February 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Scott Russell Morris
I volunteered to write this book review of Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, over a year ago. It was a foolish thing to do given my schedule, but I had just read and reviewed Minna Zallman Proctor’s essay collection Landslide, and I was smitten. Also, like most graduate students, I was overly optimistic about my time constraints, especially considering that in the year following I finished writing my dissertation, my wife took on a full-time position and started graduate school, I defended my dissertation, my wife gave birth to our second child, and I graduated, all of which necessitated some celebratory traveling. Plus, surprise, I accepted a faculty position in South Korea, which meant immediately after said celebrations, we packed up the house, sold most everything we owned, and moved two small kids and eight suitcases (plus carry-ons) from Lubbock, Texas, to Incheon, Korea.
All of this I generally expected (sans a job overseas), but I didn’t foresee that immediately after submitting my dissertation I would be completely incapable of writing. I kept feeling like I should be writing, but used everything else as an excuse not to. Though writing had once been an unquenchable enthusiasm, I now felt empty. I never wanted to see my dissertation again, nor could I bring myself to review other manuscripts-in-progress, even after several nice notes from editors. And though set-backs had never slowed me before, a slew of rejection letters left me deflated, a feeling oddly compounded when I finally got around to reading These Possible Lives, this little book about writers. And the book is little, easily readable in a one afternoon, even when your thoughts are elsewhere, which mine were the day after I received the job offer, the day before we sold our car, and the day I stubbornly refused to grade papers while sipping a chocolate milkshake at a mall in Korea.
Just three essays long, only sixty pages, These Possible Lives is more of a chapbook. The essays are each biographies of famous writers—Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob—and its shortness, its compactness, delivers the pleasure of reading an entire book in one sitting, but its fluid and expressive prose also accentuates the rush through life from naïveté to death. Each essay ends with the subject’s demise. Both lyric and narrative, Jaeggy’s essays don’t dwell overly much on the great works of these men, but rather, on the mundane and often ethereal elements of their lives, which makes them seem both ordinary and yet, somehow, beyond our reach, touched by gods and spirits. Jaeggy frequently juxtaposes the terrestrial and heavenly, suggesting the writers’ mortal and immortal qualities: “…Keats was malnourished, of weak health, and had no family. But aren’t all poets the heralds of heaven?” These are the essays of men between worlds, conduits of some divine nature, which gives them life even in death. Of De Quincey we learn “that he been a ‘good sick man,’ and a gracious corpse; he didn’t want to trouble anyone.” Death becomes the others, too: “Death animated him in the last moment,” we read of Keats; and of Schwob, “His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold.” But the essays don’t move much beyond these expressions of life in death, seeming to suggest that after death, there is nothing. Keats’s essay ends, “They stripped the walls and floor and burned all the furniture.”
I like melancholy conclusions as much as the next essayist, but somehow these morbid endings struck too hard this time. Each of the essays felt cut short, not on Jaeggy’s part, simply because they end with death, so there was nowhere else for them to go. I could see the irony, of course, because these famous men’s lives and works live on, but still each time I finished reading an essay, I felt as though there was no point in writing—we would die, even if, like De Quincey, “a pack of Gods clutched,” or we otherwise showed signs of genius, as all these men do in Jaeggy’s portraits. And though I had often before felt that writer’s block was an imaginary thing, I didn’t believe that any more.
Exhaustion is real. I have since learned that post-partum depression is almost as common in fathers as it is in mothers, and I wonder if I felt some of that as the birth of my daughter and the conclusion of my graduate work coincided. I’ve told others about my daughter and the dissertation and the move, too, trying to explain why my current project is trying to write anything at all, even just a book review. And each time, as it does now, this list sounds like excuses, especially when the list of things preventing me from writing are all good things. Things I am privileged to have accomplished. Still, it wasn’t until I accepted the items on my Why-I-can’t-write List, not as excuses or even reasons, just as things that are, that I got the nerve to sit down and write this book review. And, as I think many people know, writing is a cure for writer’s block.
It feels self-serving to begin, middle, and end this book review with all the reasons I haven’t written it sooner, but three days ago as the baby was taking a nap, her brother at school, and my grades finally submitted, I was washing the dishes when I realized that accounting for myself was the only way forward. And so, I have written this, the first thing in over a year. I don’t know what will come next, if this will suddenly compel me back to my unfinished manuscripts, but I do know that reading Jaeggy’s essays has taught me one very important lesson: If, like Schwob, we are to “[turn] into a writer,” we cannot go around, over, or under whatever grief or mortality that might grip us, we can only move through it.
Scott Russell Morris is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Utah Asia Campus. He has a PhD from Texas Tech University and an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, Assay, and elsewhere.