Born to a Swiss family in Zürich, in 1940, Fleur Jaeggy grew up speaking German, French, and Italian, but it’s in the latter that she writes spare, hypnotically pellucid novels. In September, New Directions released a translation, by Gini Alhadeff, of “The Water Statues,” a novel that Jaeggy first published in 1980. Written in hallucinatory fragments of narration and dialogue, it tells the story of Beeklam—a privileged eccentric prone to rumination and reminiscence, who lives in a ruined villa crowded with drowned objects. Beeklam has only a handful of servants for company, among them his friend Victor. The book is dedicated to the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who, until her death, in 1973, at the age of forty-seven, following severe injuries sustained in a fire, was a close friend of Jaeggy’s. In 1989, Jaeggy published the novel “Sweet Days of Discipline,” which won Italy’s prestigious Bagutta Prize and was translated into English by Tim Parks. A silken dagger of a book, it recounts the melancholy demise of Jaeggy’s schoolgirl companion Frédérique. The theme of friendship returned in Jaeggy’s most recent work, “I Am the Brother of XX,” a haunted collection of stories filled with spectral revelations from Bachmann, a lost sibling, and the thirteenth-century mystic Angela da Foligno. (New Directions published Alhadeff’s translation of the book in 2017.)
Jaeggy rarely grants interviews. But, at the end of September, I flew from Paris to meet her at the apartment in the center of Milan that she shared for years with Roberto Calasso, the Florentine novelist, polyglot, and publisher, to whom she was married from 1968 until his death, this past July. Jaeggy, impeccably elegant in crisp whites and royal blues, her fine silver hair clipped back in a signature tortoiseshell barrette—she was a model as a young woman—welcomed me warmly, complimenting the tie I had put on for the occasion. We spoke mostly in French, straying occasionally into German and Italian. I asked Jaeggy about “The Water Statues” and her other books, the life she had lived between languages, and her memories of friends, including Bachmann, Oliver Sacks, Joseph Brodsky, and Giovanni Pozzi, a Swiss-Italian priest and literary scholar. I told Jaeggy how moved I had been by her unusual evocations of relationships that, to me, seemed to be queer; using a period expression that literally translates as “special friendship,” she confirmed the suggestion. She was even more frank on the subject of gender, saying that she never distinguished between masculine and feminine. Jaeggy also expressed her lasting affection for Erich, a swan she once befriended near Berlin.
After a couple of hours had passed, Jaeggy guided me through a procession of dim, high-ceilinged rooms, stacked with colossal floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and into her study, where books and personal effects circled an enormous desk dominated by a green Hermes Ambassador typewriter. Jaeggy calls the typewriter Hermes, and says that Hermes is the one who writes all her books. Above the typewriter’s keys, Jaeggy had pinned a piece of paper bearing the first stanza of Hölderlin’s “The Farewell.” Our conversation, which I translated, has been edited for length and clarity.
What does literature have to do with revelation?
What do you mean by “revelation”?
I’m thinking of your references to the mystics Angela da Foligno, in “I Am the Brother of XX,” and Anne Catherine Emmerich, in “The Water Statues.”
There’s always an interesting way to read the mystics. As adventure novels, even. And those are two really intelligent women. Often they seem to know much more than we do.
But, for me, it’s very difficult to respond, because I like silence so much.
Perhaps that’s why you prefer the mystics, who barely speak?
Yes, I read them with great pleasure. They’re metaphysical. Intelligent. More than us. We write novels, but they have better-made brains, with a sense of the metaphysical.
But I have the impression that you’re more interested in German mysticism than in German metaphysics or classical German philosophy.
Oh, philosophy is fine.
Less so than mysticism?
The mystics are funnier.
It’s not difficult to be funnier than Hegel, is it?
All the same, one can still read Hegel. From time to time.
Do you see yourself as something of a mystic?
I would like that.
You aspire to it?
“The Water Statues,” which bears the dedication “for Ingeborg,” is written partly in dialogue fragments that are somewhat reminiscent of Bachmann’s novel “Malina.” I wonder why you decided to write dialogue.
Who knows? Ingeborg was my lifelong friend. We had a lot of fun together.
This was in Rome?
In Rome, and by the sea, in Poveromo. I followed her to the end of her days. Today, I wish she were still alive.
Did the mixing of narrative with dialogue in “The Water Statues” come from this friendship?
No. I mixed them to avoid boredom, and to shift what I write.
Bachmann once said that great writers always showed the mores of their times through portraits of women. Unlike most of your books, “The Water Statues” has a distinctly male protagonist—Beeklam. How does writing relate to the body?
You’ve spoken of the body, but not of the soul.
The soul seems to interest no one. But it interests me a lot.
More than the body?
Yes. Really, yes.
Do you think that one’s soul is masculine or feminine, like the body?
I never think of masculine or feminine. Why not neutral?
So much the better. But not everyone thinks like you.
Setting aside the figure of Beeklam, you mostly write about women. But if you don’t think in terms of masculine and feminine, perhaps there’s no difference for you?
Not really, no. How difficult interviews are! In life, I’m rather mute. I respond very little. I’m mostly nothing, you see? I write, I continue to write. I have a beautiful typewriter.
Called Hermes, right?
Thank you for saying her name.
Is it far from here?
She’s in the other room. We can go see her. We can go greet her.
If you like, yes, of course.
She’s swamp green.
Does Hermes have a soul?
What a question! First of all, she writes all my books. So perhaps she has a soul somewhere. But this is very hush-hush. In any case, she’s very beautiful. I was afraid she would break, because she’s rather old, but, on the contrary, she still works. Writing by hand is quite difficult for me. If, by chance, I do a drawing, fine; but, otherwise, no. Oh, she’s going to be very happy we’re talking about her! She has her vanity.
But you don’t.
Perhaps a hidden vanity. Who knows?
You seem rather modest.
“Modest” is not a word I like very much, because speaking about oneself is always a kind of effort. And, finally, it’s not very interesting.
When you write, or when Hermes writes—
Thank you, thank you! You’ve understood everything. I hate the word “artist,” but you know I make drawings.
I didn’t know.
Hardly anyone does. There was an exhibition of them.
Here in Milan?
What do you draw? Portraits?
No, but I would like to. I don’t know why—as soon as we started talking, I was happy to tell you everything, but I would also like to erase everything I say. I’m giving you a photo of Hermes.
Oh, thank you! How kind!
In general one gives a photo of one’s son, of one’s father. Me, I have Hermes.
When Hermes writes, do you listen to what she writes, to her music, or more to an internal voice?
Hermes is everything. I’ve had her for so long, perhaps more than fifty years. So she has always been with me. Except now I write much less. And, if I write, I write like that—by hand. I don’t like writing by hand; it’s too sincere. I don’t know.
Hermes. It hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s a man’s name.
The Greek god.
Yes, yes, yes. She’s so intelligent, Hermes.
In the first part of “The Water Statues,” Beeklam glimpses a man “dressed in dark clothes with a white band at the neck,” who “was walking in the garden, as though, after having named every single tree, he’d just let go of”—
“Emily Brontë’s arm.”
Exactly. The book has a curious atmosphere, both disaffected and intense—like Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” perhaps. Do you think your writing occupies a place in English-language literature?
I don’t think so at all.
I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll write you a letter.
You read very well in English translation.
It’s because the translators are so good.
But you have written exquisite essays on Thomas De Quincey and John Keats. I imagine you’re interested in English literature.
Oh, yes. Exactly. I hadn’t thought of it.
Do you prefer to read in English or in Italian?
More in Italian. I try to read in English.
Are there English mystics who interest you?
I don’t know. I’m so tied to the Germans.
Well, English is a Germanic language.
I love the German language. Unfortunately, I don’t speak it very well; I’ve forgotten quite a bit. I spoke it when I was little. It’s a very, very beautiful language. I’ve written something on the German language, I don’t remember where.
It’s here, in “S.S. Proleterka.” If I may—
Thank you! “The tone of my voice changes. I realize that I am speaking German. As if that language had been imposed on me. The language of funerals, of sermons, of the Guilds. I have prepared a tiny glossary of the German words that have marked a destiny. That have changed the course of a life.”