Friday 3 September 2021


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These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Minna Proctor)     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The desire to understand must not be confused with the desire to know, especially in biography. Too often and too soon an accretion of facts obscures a subject, plastering detail over detail, obscuring the essential lineaments in the mistaken notion that we are approaching a definitive life. Such a life could not be understood. Instead a whittling is required, a paring from the mass of fact all but those details that cannot be separated from the subject, the details that make the subject that subject and not another, the details therefore that are the key to the inner life of the subject and the cause of all the extraneous details of which we are relieved the necessity of acquiring (unless we find we enjoy this as sport). Jaeggy, whose fictions remain as burrs in the mind long after the short time spent reading them, has here written three brief biographies, of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob, each as brief and effective as a lightning strike and as memorable. Jaeggy is interested in discovering what it was about these figures that made them them and not someone else. By assembling details, quotes, sketches of situations, pin-sharp portraits of contemporaries, some of which, in a few words, will change the way you remember them, Jaeggy takes us close to the membrane, so to call it, that surrounds the known, the membrane that these writers were all intent on stretching, or constitutionally unable not to stretch, beyond which lay and lies madness and death, the constant themes of all Jaeggy’s attentions, and, for Jaeggy, the backdrop to, if not the object of, all creative striving. How memorably Jaeggy gives us sweet De Quincey’s bifurcation, by a mixture of inclination, reading and opium, from the world inhabited by others, his house a place of “paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust”, and poor Keats, whose “moods, vague and tentative, didn’t settle over him so much as hurry past like old breezes,” and Schwob, with his appetite for grief tracing and retracing the arcs of his friends’ deaths towards his own. These essays are so clean and sharp that light will refract within them long after you have ceased to read, drawing you back to read them again. Is the understanding you have gained of these writers something that belongs to them? Too bad, you will henceforth be unable to shake the belief that you have gained some access to their inner lives that has been otherwise denied.

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