The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats & Ex-Countries
(The University of Chicago Press, 2015)
Exile holds a special promise for the alienated intellectual and artist. Leaving your homeland and settling elsewhere is a transformative act, rebellious and healing all at once. Living as an expatriate is a thumb in the eye of your native country as well as a big self-hug, reassuring you that this new place will understand you and nurture your work. So many literary exiles have felt estranged at home and found that new homes, perhaps in their strangeness, produced better work.
The benefits of exile can also be found in travel, seeking places that fill you, form you, and save you, when your home is killing your spirit, your mind, and your art. Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail to restore herself after her mother’s death, and Jessa Crispin, “tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level,” journeyed through Europe and the literature of other expats.
Crispin chronicles her experience of on-the-go exile in the connected information age in The Dead Ladies Project. It’s a terrible title for a work that combines memoir, travelogue, literary criticism, cultural analysis, emotional healing, and a reading list. Her life in Chicago fell apart from the inside out and she moved to Germany (“Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand”, she imagines the Germans saying), using Berlin as her base to travel throughout Europe.
She followed the paths of others, visiting the places they stayed, reading their work, exploring their cities, their ideas, and their lives. “Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call, almost without knowing why.”
Crispin is the founder of the vibrant literary site, Bookslut, which made its mark with the unexpected response. She makes unusual choices here as well. Her chapters focus on William James in Berlin before he found success; Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s put-upon companion in wandering, in Trieste; Rebecca West researching Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in Sarajevo; Margaret Anderson, the forgotten first publisher of Ulysses, fleeing the States, penniless, after obscenity prosecution, for the south of France; British Maud Gonne embodying Ireland in Galway; Igor Stravinsky starting over in Lausanne; W. Somerset Maugham as an ineffectual spy in St. Petersburg; Jean Rhys relying too much on men in London; and Claude Cahun, a gender-free avant-garde artist and writer, resisting the Nazis on Jersey Island.
Crispin deploys a simple formula for the tale of each stop on her itinerary: investigate the place, explore the biography, engage with the art, and find illumination for an aspect of her own personal life that is playing out in parallel. She searches for a remedy to her heartbreak, but she doesn’t always get where she needs to go. Sometimes she aligns her own experience too easily with her subjects.
She is at her best in her most complex chapters on West, Maugham and Rhys. Following in West’s footsteps in Sarajevo only twenty years after the war in the former Yugoslavia, Crispin wrestles expertly with the issues of outsiders trying to explain alien places and resists West to the degree that “sometimes I want to drown her in the bathtub.” She doesn’t want to be “that person,” the “civilized touring through the uncivilized,” or “the expert who reduces the chaos to something understandable.” She’s comfortable, unlike West, not finding an answer for her own life amid the suffering of Sarajevo.
For Crispin, Maugham is the “bard of the toxic relationship,” and the writing is thrilling where she chronicles his characters who have suffered at the hands of their closest loved ones. She also takes Maugham’s side against his monstrous wife and when events progress in her favor in her own love life, the reader cheers.
But it is the Jean Rhys chapter that is Crispin’s full-bodied wake-up call. She’s back on familiar ground where she understands the language. Her legitimate and thoughtful takedown of Rhys’s work and her modus operandi with men proves Crispin both a skilled critic and a woman righting her own emotional ship.
Throughout her journey, Crispin exposes herself as experienced and curious, mindful and frivolous, cynical and romantic, in pain and still bravely connected. If reading can offer a similar metamorphosis as exile and travel, then Crispin makes a fine companion for any reader in search of repair.