it, all social energy. His “expression is always the same, sad and distant.” Johannes is a member of a Swiss corporation, or guild, a sort of ancient Rotary Club, dating back to 1336. For years the only meeting permitted with his daughter was at a traditional guild procession. As always in Jaeggy, intimacy is suffocated in a straitjacket of tradition, as if in a long vendetta carried on against us by our ancestors:

We paraded together through the streets of a city on a lake. He with his tricorne on his head. I in the Tracht, the traditional costume with the black bonnet trimmed in white lace. The black patent leather shoes with the grosgrain buckles. The silk apron over the red of the costume, a red beneath which a dark bluish-purple lurked. And the bodice in damasked silk. In a square, atop a pyre of wood, they were burning an effigy. The Böögg. Men on horseback gallop in a circle around the fire. Drums roll. Standards are raised. They were bidding the winter farewell. To me it seemed like bidding farewell to something I had never had. I was drawn to the flames. It was a long time ago.

It is the guild that has arranged the cruise on the Proleterka for its members, a collection of aging, well-to-do Swiss. “Stubborn and self righteous,” geriatric and vain, entirely comfortable with their customs and language, the guild members epitomize the forces that are constantly denying the young girl contact with real life, supposedly, as she says, “for my own good. A venomous expression…. You ought to watch your back when listening to diktats of this kind. When you are a hostage to good. A prisoner of good.”

Johannes, however, is immediately endearing because he is not quite like the other members of the guild. Since he married an Italian, lost his fortune, and then his wife, he has been tolerated rather than fully accepted. Above all, although this cruise was to be his one opportunity for getting to know his daughter, and despite specific instructions from his ex-wife to keep her under control, he doesn’t prevent the girl from spending much of the time, and particularly the nights, with the sailors:

Well, doesn’t her father see? Doesn’t Johannes see his daughter’s behaviour? It is unverschämt, shameless. We are in the dining room. Johannes’s best friend looks with commiseration at the corner table. The neglected table. Johannes is absent and indifferent. He tries to tell me something, I should not leave the table. Immediately his voice dies away. Without conviction. Do what you like, say his clear and wounded eyes. The room sways. The waiters bring the hors d’oeuvres. They too no longer want anything to do with the passengers of the Guild. Politely, I get up, excuse myself. The dining room is a prison.

Yet the kind of experience the girl has outside the prison of guild protection is hardly more positive: “Nikola shoves me violently into the cabin. They must not see us. The captain can know, but he must not see us. He locks the door. He is violent on the bunk too….” Submitting to her first sexual experience, the girl’s mind is seized by memories of a school friend who urged her to have such brutal encounters, so that the crucial moment is somehow stolen from her. “I was behaving a little as if she were present. She was taking notes.”

Ostensibly on the cruise to get to know her beloved if vacant father, the girl is distracted by the crewmen, the call to life, distracted within that distraction by another girl’s imagined reportage of events, then unceremoniously passed on to another man for sex when the first has had enough. This infallible mechanism of malign substitutions is beautifully captured when, on a visit to the Acropolis, another member of the guild insists that the girl must make every effort to be with her father and remember him. To aid that process he offers to take a photograph:

I walk among the ruins and try to remember. But it is the previous night [with the second mate] that appears. Johannes’s friend laughs. His eyes are astute slits. The vegetation is in bloom, splendor blazing in the fields on its way to withering. To brushwood. At Athens, in the Acropolis, Johannes’s friend comes up with his camera. “Du wirst diese Reise mit deinem Vater nicht vergessen.” [“You will not forget this journey with your father.”] I was remembering the Acropolis photographed by him.

Later, in the book’s cruelest twist, long after the end of the cruise and her father’s death, the narrator will receive a letter from a man who claims that he, and not Johannes, is her natural father. At the age of ninety, with unforgivable complacency, he reveals this secret, he claims, out of Wahrheitsliebe, love of the truth, when the only truth the book is establishing is the perversity of the process by which the life we desire is obscured and denied to us. Language itself is complicit: “Two words accompany me like a refrain: living and experience. People imagine words in order to narrate the world and to substitute it.” In one key passage the book brings together the moment of learning to write with the birth of conscious memory. It is the beginning of a process of falsification, of stylish calligraphy. Hence the immense, even tortuous caution of Jaeggy’s prose.

For all their merits,” wrote Emil Cioran, in the opening of the essay “On Sickness,” “the healthy always disappoint.” Jaeggy, who does not disappoint, creates a mind, a vision, that is nothing if not unwell. Deprived of intimacy, or indeed of all that we would normally consider as making up a life—partner, work, friends—her narrator is disturbingly intimate with the inanimate world; she experiences rooms, objects, landscapes, as alive, malignant, and predatory. She holds on to the various certificates and documents of her father’s dead parents as if this might keep a possible vendetta against her at bay. She imprisons her dead mother’s piano in a small room, where no one can see or play it, as though she is acting out on the instrument a revenge for her own suffocated childhood. For her, nothing is ever properly past, nothing ever effectively exorcised. Some critics have imagined that behind all this lies a never-declared Freudian trauma. Such a reading is banal. If Jaeggy’s story is convincing, it is because, aside from the psychology of her narrator and the fine intrigue of her story, even the “healthiest” reader will recognize, in some part of himself, that there are moments when experience, or its absence, has precisely this unwholesome smell to it.

As for any writer with a highly individual, determinedly controlled style, Jaeggy’s main enemy is mannerism, the complacent repeating of oneself. And in the struggle against mannerism her main ally is plot. Again and again, in SS Proleterka, she finds the twist that will confirm and communicate her vision without simply repeating her ideas. At Johannes’s funeral, not long after the cruise, the proprietors of the hotel where he has been living, people who, beneath a veneer of politeness, despised and exploited him, send “a sumptuous wreath of flowers.” Johannes’s daughter, who has been passive throughout the funeral arrangements, suddenly reacts. She tells Miss Gerda, the executor of her father’s will:

No, I said. Send it back. I did not want the wreath. Miss Gerda flushed. I could not, I could not send a wreath back. Johannes’s daughter can not send a wreath of flowers back, she says. According to Miss Gerda, Johannes ought to decide whether to accept the wreath or not. And Johannes has left no instructions about accepting flowers or not. Reluctantly, Miss Gerda takes a last look at the pompous wreath with the purple ribbon and the showy gilt lettering. She lets the staff take it away.

In stark contrast to the gaudy wreath, the daughter, prevented by Miss Gerda from kissing Johannes’s corpse, has placed a nail in his pocket, “a little piece of iron” to accompany him in the fire of cremation. Though Jaeggy would never be so explicit, it is not hard to imagine the extravagant wreath with its gilt lettering as an image of the prose she has rejected, the nail burning in the corpse’s pocket (she does not place it in his hands as there, “it would have been too visible”) as emblematic of something she aspires to. If Jaeggy’s novels are always short, it is because the combination of the spare, often fragmented sentence with an extraordinary density of thought, plot, and emotion would become unbearable if extended.

To ask a translator to reproduce prose that has gone through the purging fire of Jaeggy’s rejection of all public rhetoric and easy sentiment is to risk contamination. As any translator knows, language is constantly inviting us toward the commonplace, the conventional flourish. On the whole Alastair McEwen is admirable in avoiding this. He has the courage to keep Jaeggy’s unsettling switches of tense; he appreciates that one of the pleasures of the book lies in the reader’s effort to imagine the mind that could make such strange leaps. A little bent, perhaps, a little less sharp, as is inevitable, Jaeggy’s nail is nevertheless driven home.



















  1. *

    The original title of the work is simply Proleterka. It thus presents itself to the Italian reader as one of those foreign and incomprehensible impositions. To add the reassuring SS to explain the word for the American reader indicates a sad loss of nerve on the part of the publishers, who, however, must be applauded for translating Jaeggy’s work.

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