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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

SS Proleterka

Fleur Jaeggy

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To purchase S. S. Proleterka

Title: S. S. Proleterka
Author: Fleur Jaeggy
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 122 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: S.S. Proleterka - US
Proleterka - UK
S.S. Proleterka - Canada
Proleterka - France
Proleterka - Deutschland
Proleterka - Italia
Proleterka - España
  • Italian title: Proleterka
  • US title: S.S. Proleterka
  • UK title: Proleterka
  • Translated by Alastair McEwen
  • Awarded the Premio Viareggio, 2002

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Our Assessment:

B- : stark, but too unfocussed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 23/11/2003 Susan Salter Reynolds
Libération . 23/10/2003 Judith Rueff
The NY Rev. of Books . 12/2/2004 Tim Parks
The Spectator . 30/3/2019 Emily Rhodes
Die Welt . 22/2/2003 Andreas Burkhardt
World Literature Today . Summer/2002 Martha King

  From the Reviews:
  • " Jaeggy (...) creates a mind, a vision, that is nothing if not unwell. Deprived of intimacy, or indeed of all that we normally would consider as making up a life -- partner, work, friends -- her narrator is disturbingly intimate with the inanimate world: she experiences rooms, objects, landscapes, as alive, malignant, and predatory. (...) As for any writer with a highly individual, determinedly controlled style, Jaeggy's main enemy is mannerism, the complacent repeating of oneself. And in the struggle against mannerism her main ally is plot." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Death -- resonant in this image of closing eyelids -- is ever present in the book, and in Jaeggy’s work more generally. It’s not treated with fear or grief, but with an unnerving combination of longing, respect and offbeat humour." - Emily Rhodes, The Spectator

  • "Fleur Jaeggy verhandelt eine Familiengeschichte. (...) Auflösung, Verfall, Tod, Fremdheit, Isolation -- das sind die vorherrschenden Themen in Proleterka. Nichts ist sicher und gesichert. (...) Doch so wie der Roman nach außen hin zu wenig Bilder hat, so hat er im Ganzen zu wenig Körper." - Andreas Burkhardt, Die Welt

  • "Jaeggy's switching persons back and forth between "I" and "Johannes's daughter" has a telescopic effect, moving the reader's gaze from a short-range, subjective view to a more impersonal long view. Her one-, two-, and three-word telegraphic sentences alternately appear childish or sophisticated and work best when they trigger an unexpected insight." - Martha King, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In SS Proleterka the unnamed narrator reminisces about the man she knew as her father. She looks back first to his death, and then much farther, to a trip she took with him, a two-week cruise aboard the SS Proleterka at Easter, when she was fifteen.
       The story is told in both the first and the third person, a shifting in and out of focus of her past self: sometimes she can inhabit it (recounting as "I), while at other times she can only refer to her younger self as an entirely separate, foreign being. Her identity is also entirely tied up in her father's: she is only Johannes's daughter, without a name of her own.
       Many of the characters remain unnamed, though the most important ones don't, including the father, Johannes, a grandmother, Orsola, and a lover aboard the boat, Nikola. The narrator's parents are divorced, and, tellingly, the mother figure, though often mentioned, remains nameless.
       Family life isn't particularly happy. Typically, "on the rare occasions when we have had to spend a little time, even a short spell, among relatives, the basic topic, the sole topic in which all of us showed any interest, was suicide." The family fortune has been lost and the narrator rarely sees her father. Her "most intense relationship" is with Orsola -- though the old lady only feels "quasi-glacial affection" for her. The narrator believes: "some children have the gift of detachment"; she certainly seems to be one of them.
       The trip with Johannes is a defining event for the narrator. Her account of it mixes in other biographical detail, as she seems unable to focus on it. In memory and in fact it isn't what she wants it to be, and she is nearly powerless to shape it herself. "It is my last chance to know something about my father", she realises, but at the first dinner already she describes him: "Johannes distant, absent, elsewhere." It is a rare time of close, even forced proximity, and yet he remains entirely elusive.
       The narrator turns to the only alternative she can think of: allowing some of the crew to take advantage of her, losing herself in sexual adventures. She is desperate:

The Proleterka is the locus of experience. By the time the voyage is over, she must know everything. At the end of the voyage, Johannes's daughter will be able to say: never again, not ever. No experience ever again.
       Which seems like an awfully big burden for a teenager to take upon herself.
       SS Proleterka is a novella of trying to come to terms with a difficult past (the effects of which linger to this day): of a girl growing up in a cold, unloving environment, of her childhood identity only as prominent Guild-member Johannes's daughter, an identity that loses meaning as Johannes loses his place in society. The island that is the Proleterka isn't the brief escape or respite she longs for (all the other passengers are from the Guild too ...), and her father is incapable of embracing her in the way she wants and needs to be. Aboard the ship, the only embraces she can seek out are those offered by the lusty crewmen, who use her and fling her aside.
       As if the book weren't bleak enough, it comes with a final twist that calls into question Johannes's -- and thus also Johannes's daughter's -- identity entirely,
       Written in short sentences, with shifting voices and tenses and overlapping locales and times, and with some stilted locutions ("There was a spring breeze, if she recalled aright"), Fleur Jaeggy presents the story uneasily. There's little flow to the narrative -- and yet she also isn't able to merely pelt the reader with these images and events (which might have also been effective). The resulting narrative is stark but not compelling, neither brilliant surface-shimmer, nor well-considered depth.
       Of some interest, but not a success.

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S. S. Proleterka: Reviews: Other books by Fleur Jaeggy under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Italian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Swiss-born author Fleur Jaeggy lives in Milan. She writes in Italian, and is married to publisher Roberto Calasso.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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