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These Possible Lives

Fleur Jaeggy, Minna Proctor (Translated by)


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Brief in the way a razor’s slice is brief, remarkable essays by a peerless stylist

New Directions is proud to present Fleur Jaeggy’s strange and mesmerizing essays about the writers Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. A renowned stylist of hyper-brevity in fiction, Fleur Jaeggy proves herself an even more concise master of the essay form, albeit in a most peculiar and lapidary poetic vein. Of De Quincey’s early nineteenth-century world we hear of the habits of writers: Charles Lamb “spoke of ‘Lilliputian rabbits’ when eating frog fricassse”; Henry Fuseli “ate a diet of raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams”; “Hazlitt was perceptive about musculature and boxers”; and “Wordsworth used a buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke.” In a book of “blue devils” and night visions, the Keats essay opens: “In 1803, the guillotine was a common child’s toy.” And poor Schwob’s end comes as he feels “like a ‘dog cut open alive’”: “His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could shut his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.” Fleur Jaeggy’s essays—or are they prose poems?—smoke of necessity: the pages are on fire.

Praise For These Possible Lives

Jaeggy’s book is poetical-biographical, fictional-critical, essayistic-historical—a book unlimited.
— Commonweal Magazine

Jaeggy is a master of the short form; her essays are charged with a nearly combustible vitality, her stories without fail are compact and devastating. Long after the pleasure of reading is over, their little hooks tug at — what is it, the heart or the mind? These Possible Lives presents brief portraits of three real-life metaphysicians: English opium-eater Thomas De Quincey, Romantic poet John Keats and French symbolist Marcel Schwob. The biographies are constructed from unconnected details culled from accounts by her subjects and contemporaries, rather than from narrative and analysis. The results vibrant and unforced, shimmering with the complexity of reality.

— Financial Times

Enjoy these short, meditative pieces slowly; Jaeggy is addictive.
— Kirkus Reviews

Three spare and telegraphic essays about Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, in which each account is self-contained and exquisitely precise, capture the arc of a whole life with filigreed economy.
— Los Angeles Review of Books

Terse beauties falling on the reader like a chaste gray rain.
— Robert Byers - The New Republic

In These Possible Lives (2017, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor) Jaeggy offers three very short biographical sketches of Keats, De Quincey, and the fin-de-siecle symbolist orientalist Jewish Parisian Schwob. Their hallucinatory intensity and heightened language recall the prose poems of Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, with their invocations of wine and hashish, their pose of le poete maudit.

— Margaret Drabble - The New Statesman

Brilliant, associative and short, Jaeggy’s essays have the beauty and economy of poems but the souls of portraits, discovering 'human characteristics amidst the chaos' — which fairly describes her project overall.
— Martin Riker - The New York Times Book Review

Small-scale, intense, and impeccably focused.
— The New Yorker

She has the enviable first glance for people and things, she harbors a mixture of distracted levity and authoritative wisdom.
— Ingeborg Bachmann

Delicious—such monstrous control and insight that at moments while reading you experience a distinct feeling of levitation.
— Carole Maso

New Directions, 9780811226875, 64pp.

Publication Date: July 25, 2017

About the Author

Fleur Jaeggy— “a wonderful, brilliant, savage writer” (Susan Sontag) —was born in 1940 in Zurich and lives in Milan. Her work has been acclaimed as  “small-scale, intense, and impeccably focused ”(The New Yorker) and “addictive” (Kirkus).

The author of Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father, and the editor of The Literary Review, Minna Proctor won the PEN/Renato Poggioli Award for her translation of Federigo Tozzi’s Love in Vain.