Most of the 21 stories in this wide-ranging collection are only a few pages long, and they're jewels of intellect and compassion.
As if taking stock of life through the lens of European history, Swiss writer Jaeggy (S.S. Proleterka, 2003, etc.) finds poetry in the thoughts of characters who steal or desecrate, fall into depression, kill without knowing why, each fate revealing a hint about the soul, something from the core of life. In the gloomy title story, a man describes his love-hate relationship with his entrancing older sister. At age 8 he tells his grandmother all he wants to do when he grows up is die and, later, recalls how his mother’s coffin looked after someone placed flowers on it: “Little sweets, little strawberries, a flowery meadow on our mother’s skull.” There’s a story about a visit to a hospital burn unit (“The Aseptic Room”), an artwork that mirrors life (“Portrait of an Unknown Woman”), and a “puritanically serene” family with a Nazi past (“The Aviary”). Two stories focus on famous writers, Joseph Brodsky (“Negde”) and Ingeborg Bachmann (“The Salt Water House”). Jaeggy’s prose is silken, especially when violence occurs. In “The Heir,” an old woman collapses in a fire that may have been set by her servant, who notes in cold, heartbreaking detail how “her hands, like the claws of a crustacean, clutched a little mound of dust.” The wealthy, death-obsessed family in “The Last of the Line” lives out a fable of decadence in decay, where lakes dream and haunting portraits portend murder. And it’s a testament to Jaeggy’s skill that her gothic fiction can stand alongside a story such as “Names,” about a visit to Auschwitz, where, “the flowers before the Wall of Death are limp. During the night they freeze.”
In prismatic translation from the Italian, these tiny tales sparkle with wit and worldly wisdom.