Author(s): Fleur Jaeggy; Alastair McEwen
“Children lose interest in their parents when they are left. They are not sentimental. They are passionate and cold. In a certain sense some people abandon affections, sentiments, as if they were things. With determination, without sorrow. They become strangers. They are no longer creatures that have been abandoned, but those who mentally beat a retreat. Parents are not necessary. Few things are necessary. The heart, incorruptible crystal.” Fleur Jaeggy’s unforgettable short novel, named after the ship upon which the narrator, aged fifteen, and her estranged father (unreachable, “aloof from himself”) spend an unprecedented and unrepeated fourteen day cruise in the Greek Islands with members of the Swiss guild to which the father belongs, is a catalogue of mental retreat, relinquishment, estrangement, loss, and turning away: enervations towards a non-existence either hurried or postponed but inevitable to all. Jaeggy’s short sentences each have the precision of a stiletto: each stabs and surprises, making tiny wounds, each with a drop of glistening blood. When the narrator looks at her father Johannes’s diary, “written by a man precise in his absence,” her description of it could be of her own narration: “It is proof. It is the confirmation of an existence. Brief phrases. Without comment. Like answers to a questionnaire. There are no impressions, feelings. Life is simplified, almost as if it were not there.” Jaeggy writes with absolute, clinical precision but narrow focus, as if viewing the world down a tube, to great effect. Johannes, for example, is described as having “Pale, gelid eyes. Unnatural. Like a fairy tale about ice. Wintry eyes. With a glimmer of romantic caprice. The irises of such a clear, faded green that they made you feel uneasy. It is almost as if they lack the consistency of a gaze. As if they were an anomaly, generations old.” The account of the Greek cruise forms the core of the novel, but it is preceded, intercut and followed by memories of childhood and of subsequent events (mostly the deaths of almost everyone mentioned), all related closely in the present tense, but non-sequential, resulting in a sense of time not dissimilar to that experienced when repeatedly tripping over an unseen obstacle. Most of the book is narrated in the first person but the narrator achieves a degree of detachment from incidents that threaten “the exceedingly fine line between equilibrium and desperation” by relating them in the third person, referring to herself as “Johannes’s daughter”: the death of Orsola (the maternal grandmother with whom she lived after her parents’ divorce, her mother’s effective disappearance, her father’s sudden poverty and his effective exile from her life) and the violent sexual experiences to which she opens herself with two of the sailors: “I don’t like it, I don’t like it, she thinks. But she does it all the same. The Proleterka is the locus of experience. By the time the voyage is over, she must know everything. At the end of the voyage, Johannes’s daughter will be able to say: never again, not ever. No experience ever again.” The narrator writes her memories not so much to remember as to forget, to relinquish. Words turn experience into story, which interposes itself between experience and whoever is oppressed by it. As Jaeggy writes, “people imagine words in order to narrate the world and to substitute it.”
Description: A fifteen-year-old girl and her father, Johannes, take a cruise to Greece on the SS Proleterka. Jaeggy recounts the girl's youth in her distinctively strange, telescopic prose: the remarried mother, cold and unconcerned; the father who was allowed only rare visits with the child; the years spent stashed away with relatives or at boarding school. For the girl and her father, their time on the ship becomes their `last and first chance to be together.' On board, she becomes the object of the sailors' affection, receiving a violent, carnal education. Mesmerised by the desire to be experienced, she crisply narrates her trysts as well as her near-total neglect of her father.Proleterka is a ferocious study of distance, diffidence and `insomniac resentment.'
Review: `"Incorruptible crystal" is an apt description of Jaeggy's style. Her sentences are hard and compact, more gem than flesh. Images appear as flashes, discontinuous, arresting, then gone . . . this feels appropriate for a writer who is a "stranger" and an "enemy" to the familial.' Sheila Heti, The New Yorker ---- `Jaeggy's works are a translator's dream: short, lucid and complex. Her distinctive vocabulary and syntax move elegantly and it would seem effortlessly into the English language.' Margaret Drabble, The New Statesman ---- `. . . an elegantly structured and stubbornly moving study of innocence destroyed and love denied. Very accomplished indeed.' Kirkus Reviews ---- `. . . an elegantly structured and stubbornly moving study of innocence destroyed and love denied. Very accomplished indeed.' Kirkus Reviews ---- `[Jaeggy] has a startling ability to go beyond: beyond the sentimental heart, the writerly niceties, the conventions that bind us, and the messy effusions of contemporary life.' The New Yorker ---- `[Jaeggy] has a startling ability to go beyond: beyond the sentimental heart, the writerly niceties, the conventions that bind us, and the messy effusions of contemporary life.' The New Yorker --- Praise for Fleur Jaeggy --- `Fleur Jaeggy's pen is an engraver's needle depicting roots, twigs, and branches of the tree of madness-extraordinary.' Joseph Brodsky
Author Biography: Fleur Jaeggy is a true original of European writing and has been translated into over twenty languages. The Times Literary Supplement named Proleterka as a Best Book of the Year, and her Sweet Days of Discipline won the Premio Bagutta and the Premio Speciale Rapallo.Alastair McEwen has published over 60 book-length translations, essays, articles, and poems, plus several feature film scripts and operatic librettos. He has worked with some of Italy's finest living writers, including Baricco, Busi, Eco, Jaeggy, Tabucchi, and Veronesi.