Although I prefer realistic fiction and am most comfortable with a style that at least nods to tradition, I do occasionally venture further afield. After all, dear readers, we don’t want to read Anthony Trollope all the time, do we? Or even dear Jane, as fond as we are of Lizzie’s adventures and Anne Elliot’s romantic travails? When I do venture to sail in unfamiliar waters (I’m afraid the nature of the book I’m about to discuss has me thinking in aquatic metaphors), it’s a struggle for me to be open to work that is totally new, particularly if it’s written in a non-traditional style.
My immersion in the blogging world, however, has slowly, slowly, expanded my reading horizons, albeit in inverse proportion to my bank account! This was the year, for example, that I’ve almost become comfortable reading translated literature. Having dipped my toe into non-anglophone waters and survived, I decided to take on the ultimate challenge: a subscription to “the New Classics Club” sponsored by New Directions publishing. Once I did so, strange, exciting & frequently disconcerting works of fiction began arriving in my mail box on a monthly basis. This November, for example, brought me:
For those who are interested in bio, Jaeggy was born in 1940 in Zurich, Switzerland, where she spent most of her early life. Like many of her fellow nationals, Jaeggy is multi-lingual and grew up speaking French, German and Italian. In her twenties she moved to Rome, where she became friends with the Austrian novelist Ingeborg Bachman. It was in Rome that she also met, and eventually married, the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso. Jaeggy, who writes exclusively in Italian, has continued to live in Italy, where she has bagged most of the country’s major literary prizes. The Water Statues, originally published in 1980, is an early work; it was in 1989, with Sweet Days of Discipline (translated by Tim Parks) that Jaeggy became widely known. New Directions has published English translations of these as well as others of Jaeggy’s novels, essays and story collections. In addition to writing fiction, Jaeggy has also translated the work of Thomas de Quincy and Marcel Schwob into Italian.
All very interesting, I can hear you mutter, but — what about the book? Who are the characters, what is the plot and, most importantly, what is your opinion of it? Ah, dear readers, it’s easier to provide questions than to supply answers regarding this enigmatic little work, whose nature and meaning are as elusive as the element contained in its title. Jaeggy’s novel (more properly novella) clocks in at a scant eight-nine pages of generously spaced text that, technically, could be read in an hour or two. Its impact, however, is disproportionate to its word count. Unlike my usual way of plowing through a work of fiction, I read this one very slowly, in small bits spread over several days and stopped frequently to re-read a phrase and to savor the atmosphere. The impression it creates remains long after the last word is read.
For a variety of reasons, The Water Statues doesn’t lend itself to an analytical discussion. For one thing, it concerns encounters rather than events and marks time in a circular or even random, rather than linear, fashion. Essentially its “structure” is a seamless web in which one’s point of entry or exit doesn’t matter too much. Stylistically, TWS struck me as a hybrid of poetry and prose (some of its short sections definitely call prose poems to mind) as well as a combination of a play — Jaeggy begins with a list of nine “Dramatis Personae” and there are a few sections that consist solely of dialogue — and, well, what isn’t a play. TWS’ viewpoint continually shifts among the characters, who sometimes address the reader directly; these shifts in view and narration heighten the malleable, fragmentary nature of the reality they are experiencing. The inclusion among the named characters of an additional individual who is never identified but who sometimes narrates or gives his/her version of events further heightens the novella’s mysterious nature. Who is this person and what are they doing in the story?
The protagonist, to the extent there is one, is Beeklam, the rich and eccentric collector of the statues that provide the novella with its title. Early in the novella Beeklam relates how as a child he experienced the death of his mother Thelma. After her death (pp 8-9):
He’d abandoned his newly widowed father to go and “buy statues,” he said, and it was as if he were joking. From early childhood he’d been drawn to figurative imitations of grief and stillness; from childhood he’d been a collector, museums were in him; statues were his playthings, a privilege of all who are born lost and who start out from where they end. The child looked at them: he inspected eyelids and napes, drawn into their definitive dimensions of seriousness, some molded by artists of renown, others by unknown workshops. He had a name for each: Roselind, Diane, Magdalena, Thelma, Gertrud. Those statutes with their often amiable faces disclosed the things that dwell in things themselves, vitreous things.
After abandoning his father, Beeklam moves to Amsterdam, where he lives, “quite alone” with his statues in the basement of a villa close to the sea. Because the villa’s basement extends “down to the water,” its gaps and cracks give (p 8):
a sense of the movement of the waves: of a submerged world that he [Bleeklam] believed to be populated by other statues with feet (if they still had them) tied to stones; and whose knuckles of stone knocked on his walls. No one shooed him away when he rested his head on the wall and waited — perhaps for the statues of water to return, or to summon him. The child now wished to live as though he’d drowned.
Although I don’t pretend to any expertise in interpreting these strange and beautiful images, it seems to me that Jaeggy is hinting that the wall between living and dead is thin and that we each long for some form of permanence in a shifting and unstable universe. In this respect, I think it’s significant that Beeklam calls one of his statues by his dead mother’s name. It’s also worth noting that Jaeggy dedicated TWS to her close friend Ingeborg Bachmann, who had died several years previously in a fire (at one point (p 22) Bleeklam remembers reading that “Water is a burnt body,” a line that further hints of themes of death and mortality.)
Emerging from his basement of statues, Beeklam wanders the streets of Amsterdam in the late spring twilight, accompanied by his servant Victor. The lives they observe at a distance and their sporadic encounters with others are their only human connections: fleeting encounters and detached observations, with no lasting effect or central meaning.
The second part of TWS concerns Katrina and Kaspar, who may, or may not, be Katrina’s father. These “two loners” reluctantly share a pavilion on the grounds of a boarding school; “reticent in speech, they tolerate brief and stinting evening conversations” (p 44). Images, phrases, characters and even some of Beeklam’s statues make a reappearance in this section of the novella, reinforcing its non-linear structure and the circularity of time. As once character puts it (p 72), “One says goodbye to everything here; in places like these it’s as if all that is yet to happen were already in the past.”
It’s impossible to quit this overly long review without briefly mentioning the beauty of Jaeggy’s language and images, all the more striking because her prose is so very economical. Without wasting a word, or deploying any particularly lush or descriptive adjectives, Jaeggy has an unbelievable knack for creating images that stick in the mind long after her novella is finished. A crow’s eyes are “two miniature swatches of velvet” (p 53); cabbage leaves dropped in a garden are transformed overnight into “green drawing rooms” teeming with snails (p 84); the child Beeklam has “a horror of anything hereditary, because whatever comes * * * by natural inheritance belongs to the dead” (p 38). This particular combination of beauty and reticence is something new in my reading experience.
Have any of you, dear readers, explored Jaeggy’s fiction? If so, what do you think of it? Although TWS tested my limits a bit, I’m glad I read it and will definitely try more of this very interesting writer’s work (most probably I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories). Would I recommend TWS to others? It’s definitely not for those wedded to a traditional style and a linear plot, but for those willing to tolerate ambiguity and open to atmosphere it’s an immersive and rewarding work.