Three sensuous minibiographies in light and shade.
This thin, almost pamphletlike book consists of three mesmerizing profiles of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. Jaeggy (S.S. Proleterka, 2003, etc.) is a Swiss novelist who writes in Italian. Reading each brief essay is like taking a small wafer into your mouth and letting it dissolve so you can savor the flavor of the words, the images, and the moody atmosphere. These are hybrids: biography/literary criticism/prose poem. Eschewing the conventional, Jaeggy fashions poetic collages with facts, quotes, and re-created incidents that quietly reveal the inner souls of each author. She is particularly interested in matters of creativity and inspiration, madness and death. De Quincey, who became a “visionary” when he was 6, relied on opium and laudanum to stimulate his creativity, becoming “distant from the terrors of the living.” An “enigmatic sphinx,” he died at 74 “but seemed a boy of fourteen.” Schwob, who spoke three languages when he was 3, later took to using morphine. After a failed trip to Samoa to meet Robert Louis Stevenson, he returned home and locked himself in a house with his books. After he died, the “room smoked of grief.” The Keats piece is the longest and best. It begins: “In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy.” Extremely bright, he “became the scribe and secretary to his mind” and forged friendships with Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, Shelley (“lukewarm”), Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Before he died at the age of 25, Keats “spoke for hours in a lucid delirium [and]...never lost his faculties.” After his death, “they stripped the walls and floor and burned all of the furniture.” One of the only drawbacks of this book is its shortness. It would have been ideal if the publisher could have added additional essays.
Enjoy these short, meditative pieces slowly; Jaeggy is addictive.