Saturday 2 October 2021


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The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff)   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
They were suffering from reality fatigue, he thought, in fact we are all suffering from reality fatigue, it is tiring resisting the inclinations of an emergency, especially for an extended time, he thought, even though we know fairly well how to do it. Nobody likes resisting an emergency, but what nobody likes, really, is the emergency itself to which the resistance is a sensible response. Perhaps, he thought, it is even an indication of the effectiveness of the response that there are some who feel eventually that they are more tired of the response than of the emergency itself—after all, the more effective something is the less necessary it may appear—and there are some who even seemed to think that not resisting the emergency in every way we know how to resist it will somehow make the emergency less real or less of emergency or more tolerable or something, he couldn’t quite work out what they wanted—but it was probably actually just reality fatigue, reality fatigue mixed with nostalgia for a time when there was no emergency, a retrospective fantasy, a longing for not-now. Fatigue, though, may at times resemble weakness. Nostalgia is always a lie, he thought, nostalgia is always set against the facts, but it would be weak-minded to believe that just because the facts might be frightening, as they are in an emergency, therefore the facts somehow aren’t facts but rather something being used by someone just to frighten us (who knows why); it would be fatal to move from reality fatigue to reality denial, to think it would be better to ‘live with’ an emergency than respond to it in all the ways we know how to respond, or even to deny that the emergency is an emergency at all (which would be in effect the same thing). Is there something in us, he wondered, that would even somehow find relief in giving in to an emergency, in not responding, in absolving ourselves from the burden of response? The death drive, says Freud, will always find someone else to blame. “It feels as if all that is yet to happen is already in the past,” writes Fleur Jaeggy in her novella The Water Statues, first published in 1980 and at last beautifully translated by Gini Alhadeff into English, a work in which grief and loss are inescapable properties of time, both resisted and enshrined by memory, in which the past is an unstable and unresponsive fantasy that is shedding its certainty grain by grain. Dedicated to Jaeggy’s then recently dead friend Ingeborg Bachmann, this is a book, he thought, in which the inevitability of loss through death or parting suffuses every meeting, both enriching it and reinforcing its evanescence. Relationships are snags to the tendencies of time, he thought, snags inevitably torn away, and longing and memory—especially the retrospective longing of nostalgia—make it unclear whether our lives are populated with statues or with living beings. If I said, he thought, that Beeklam, the protagonist, if that is the right word, is “born into a house filled with boulders”, loses his mother, suffers from the distance of his father, goes to live in a decaying mansion in Amsterdam, fills the flooded basement with a collection of statues which both represent and replace the living, disposes of his collection, and sets out into the world, I would be misrepresenting the book by literalising its tendencies into a plot. It’s not like that. All instants are inanimate, he thought, and memory is, after all, a flooded basement filled with statues (just like a book). This was getting closer. In Jaeggy’s world, the animate and the inanimate have no clear demarcation, they are interchangeable, they cannot be distinguished from each other. Beeklam is both child and adult, an old man even, somehow all at once. Beeklam and his servant at the same time both are Beeklam’s father Reginald and his servant, and their complement or inverse. Friendship is described as “mutual slavery”: the condition of master and servant makes them both an single entity and beings separated by an unbridgeable gap. The contents of this world lack sufficient differentiation to enable points of true contact, and the longing for friendship connects people but the passage of moments, the ceaseless suck of the past, means that true connection is not possible. In a text that is presented in a variety of different forms and registers (as is Bachmann’s Malina), Beeklam speaks of himself sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third, as does the most elusive of his narrators. “BEEKLAM: A little boy used to live here, he said he wanted to live as someone who’d drowned.” Who speaks and who is spoken of only sometimes coalesce, he thought, nothing is fixed; everything is undercut, the novella is elusive, but full of the most delightful, troublesome and surprising sentences, sentences that each becomes more remarkable when more deeply considered or reread. “By his calm devoid of sweetness he had bypassed every disorder,” writes Jaeggy, as if to illustrate this point, or, “On his face had been spread as though with a spatula, an expression of peace, a sermon painted over a pale complexion.” Jaeggy’s style is at once both austere and excessive, both direct and elusive, both parsimonious and fantastically indulgent. Can I end my review, he wondered, in some way that connects it to how it began before it became a review, to when it was perhaps just a cry, or a rant, or an irritation? What is the quality of time that assails us when we tire of the resistance necessary for life, when the perpetual emergency exhausts us? What are the alternatives? "Aside from rotting, there’s little flowers can do, and in this they are not unlike human beings,” writes Jaeggy.

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