Near the start of Fleur Jaeggy’s extraordinary novel Proleterka, the unnamed narrator reflects: ‘Children lose interest in their parents when they are left. They are not sentimental. They are passionate and cold.’ Passionate and cold is also an apt description of Jaeggy’s writing: the fierceness of her words erupts from the seams of her tiny, frigid sentences, sometimes just a word or two long. It also fits the narrator, even though she evidently hasn’t lost as much interest in her abandoning parents as she’d like. Her ‘sudden desire’ for her father’s ashes opens the book; then we are plunged back into her recollection of a fornight’s holiday with him on a cruise to Greece on SS Proleterka when she was 15.
The narrator’s awkward, distant relationship with her parents is felt in Jaeggy’s shifting, interchangeable terms for the characters. Her father is variously ‘my father’, ‘the father’ and ‘Johannes’; strikingly, her mother is often relegated to ‘Johannes’s ex-wife’; and the narrator moves between ‘I’, ‘she’, and ‘Johannes’s daughter’. Often these shifts come within the same paragraph, as though the labels of these relationships, these constructs of identity, are being tested and found wanting.
This is a telling backdrop to the narrator’s violent sexual awakening with various members of the boat’s crew, which leaves her spinning between desire and repulsion: ‘I want more and more… I don’t like it, I don’t like it, she thinks. Yet she does it all the same.’ After the first time, she attempts to say I love you in the sailor’s language and his rebuke, ‘That’s enough… Get dressed’, in her language, ‘comes to me like a whiplash’. It’s especially painful, as this tentative emotional opening is the narrator’s only one. She is accustomed to closing herself off from others. Even as a child, she shuttered the windows: ‘I close the eyelids of the house.’
Death — resonant in this image of closing eyelids — is ever present in the book, and in Jaeggy’s work more generally. It’s not treated with fear or grief, but with an unnerving combination of longing, respect and offbeat humour. The narrator describes the sole success in her extended family of ‘aspiring suicides’: it worked because ‘the striking of the hour coincided with the revolver shot. That way no one heard.’ Here again is that cold passion —explosive violence made potent by
Jaeggy’s highly unusual work, originally written in Italian (she’s lived in Italy for the last half-century, but was born in Zurich), is finally gaining recognition in the English-speaking world. Joseph Brodsky said of her novel Sweet Days of Discipline: ‘Reading time … four hours. Remembering time… rest of one’s life.’ For Proleterka, I say exactly the same.