Spring 2018–Winter 2019

Sentences / Surprised His Shoes

Finding the faults in Fleur Jaeggy

Brian Dillon

“Sentences” is a new column by Brian Dillon each installment of which examines the mechanics and style of a single sentence chosen by the author.

Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust.

—Fleur Jaeggy

For a long time, I was allergic to sentences without main verbs. Sentence fragments, as they say. My distaste wasn’t—this would be madness—for minor sentences, mere asides or exclamations. Oh no! Not at all! I mean instead those sentences, well beyond a blurted word or phrase, that carry on verbless but might equally have been rewritten to include a main verb, or been subsumed into a fuller, more conventional sentence either side. Years ago, I used to grade undergraduate essays in English literature, a discipline you might hope would be less rigid; but time and again in the margins I’d find myself dutifully huffing at my students: “This is not a sentence.” And even, happy hypocrite: “Not a sentence!” In time, I cured myself of this pointless antipathy. After all, some of my favorite writers were markedly fond of the unverbed sentence. Elizabeth Hardwick, for example: “In the hotel lobby, tired bandsmen, dark glasses, ashen sleeplessness, oppressive overcoats, their wives, blond and tired.”

Here is an instance from the first of three short essays in the Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s very short book These Possible Lives. “Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust.” Jaeggy is describing the domestic and writing habits, late in life, of the Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey, whose work she has also translated into Italian. In a scant sixteen pages, the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) travels from the nursery to his deathbed, where he makes “a gracious corpse.” De Quincey’s life doesn’t exactly unfold in this brief span, but instead is telegraphed in a series of obscurely privileged instants, a frieze of images detailing physiognomy, education, love, illness, imagination, death. In the second essay, Jaeggy treats John Keats in the same fashion, and in the third Marcel Schwob, the decadent writer who (like Baudelaire) had translated De Quincey into French, and whose Imaginary Lives (1896) is one of the models for Jaeggy’s weirdly curtailed and oblique biographical essays. In all three pieces, Jaeggy gives us a vivid report of her subject’s deathbed scene: De Quincey fading away genially among his papers, Keats expiring in Italy, Schwob’s face turning to burnished gold while “the room smoked of grief.”

There is something distinct from economy and compression in these brief lives: a tone hard to capture without excessive quotation. Jaeggy’s sentences pile up, one dark thing after another, as if connecting tissue has been excised:

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