The various crimes of sadness

Dear Fleur,

Most of the twenty-one stories in your collection I Am the Brother of XX, tr. Gini Alhadeff (2017. Original: Sono il fratello di XX, 2014) have a claustrophobic feel to them: like when we are aware that we are dreaming, but we cannot wake up, no matter how much we try.

The stories are set in undefined places – boarding schools, cold mountains, decadent manor houses – and we can rarely identify the precise time they are happening – past and present intersect, just like in a dream. Many stories feature real people – Joseph Brodsky, Oliver Sacks, Roberto Calasso, Italo Calvino and Ingeborg Bachmann make appearances here and there. And each story has a cold undercurrent of menace, tension, or restrained anger. “It is quiet in the house. The quiet seems imposed by violence. The shutters are drawn down, as if they were eyelids.”

The title story, “I Am the Brother of XX”, is narrated by a brother who calls his older sister ‘a spy’. She is accused of both monitoring his behaviour and being completely oblivious to the person he was. She is guilty of being absent, and of writing about him: “I used to be the brother of the big spy, I had a name, a precise identity—now I’ve become something else.” We feel that something is amiss with his voice, but we are never given a clear picture of what is happening. Is the narrator even alive? Or is he narrating the story from an undefined point after his suicide? “Once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, what will you do when you grow up? And I answered, I want to die. I want to die when I grow up. I want to die soon.” There is also something amiss in this family. The narrator recalls the day when his grandmother accidentally scalded herself and carried on as if nothing had happened: “And so if in our family we don’t even know when we’re burning like logs in a fireplace it can only mean that our bodies abandon us, that maybe we are spirits, and it’s not clear when we stopped being ourselves and became something else.”

In “The Black Lace Veil”, one of my favourite stories in this collection, the narrator finds an old photography of her now deceased mother. By looking at the picture, she suddenly realizes that her mother was depressed, and that the photo capture what was otherwise invisible at the time it was taken: “I had never seen my mother so desperate, I would never have thought she could be so desperate. It was we, her daughter and her son, who always thought we were—the two of us, he and I—desperate. Not mother.

In “The Heir,” a wealthy, lonely aristocrat named Fraulein von Oelix takes a ten-year old orphan, Hannelore, as a companion and later makes the girl her sole heir. “A modest, gray afternoon. Vitreous. The Fraulein is a kind woman, wilted and very lonely. And solitude had made her even kinder, she practically apologized. Lonely people are often afraid to let their solitude show. Some are ashamed. Families are so strong (…) But a person alone is nothing but a shipwreck. First they cast it adrift, then they let it sink.” As the story begins, Hannelore has set fire on the old woman’s house – not for the inheritance, but for the joy of destruction: “The fire, Hannelore thinks, shows its vocation to annihilate.” Oddly enough, though, this seems to be just what Fraulein had wanted.

“An Encounter in the Bronx” starts off with a dinner between Jaeggy, Oliver Sacks and Roberto Calasso. But the main focus of the story are the fish in the restaurant’s aquarium: “For a moment I think that his fate is not different from mine. We are both observing. I may have an advantage, some future, a little bit of time ahead of me. Before being killed.

“The Perfect Choice” revolves around a mother who thinks her son has chosen the perfect occasion to kill himself. This is almost a companion to the title story, with a dysfunctional relationship at its core. In “Cat”, the narrator turns her attention to a cat killing a butterfly: “They distract themselves from agony, abstract themselves from their own death. From the idea of death. That’s what the cat does. He distances even himself from the agony. That he has inflicted.” In “Negde” (“which in Russia means ‘nowhere’”), Joseph Brodsky is yearning for home as he walks the streets of Brooklyn: “It’s nice to sit on a bench and think, with a feeling of reciprocity, of the void.” In “Adelaide”, the eponymous character, who has had a child out of wedlock, is later avenged by her son, who kills his father when he comes to visit.

“The Last of the Line” revolves around Caspar, the owner of a decadent manor house, who laments the loss of his siblings when they were children. We have a sense of a doomed family, but we don’t quite know who haunts whom. “Death, he had decided, makes prisoners of us.” In “Names”, two friends are going to visit Auschwitz and notice that, as they approach their destination, the tourists instantly put on an air of decorum, “an ostentation of grief.” “If you want to know more about it then go ahead and become you yourself — her steady eyes are saying — become you yourself the victim.”

In “The Visitor,” another of my favourite stories in this collection, features the mystic Angela di Foligno, the Greek goddess Venus, and the Nymphs. As Angela visits the Archeological Museum in Naples, a fresco of Venus gazes at her, and the Nymphs step out of the wall: the museum comes to life. “The Nymphs step out of their representations, step down from the painted garden decorating the wall. The wall closes in on itself like a sepulchre. They are nearly all minute, damp, rapacious. (…) The Nymphs give the impression that they listen to dreams. Not entirely awake, like those returning from an apparent death, they blindly contemplated the halls of the museum, without daring to move. The light wounded them. A pallid terror flutters across their eyelids. There is silence. Only the sound of shards falling was heard, colored shards, as they have left their mooring. A silence of dust. Now they remain outside, outcasts, forgotten by everyone. They thrash about in search of their ghosts.” Their brief taste of freedom sets the Nymphs into panic.

At the core of your stories, we have ruined, dysfunctional families, estrangement, love gone askew, loneliness, and death. Your characters are loners who long for closeness but can only exist in a calculated distance from each other. They seem almost inhuman and ghostlike – as the grandmother in the title story, even when they are scalded, they don’t seem to feel anything.

Like the characters, the narration itself seems to evolve at a remove, with a strange combination of preciseness and elusiveness. The sentences are sparse, crisp, and short– “vitreous” like an afternoon, “bare” as a tree in winter, and cold with “frost within” (Is this a disguised reference to the poet? Maybe. He is mentioned throughout the book). The writing is evocative, atmospheric, detached, and sad – frequently basking in the “pleasure of disappointment.” Impressions are discontinuous, and frequently change direction or end abruptly. Your characters are always eluding us. Like ghosts, if we look away, they are gone. We are left in suspension, dwelling on the threshold between complete understanding and dead ignorance.

It’s strange, it’s melancholic, disorienting, and mean. It feels almost like we are holding a perfect fractal – some kind of vitreous pain circumscribing a void; something intangible just within our touch.

Yours truly,

J.


Leonor Fini, Mémoire des fragments passés, 1984

The clothes were a moral cover for the various crimes of sadness, as they would say in a court of law. The brother, who was me, hid that terrible sense of solitude beneath a coat and a Morris Mini. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

There is calm, a vague stealthy disquietude, some void. It’s nice to sit on a bench and think, with a feeling of reciprocity, of the void. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

“The sweet bedroom (a doll between the pillows) where she has her ‘nightmares.’ The kitchen, where the gas ring’s humming chrysanthemum gives out the smell of tea. And the outlines of the body sink into an armchair the way sediment settles in liquid.” – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

Caspar misses his brothers who never left the portraits. Now they must decide. There is stillness in the room, a sound from afar, almost a primary sound that wants to be listened to as silence. It comes, he thinks, from the frozen lake. It is the lake, dreaming. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

Despair has a visual quality, it spreads calm, chill, levity, like an optical illusion. The gentleman in the portrait no longer sees anything that lets itself be said in words. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

Darkness falls across his desk. The letters turn to leaves, vegetation. The words were ribs, a plantlike tongue. The night of the 27th to the 28th of January the gentleman in the portrait started wandering in the dark, more and more adrift. Even that gesture was an illusion. There was no place called the end. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

Like a flash of lightning, there is an instant that descends, wounds, and is gone. And leaves an aura of spoliation. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

The sadness of others one should leave alone. It is a small garden, a fragile delicate Arcadia, one should not disturb it. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX

They shared the words of the ascetic: staying in one’s prison, in the painted prison, and observing one’s own void. – Jaeggy, Fleur. I Am the Brother of XX


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