S. S. Proleterka
(New Directions)Throughout, she does not refer to him as "Father," certainly not as "Dad" or "Pops," but simply as "Johannes my father." They've set out on a Yugoslav cruise ship to go around the Mediterranean. The passengers are all his friends from "The Guild" which has been in existence since 1336. When she was very young --- she is fifteen at the time of the cruise --- his journal spoke of her in
Brief phrases, without comment. Like answers to a questionnaire. There are no impressions, feelings. Life is simplified, almost as if it were not there.He notes in the journal of her childhood that "his daughter has never cried."The dozen or so other Guild members aboard the S. S. Proleterka are not given to smiling or talking, certainly not boozing it up and dancing the tango in the moonlight. The voyage is more like a wake than your fun-cruise to the Golden Isles."Aboard the Proleterka, dead moments, stasis," she writes. Like the passengers, the vessel is worn, tired, stolid, dull. Our narrator reports that the occasional visits ashore are mostly to visit ruins. The passengers are "stunned" by their activities and when they return to their cabins, they are "worn out."
I guess life-in-
death (or death-in- life) might be the theme, if this milk-run can be said to have any theme at all. It is the tale of a dead family who lost their fortune, saddled with a daughter who, it turns out, may have been fathered by someone other than "Johannes my father." She never cried and, apparently, never learned to smile, either.
The family is lousy with suicides --- in fact, outside of "aspiring suicides," brooding seems to be the family's main preoccupation. Aboard ship, hiding from Johannes in his cabin, she observes that
I can do everything I wish. I can even take his life. Or even take my life. Ours is a family of suicides.
The family members apparently don't cotton to each other, but they are always up for a quick funeral, especially after a successful suicide attempt:
We seldom missed a family funeral. Generally they took place in touristy spots. In pleasant spots. Where there is a lake. At the funeral dinner it was not infrequent for someone to tell of an unsuccessful suicide attempt on her own part. Many of them lived long lives.
This cheery bunch includes an uncle in a wheelchair who has, she tells us, "sleeping sickness," an older half-brother (who sickened and died), an older sister (who sickened and died) and the steely father whose funeral is the other great event in the book, outside the cruise. The name of the vessel, she reports, can be translated as "The "Proletarian Lass." We suspect, and suspect strongly, given this novel's lumpy symbols scattered around here and there, that this piece of information is meant to tell us something very important about her, and the other passengers, and --- perhaps, dare we suggest --- about Life itself.
There are a few passages where the author manages to scare up some excitement, sort of. The young lady decides she wants to have a shipboard romance so she slips away in the afternoons to various bunks belonging to the various officers. She begins with the First Mate, moves on to the Second, finally has a final quick fling with the Third. Each of them seems to get a kick out of pushing her around a bit after they have had their way with her and our young lady seems to get a kick out of it, too. In fact, she comes off not unlike a tramp there on our slow-moving tramp cruiser.
"He bears down on her with violence," she says of the First Mate, speaking of herself in the third person. "Every move with violence," she says. When it is time for her to depart, his voice "comes to me like a whiplash." With the Third Mate, she "feels pleasure in the disgust."
"I want to go," she says now. The other throws her clothes at her. "Be my guest." He laughs, pointing at the door.
That's love in a bunk, for sure.
§ § §
This novel is replete with short simple sentences, and short --- some might even say --- simple-minded truths. How chilly our lives, Fleur Jaeggy tells us --- no contact between lovers, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and even lusty crew-members on Mediterranean fun voyages. All feelings, human contact, appearance, and pleasures are strictly from chillsville even though we may be on the warm waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
There's an Italian mother around here somewhere, referred to not by name but as "Johannes's wife, my mother, who used to play the piano." This is how she and Johannes came together for their short but icy marriage: he heard her playing when he was passing by and was somehow transfixed.
There is a fairly long disquisition on buying a Steinway in New York City, and having it shipped off to their chalet in Europe. But even pianos and piano music are not where it's at: "The sound of the piano represents all that I have not had," she says. Ah, so.
When Johannes dies, possibly of terminal boredom, she and all the relatives, naturally, are in attendance. Daughter manages to grab a couple of minutes alone with his body so she can slip a nail into the pocket of his funeral suit. A nail. Like you would drive in a wall. Or your hand. Go figure.
§ § §
This one has all the New York literary magpies atwitter. The New York Review of Books, the American Book Review, and Newsday have gone bonkers over S. S. Proleterka. A recent notice in the NYRB announced that, under the auspices of New York University, "Susan Sontag will introduce the author and read from the English translation" of S. S. Proleterka. God knows how she'll be able to carry it off without falling into the sleeping sickness just like Johannes my father's brother.
This one is La Nausée without art, "Death in Venice" without lust, "Last Year at Marienbad" without the nice still-shots. It is a short and very self-indulgent mishmash that is sure to appeal to critics who wish they had been around when the Existentialists first hit town, and --- having missed that --- are content to hop aboard this journey into nowheresville.--- Lolita Lark