Friday, January 8, 2016

The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin

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I am not really sure how to classify The Dead Ladies Project. It is part travelogue, part biography, part memoir. It begins with the author Jessa Crispin standing in her Chicago kitchen trying to convince two policemen that she is not going to kill herself.  

She realizes it is not her physical life that needs to end but only what she was doing with it. She divests herself of her apartment, her furniture, her books, her men, and her social circle and heads off to Europe. Her aim: 

It was the dead I wanted to talk to. The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night: I needed to know how they did it. I'd always been attracted to the unloosed, the wandering souls who were willing to scrape their lives clean and start again elsewhere. I needed to know how they did it, how they survived it.

So begins her two year journey. But not all the Dead Ladies are Ladies. First, she visits the William James Center which turns out to be just a small room at the University of Potsdam near Berlin where James had come to escape the heavy hand of his father. She spends time reading his letters, journals, and essays in order to absorb his pragmatic philosophies.

In Trieste, she ponders what Nora Barnacle felt as she waited all that first night in the city for her soon-to-be husband James Joyce to return to where he had left her and their luggage outside the train station. 

She visits St. Petersburg where W. Somerset Maugham goes to escape his scolding lover Syrie. In Lausanne she marvels at how Igor Stravinsky and his music seemed to thrive even as he faced limitations during the war. 

And so she moves on to Maud Gonne's Galway, Rebecca West's Sarajevo, Margaret Anderson's South of France, Jean Rhys's London, and Claude Cahun's Jersey Island. 

It is a dizzying journey. 

But this is not a lilting, carefree trip from four-star hotel to four-star hotel. Ms. Crispin sublets not-so-nice apartments from sometimes not-so-nice landlords. She occasionally stays with or meets with friends. She drinks. A lot. And often. She cries in airports. She gets lost. She pines for the married lover she left behind. She struggles with unfamiliar languages and streets and people. 

She doesn't seem to be having a good time.

Her depression, or maybe it is just melancholy, is contagious. It set up a wanderlust in me that spiraled into thoughts of selling everything and moving about America spending a few days here or a few weeks there until money or time ran out. 

I enjoyed reading about the lives of these artists and writers. I enjoyed reading her impressions of the cities she stays in. I enjoyed her writing style and her intelligence. I enjoyed reading about her choice to at least try and create a different life for herself. If you can get past her youthful romantic yearnings and louche lifestyle, I think you would enjoy this book too.


  1. It's a great title, isn't it? And who doesn't occasionally think about chucking everything and reinventing your life somewhere else? I wonder if my library has this book... :) Thanks for the review!

    1. Hi, Lark. I hope you can get a copy of this from your library. That's where mine came from! I am ashamed to tell you that I had not heard of two of the Dead Ladies in the book - Margaret Anderson and Claude Cahun. Ms. Anderson was born right up the road from me and started the literary magazine 'The Little Review'. Ms. Cahun's story was fascinating. What an odd life she had.

  2. Hello Belle, I read somewhere of this book and it sounded intriguing to say the least. Thanks for the reminder, i'm afraid poor Norah Barnacle had to wait a long time for marriage (1931?) i'm afraid so the "soon-to -be" (they arrival in Trieste in 1904) is wishful thinking!

    1. Well, Tullik, my fact checker must have been taken the day off! Ha. I guess Nora didn't mind waiting forever - as in decades - to marry the man she loved. Thanks for the correction.