Fleur Jaeggy’s Gift of Detachment

For this period, detachment is the state of things. Easier, safer, recommended. No noisy, unmanageable, untidy passions. No individual cluttered urgencies with ends and tags askew. Each her own island country, complete and selfsufficient, an isolationist policy in place for all. The anthem: Simon and Garfunkel’s plaintive chorus, “You know the nearer your destination / The more you’re slip slidin’ away”—a lyric hymn to voluntary retraction and disengagement. And Fleur Jaeggy’s exquisite novel SS Proleterka (New Directions Book, 2003) detachment’s text, manifesto and cri de coeur—subheading, I’d suggest: Abandonment.

Say a small child, picture bare legs—could be a dress or short pants—is abandoned, this could be a real situation or a subjective reading. Left on an emptying train platform, a dock or the steps of a school some many minutes after final bell has been rung. The light breeze stiffens. A small fist pushed into a pocket finds nothing. Now past being just late, it is clear no one is coming. The afternoon light shifts from yellow to tones of closing peach, and somehow, unfathomably, outside her own memory, the child survives and concludes, as Jaeggy does, “Parents are not necessary. Few things are necessary.” This following the assessment that “Children lose interest in their parents when they are left. They are not sentimental. They are passionate and cold,” adding, “They are no longer creatures that have been abandoned, but those who mentally beat a retreat.” So there, they say in voices still young and light and liquid enough to pipe. So there, and from there begin to build self-sufficiency. This is hard. They are reedy and thin and their resources aren’t abundant, so the self who is sufficient should be a light and glassy vessel, sometimes transparent enough to be overlooked and sometimes opaque enough to be a mirror. Often silent, and still, polite almost to passivity, acted upon rather than creating heat through their own engagement. About these children who have been left, Jaeggy writes, “They learn to pretend. And pretence becomes the most active, the realest part, alluring as dreams. It takes the place of what we think is real. Perhaps that is all there is to it, some children have the gift of detachment.”

It’s not a present, this gift; it’s a skill or a tool and no celebration with cake and balloons. This gift would be accompanied by the happy weightlessness of falling for all eternity, more queasiness than celebration. Like the nausea of abandonment. The girl, who isn’t given a name, the young girl in SS Proleterka, Johannes’s daughter, the daughter of the faraway daughter of Orsola, the periwinkle blue-eyed grandmother of the girl with whom the girl lives for a short time and with whom, she tells us, she has the most intense relationship of her young life—a temporary, intermittent substitute mother, always present at a distance—this girl falls ill. Illness unstated. Maybe the nausea she feels is like the queasiness of falling and falling. Maybe the nausea is, as her also distant, mostly absent father, Johannes, says, typical of difficult children. The girl knows what the illness is, attended by bouts of nausea. It’s a reflection of the knowledge she has that Orsola—whom she calls her mistress, who loves to garden and to whom she is the assistant gardener, where, among the tended flowers, pleasing this icy mistress with her useful work and maybe through her acquiescent presence, too—can see herself as sufficiently connected to someone to think “we,” a kind of family feeling. She will be turned out. She knows it. Sent away, “consigned to others” at a boarding school. Away is an absence—translucent, full-blown and fragile as the bubble quivering at the end of the stem in Chardin’s much-loved painting. Pretence is the realest part, Jaeggy tells us. As real as dreams, and there is a sense of suspension throughout the book, that we rise and fall in a kind of dream state on a boat on the swells of some body of water.

Certain children always come in late, wakened from sleep or reverie, waking to a voice that has been going on, offering necessary instruction, coming in mid-sentence and too late to get it right, to comprehend the topic fully, to know where, or what. A wispy vaporous fog state childhood is for these certain children who inhabit a vague, slightly destabilized confusion. Being on a ship, an old ship, not grand but with a gently swaying chandelier in the dining room, swinging with a “calm, malign rhythm” in the heat, is like the alluring dreams of children without parents, “children who look after themselves.”

SS Proleterka is such a ship. It is a dream ship Jaeggy sets afloat. It will be a void in time, a last trip for Johannes and Johannes’s 15-year-old daughter who travels on it to gain the “experience” with which, once known, she will never have to bother again. It is an odd charter, organized by the Guild to which Johannes has always belonged, sailing to Greece, tracing in reverse the course of Plato’s Ship of Fools. Johannes, the girl’s father, is distant as he always is, silent at meals. At land stops, sightseeing, he has no camera. His daughter recognizes that he doesn’t need a camera, or memories. “On that ship that seemed to be without a rudder. As if prey to a fleeting daydream.” And the crew, too, also in a somnambulant, dreamy state. “Among the men of the crew there was a lurking sense of something eccentric, bizarre, as of those accustomed to going adrift. Sometimes at sea, the Proleterka seemed as if it were steered by a ghost. By a simple and terrifying inertia.” This voyage—Johannes and Johannes’s daughter, sailing outside of time. Among the crew, a second mate who brought her dinners to her on deck. “How much time,” she wonders, “will the Proleterka give me for experience?” Sensing the finitude of the voyage, she asks this one question, and the other is—recognizing the end of cruise is near, that only three days remain in which to know her father—“to realize who he is,” will she seize it? She chooses: no.

Rilke’s girls, about whom he writes in “Interiors” (The Inner Sky: poems, notes, dreams by Rainer Maria Rilke, David R Godine, 2010), are also adrift on dreams. “When these girls of mine wander and roam, their souls slowly sway like rowboats tied to an unsteady shore. For their souls are gondolas of gold, laden with impatience. They are completely draped with old, soft, silken fabrics, so that dusk is eternally falling within them. The girls love this sweetsmelling darkness with its lovely inexhausted possibilities. They live in it.” Girls like Johannes’s daughter, also seeking experience, lulled by the rise and fall, are suspended, rising and falling in time, in darkness, in Rilke’s silken darkness of their lives. The SS Proleterka began its voyage to Greece, setting out from Venice.

An absence of memory—that is, a void where memory should be, or a life that is a void, so deprived of memory’s actual material—is also detachment. For the time the girl lived with her grandmother she would sit on her right in the frescoed dining room. “With whom did I sit at table before? I had no memories of the period before I learned to write.” What she can call memory makes a short list: “A few names linger on, the feel of certain objects, wood, the contours of a room.” More sensations than memories, more hauntings than recollection, and she describes herself, to herself, as “the girl with no past.” Johannes has died and his family documents, photographs, the records of his past are now hers. She notes them and recognizes she has no connection with that family: “I am a descendant with no ties,” concluding, “What we do not possess belongs to us.” A tautology, a trick with words or decoded reading as nothing belongs to us.

Rilke’s girls: “These girls of mine do not find, nor do they seek. They cannot remember even once having sought. They know only darkly about various discoveries that belong to the time before they grew up. Whatever surprised them back then and nestled into their shy little brown hands, or into their much shyer hearts, they stored up, all those years, be it a curved brooch or a lost word.” Do they suffer a surfeit of memory, a fear of the past, an absence of curiosity? But even if only darkly, memory does hover. What does belong to Johannes’s daughter now that she is an adult and both her parents are dead are some things, and some memories. She has the Steinway, her mother’s beloved piano, and she has her memories around its purchase many years earlier, and its transport. It had come from Steinway & Sons in New York, chosen by her mother, who shipped it out on the Andrea Doria, she with the piano. “I remained on shore. To imagine a sea voyage, a vegetation I would never see.” What she did see, did receive, was a frock sent to her by her mother, and then another and another, to a girl in a boarding school who wore a school uniform.

And she remembers, too, because she is an adult, the death of Orsola, now over one hundred years old, “exhausted by not dying.” Johannes’s daughter, pressed by Jaeggy, is working with some effort to maintain detachment. She speaks of herself in the third person, as though being observed from a balcony: “Now Johannes’s daughter is sitting beside the bed. The hands of the woman, of the woman that Johannes’s daughter had loved [parenthetically here, to hold some distance], flutter nervously on the sheets.” A declaration—more a confession—of love.

Now it is Orsola who remembers. Her son at 20, in a sanatorium in Davos, dying of tuberculosis, he about whom the doctors gave orders, “That the boy who dreams must not be disturbed,” dreaming of a dinner jacket he wanted to have made for a ball to which he was invited. The tailor must come to him and does, and the jacket is to his liking and he dies, dreaming. After, the jacket is sent to Orsola‚ a relic. “Now she, like her son, has a single prayer. As the dinner jacket was for him, so extinction is for her.” Not just death, but extinction, oblivion, the ultimate detachment. It’s not death, as though that were only a transient voluntary condition, but extinction. Total erasure.

Jaeggy’s use of language is an architecture of its own. Her writing has about it an uncompromising self-containment. She is its essential reader; others can pick it up if they wish. The rhythms, soundings in her own head, are particular to her—metabolic. If you aren’t listening to other clamourings, you write what you mean with the concision you choose. And her sentence breaks are sometimes unexpected. “In that moment I had a great liking for my mother. Who abandoned us, Johannes and me.” Almost prayer-like. And anomalous adjacencies insisting on the reader’s being alert. About Johannes’s faithful assistant who took care of everything, down to arrangements for the funeral luncheon: “She is efficient, silent, timid, sorrowful. Like an axe, she advances through the meanderings of grief.” Spare, rare poetry, too, here describing her first sight of the SS Proleterka: “She is darkness, pitch and mystery.” The text or narrative and the language that carries it are a consistent whole. I was going to bind my ankles together in a one-person, three-legged race and trip up by saying her writing is an engaged detachment. Maybe practised detachment works better. She is unique.

Love as an emotion, a condition or state, isn’t conjured or named in SS Proleterka, with two fleeting exceptions, maybe three. Never mind. Which makes more significant the expressions of pride, a harder won, more substantial and lasting emotional response. One each, from Johannes’s daughter to her father and to her mother. Her astringently assessing the worthiness of any emotional expression and her careful declaration evidence her closely guarded detachment. Wary, vigilant and protective of this hard-achieved disengagement, she tells us about her father. Her silent, distant father had an admirable quality. As the ship’s voyage closed, passengers became peevish, difficult and unpleasant to one another. Johannes maintained his aloofness with practised skill, and he and the ship’s captain, who suffered the various and rotating touring guests, exchanged a look that brought them together. Johannes’s daughter noticed this unspoken exchange. “For the first time she felt something like joy, as if she had won a duel. Something like pride.” Then her mother. As her mother lay dying, Johannes’s daughter is at her bedside. Absent all her life, the mother who sent spare instructions on her child’s care and education and frocks from across the ocean, and after her death her piano and jewels, has no words. There were things to tell and she chose silence. A secret some fifty years old remained untold; the other party to this long promise, at the end did speak. But her mother, “Without strength. Merely the will to say nothing. I was not to know…. In that moment I had a great liking for my mother.” A pride in her resolute containment and adherence to silence. What is it she admired and lauded? Distance, a void, and silence. Such small familial links and ties. So little expected, so well received. Such a paltry inheritance when she had come to expect none. ❚