What the hell did I just read? That’s what I thought after tearing through Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives (New Direction, $12.95, 64 pp.). Though I suppose you’d have to say it’s a work of literary biography, it often reads more like poetry, or flash fiction, or fable. Polonius’s lines from Hamlet come to mind: “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.” Jaeggy’s book is poetical-biographical, fictional-critical, essayistic-historical—a book unlimited.
It’s also a work of almost impossible compression. In around fifty pages, beautifully translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor, Jaeggy offers three mini-biographies of three very different writers: Thomas De Quincey, most famous as an opium-eater but most interesting as a writer of and about visionary experience; John Keats, the Romantic poet whose gift, Jaeggy rightly notes, lay in his imaginative and ethical restlessness, in his “not knowing how to reconcile himself” either to the world or to his sole self; and Marcel Schwob, a nineteenth-century French symbolist largely unknown in the English-reading world. (Jaeggy herself has translated his Imaginary Lives into Italian.)
Those looking for an exhaustive treatment of these writers will have to look elsewhere. You won’t hear much about Keats’s class position or the early deaths of his parents. De Quincey’s relationship to Wordsworth—complicated, shall we say—gets short shrift, as does pretty much everything about Schwob, whose section runs a grand total of nine pages. Jaeggy is uninterested in the particular kind of detail that most literary biographies trade in: meals eaten, lectures attended and given, friendships made and dispensed with, reviews received and obsessed over. This isn’t biography-as-accumulation, emerging from years of research in the archives. Here, instead, is a typical passage from the Keats section:
He saw Brown, Dilke, Bailey, Hazlitt. Things were lukewarm with Shelley. Haydon showed him the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Keats didn’t have the money to travel the world but made a long walking tour of Scotland. He wore a sack on his back filled with old clothes and new socks, pens, paper, ink, Cary’s translation of the Divine Comedy, and a draft of Isabella.
In a typical work of biography—say, Walter Jackson Bates’s superb 1979 John Keats—such happenings would receive dozens of pages. Consulting the index for Percy Shelley in Bates’s book on Keats, I read, among other entries: “advises K to defer publishing,” “assonance in,” and “on vegetable diet.” For Jaeggy, it’s “Things were lukewarm with Shelley,” and then we’ve moved on. Keats’s visit with Haydon to the British Museum inspired “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” and proved a fructifying influence for “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Jaeggy follows up with neither poem.
Rather than biography-as-accumulation, this is biography-as-condensation, with details compressed and burnished until they burn with a hard gemlike flame. Jaeggy reads the lives of De Quincey, Keats, and Schwob the way we read poems—imaginatively and associatively—and so she writes their lives the way poets write poems.
The carefully selected, limpidly presented particulars of These Possible Lives hum with significance. After De Quincey’s sister Elizabeth dies, for instance, “The desolate dandy stared at her transparent eyelids. He noted the Bible and other small objects in the dim room, and then heard a cracking sound, hollow and desolate—everything had become so remote. A requiem shone between the girl’s stiffening hands, the light was mocking and complicit. The boy set about writing.” Jaeggy’s style is stringent and exacting, the descriptions precise and unsentimental. Later, as Schwob lies dying in 1905, “His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.” That last sentence—the final sentence in the entire book—is perfect: the unexpectedness of the verb “smoked,” the absolute control of rhythm that clinches this moment of finality.
Jaeggy sees biographical detail—De Quincey’s first experiences with opium, Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne, Schwob’s childhood illness—not as sturdy building blocks that the biographer lays end-to-end until a life has been constructed. Instead, she sees biographical details as stars and the life she limns as a kind of constellation, patterns and associations she traces (i.e., invents) in order to find beauty and meaning.
The best way to review a book this stylish is mainly just to quote from it, and so I’ll leave Jaeggy with this passage. It comes midway through the De Quincey section. In the dizzying preceding paragraph, De Quincey has mourned the death of Wordsworth’s daughter, Kate, and has increased his already high consumption of laudanum. Late one night, he began to feel “a singular sensation shooting from his knee down his calf. It lasted for five hours and when it was over, despair abdicated. He was overcome with laughter. The memory of Kate disappeared and her little red morocco shoes were deposited alongside other secular relics.” Then, we get this passage, remarkable both for its obliquity (What does this list of eccentric personages and their eccentric actions have to do with De Quincey?) and for its suggestiveness (their obsessions with dreams and violence and gloominess and the Lake District in fact have everything to do with De Quincey):
Henry Fuseli ate a diet of raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams; Lamb spoke of “Lilliputian rabbits” when eating frog fricassee; and his sister Mary, wielding a knife, chased a little girl who was helping her in the kitchen and then stabbed her own mother through the heart; Hazlitt was perceptive about musculature and boxers; Wordsworth used a buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke. Coleridge, his head shrouded in a fog, read poetry badly and moaned gloomily. The dreams of Jean Paul, the crow that loved the storm, reverberated across the Lake District. This was TDQ’s Western Passage.