September 24, 2021KR Reviews

On The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy

Translated by Gini Alhadeff. New York, NY. New Directions, 2021. 96 pages. $13.95.

In Gilles Deleuze’s essay “1874: Three Novellas, or ‘What Happened?’” he describes the novella as a form that “has little to do with a memory of the past or an act of reflection; quite to the contrary, it plays upon a fundamental forgetting. It evolves in the element of ‘what happened’ because it places us in a relation with something unknowable and imperceptible.”

Much is unknowable in Fleur Jaeggy’s 1980 novella The Water Statues, recently translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff and published by New Directions. Much is overgrown, drowned, sold, lost or forgotten.  The Water Statues dwells in a world of broken familial relationships and passersby. Individuals come into contact with one another through happenstance and then remain associated, held together over years like weak but persistent magnets. Everyone is longing simultaneously for solitude and for each other. Jaeggy pursues the dimly lit hallways of these interpersonal dramas with a clean and deadly devotion; domestic dynamics, grieving the loss of loved ones, and the furtive behaviors of time are but a few of the novella’s many obsessions.

My sensation of being in this book was akin to floating in deep, dark water and occasionally brushing up against other smooth forms; I often overheard fragments of a private conversation or turned to see a familiar face half submerged in liquid. I rarely breached the surface but remained buoyant, never wanting for air. Everything is at once pleasurable and haunting.

Jaeggy employs similarly amorphous forms to organize The Water Statues’ progression. Structurally, the narration is passed back and forth between an unnamed third-person voice and a loosely woven cast of nine characters, who come into oblique contact as though in a dream. All the characters are peripherally linked to the figure of Beeklam—the nearest thing this novella has to a protagonist—a young and wealthy collector of statues who, after the death of his mother, moves to Amsterdam where he resides in a villa’s flooded basement, so near to the ocean that waves lap through its cracked doors.

Part one of this two-part novella orbits the lonely Beeklam. He sits surrounded by his large collection of statues, knee deep in water, the statues “walking around aimlessly like wading birds.” Here as elsewhere, the veil between humans and statues—the dead and the living—is threadbare. After his mother’s passing, Beeklam gives one of his statues her name: Thelma. In this period of self-isolation, Beeklam longs to “live as someone who’d drowned.” Beeklam approached his closest friend, Victor, one evening outside a botanical garden and employed him as his servant. There is a void in Beeklam, one that he attempts to fill through connections with people and objects, all mediated by his wealth. He notably describes his friendship with Victor as a kind of mutual enslavement; a possessiveness that approaches violence. This correlation between wealth and kinship recalls the fervent friendships in Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, wherein social status ignites comparative furies among the teenage characters.

Born in Zürich in 1940, Fleur Jaeggy spent her childhood and adolescence in the lush and jagged landscape of Switzerland, where she attended boarding school. In her twenties, she moved to Rome and befriended the German writer Ingeborg Bachmann, to whom this slim novel is significantly dedicated. Published in 1980, The Water Statues appeared seven years after Bachmann’s death, in a fire she sparked after falling asleep smoking a cigarette. The overwhelming presence of water in this book seems to surge in elemental contrast to the circumstances of Bachmann’s death. On one of his walks, Beeklam remembers a line he once read: “Water is a burnt body.” As if Jaeggy is attempting to douse Bachmann’s fire with the well of her grief.

In the lengthening evenings of late spring, Beeklam and Victor ascend the stairs of their waterlogged basement quarters to walk the streets of Amsterdam, glimpsing through windows the profiles of neighbors in their domestic spheres. They silently stare toward the ocean at a crimson sailed ship. There is a gratifying warmth and certainty when one lonely soul finds another in Jaeggy’s world. Two strangers pass on the street and overhear each other’s musings; they may pause and chat, never to see each other again. Men shaking hands for the first time are “. . . two finicky little plants, intimately delighted to have survived a pruning.” The book deals in the first and last exchanges between people—the unknowing final encounters between friends and loved ones. Estranged kin are reunited in what Jaeggy describes as a “farewell rather than a greeting.”

Jaeggy’s environments are slowed down and lavish, making one want to run a finger over her sentences. A winter day is “livid.” A crow’s eyes are “two miniscule swatches of velvet.” The setting sun draws “a leaden oval mirror over the trees.” Jaeggy maintains an extravagant interest in the surfaces and materials of things, thinning the line between what is animate and inanimate. The chipped eyelid of a friend may be the only indication that she is a statue. A mother’s chair sits empty and sheathed in a “tight-fitting slipcover.” Faces hover above teacups, a card game is suspended as though in a freeze frame.

In part two, we are introduced to another pair of loose companions, Katrin and Kaspar, who spend their days on the grounds of a boarding house—in their reluctantly shared living quarters, on the veranda, beside a well, over plates of stewed fruit in a dimly lit dining hall. A crow pines after Katrin. Kaspar sits on a stone bench in a garden and meets an apologetic stranger named Lampe. Descriptive repetitions from part one skip like stones across the surface of the second half: in both, nightingales “trill their long-repressed ecstasies”; helping a friend twice gives rise to a “vague homicidal passion”; a few of Beeklam’s statues even reappear in sunlit gardens.

These echoes feed the surreal sense of time in the book. It is always late spring or late winter, a season in slipping transition. The past and future cast their shadows over the present. A child is dressed as a middle-aged man. Embroidery is carefully stitched by one and undone by another. Time feels at once too slow and too fast. “It’s as if all that is yet to happen is already in the past,” muses a character in one of the book’s many overgrown gardens. Time seems to take one step forward and three steps back. If clouds are covering the sun, the garden’s sundial displays no time at all.

These distortions in duration serve to deepen the characters’—and the reader’s—experience of drowning in grief. The grief of death—Beeklam’s mother dies on the first page—and of outliving friends and family. But perhaps more acutely the grief of time, of too much or too little. Or the grief of decay—a molded brocade chair, a chipping statue, entire years of inaccessible memories at life’s end. Things gather dust and are forgotten or there are simply no words for them. By the end of the book, Beeklam has grown prematurely old, with little to say to his remaining companions. There is a strong sense that things have already ended, death has already happened, and time has moved on.

So, what happens in The Water Statues? What comes to mind are these words in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina: “A single tear forms, just in the corner of one eye, but it doesn’t roll down my cheek; it merely crystallizes in the cold air, it grows and grows into a second giant globe that doesn’t want to orbit with the world—it breaks off from the planet and plunges into infinity.”

Author photo
Claire Crews is a writer and weaver from Northern Arizona. She is an MFA candidate in Literary Arts at Brown University with a concentration in fiction.