It was my circumstances that were killing me, I was sure of it.
Jessa Crispin, editor of the now-defunct online literary magazine Bookslut, published a memoir, The Dead Ladies Project in 2015, but I was in no hurry to read it. I couldn’t get into Bookslut despite feeling like it was something I should like. It came across a tad esoteric for my interests.
I say this to assure that her memoir is not what you might expect if you’re familiar with that work. It’s super-smart — that might have been expected– and deeply interested in the locations and lives of literary figures, but it’s lighter, funny, self-deprecating, and refreshingly honest.
It opens with Crispin in her Chicago kitchen, where a friend has called the police for a wellness check, thinking she’s suicidal. She’s not, really, but neither are things okay.
No matter how securely I built my sound little structure…the thought I want to go home would start termiting through the whole thing. How is this not my home? Is this really my life or did someone else choose it for me? Is any of this really me at all? The questions would eat at my existence until the structure collapsed into despair again and again. Every two years I would be back to this exact same spot, rebuilding my sad little sand castle in exactly the same way, surprised every time when the wave took it out. But I didn’t know what else to do.
On this basis, that she needs a sea change to shake her out of a bad pattern, she moves to Europe. Her work was portable, so she planned to start in Berlin and travel and live cheaply in locations throughout Europe, talking to the dead about how to live. Dead writers, that is. They’re not all ladies as the title would indicate. It’s complicated. But it’s also pretty perfect.
I wonder what it is in me that chases discomfort. When my home life is stable, that is when I go to pieces. Perhaps the movement is necessary to keep myself from noticing that I’m always fraying, that bits of me are shredding off in the wind.
Crispin does something remarkable, in weaving travel stories with personal ones, musing on romantic missteps and dramas alongside the roles of the places she visits and the writers she’s pondering. She does it so well that I can’t even tell how she did it, because there are so many opportunities for this kind of undertaking to go very wrong. Stories of people going abroad to find themselves and telling you about it can get insufferable.
But she avoids that and makes this a sympathetic, interesting look at her life as she studies some favorite writers and affiliated women in the places they lived and loved (Trieste for Nora Barnacle, whose life Crispin says is “forever the unheard side of a telephone call,” Sarajevo for Rebecca West, Galway for Maud Gonne, St. Petersburg for W. Somerset Maugham, and Jersey Island for Claude Cahun, among others). Place can have so much meaning and so strongly influence the work people create in it, and Crispin considers this alongside what the present looks like there, and what traces remain of the writer.
How do you keep working when all seems lost? When you are forced to break with the past and start anew?
She’s honest about the people profiled, giving them the warts-and-all treatment rather than idol worship. It makes this feel grounded. And they all have something applicable to her own issues, which she subtly makes relatable to ones many readers might recognize, at least partially. She begins with William James in Berlin, identifying that he also felt a failure during his time in the city, like she did.
It’s no wonder then that people get a little religious about this agnostic philosopher, this man who can restore your faith in the world without necessarily bringing god into it.
I sought out William James because I needed him. He and I were now separated by about a century of death, but we found ourselves occupying the same biographical eddy: bottoming out in Berlin.
Maybe it avoided being insufferable and unrealistic because of her candidness. Getting your dream, or making your own freedom, isn’t without strings attached: “The freeing sensation that comes with burning your old life down to the foundations fades surprisingly quickly. At the first sign of rain, you will miss that old roof, inadequate as it might have been.” We can envy her adventures, but the troubles that brought her there are never far from sight, nor do her literary heroes give up all their hard-earned lessons easily. The way she analyzes their work in the context of their life and what each location meant to them was remarkable, fascinating even if you’re unfamiliar with their work or background.
And her telling of history is fabulously memorable. Here she sums up Russia’s entry into modernity: “Peter the Great wanted to introduce Russia to Europe, but he found Russia so embarrassing, like a social climber mortified by her Appalachian kin. The Russians were superstitious and xenophobic, and god, the weird shit they wear.” Books that tell history so well alongside a satisfying personal journey are hard to beat.
It had its stumbles — Crispin bares a lot about herself, her relationships and troubles — but occasionally leaves out significant-seeming details. She has a relationship with a married man who occasionally visits her during her travels and who occupies space in her mind even when she wants to be thinking about other things. This was perhaps the part of the book that I appreciated most for its honesty and insights, but disliked in its form and style. There was a lot that was telling and insightful, but parts that veered on melodrama (then again, it feels that way in real life, doesn’t it?). Plus overuse of the word “lover,” which makes me cringe.
Have I always done this, treated men like doors rather than partners? Seeing them for what kind of world they can take me out into, rather than their own particular qualities?
But it blends into her meditations on traveling alone, and melancholy and loneliness, and other issues that flit through her mind and can be related to bigger ones of love, family, a place where we feel at home, or conversely the lack of one or all of these things, which do we need most and how we fill the gaps when they’re lacking.
Maybe those abandonment issues are really just “being a human being,” and now we can’t help labeling all of our emotions as pathology.
I’ve never read another book quite like this. It’s for a type — wanderers inclined to self-reflection, those who search others’ biographies for clues to their own lives, people who always feel a bit lost or out of place in the world. It’s melancholy but often hilarious, deeply personal but surprisingly universal, meditative and philosophical but sharply realistic.
I was not gifted with a city on this journey, but I was gifted with something equally generous. The ability to move through the world.
The Dead Ladies Project:
Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries
by Jessa Crispin
published 2015 by University of Chicago Press