“Childhood is ancient”: Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

The bell rings, we get up. The bell rings again, we go to bed. We retire to our rooms; we saw life pass beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks, watched the seasons change. It was always a reflection, a reflection that seemed to freeze on our windowsills. And perhaps now we saw a tall marbly figure stand out before us: it is Frédérique passing through our lives and maybe we’d like to go back, but we don’t need anything, anymore. We imagined the world. What else can we imagine now if not our own deaths? The bell rings and it’s all over.

Switzerland, the Appenzell: the area where Robert Walser took his walks, including his final snowy outing, and the location of the boarding school where the narrator of Fleur Jaeggy’s hauntingly pristine first novel is living, at the age of fourteen. She regrets that they didn’t know of the writer’s existence at the time, but the perfection of his death, and the season, set the tone for the story that she is about to share—a chilling winter tone that persists even as the months and years pass and the harsh, spare beauty of Sweet Days of Discipline works its way right through to the bone.

sweetdaysThis novella is marked by a tightly controlled narrative voice. It is a tale of obsession. There is little action, it is the narrator’s emotional intensity that drives the story forward. Looking back on the years she spent in a series of boarding schools, from the age of eight to seventeen, she zeroes in on this one particular year, at the Bausler Institut, where Frédérique—beautiful, remote, and obedient—first entered her life. She sets out to conquer this newcomer who, only a few months older, has come from the outside with a certain detached worldliness that instantly sets her apart from the other girls.

The narrator, whose education is directed, long distance, by her mother in Brazil, is a seasoned veteran of boarding schools where, as she puts it, “a sort of senile childhood was protracted almost to insanity.” She knows the game, and how to play it, which she does with a healthy measure of cynicism:

Part of your education is learning how to thank with a smile. An awful smile. There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls. A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, in the other she lies on a bed covered in a lace shroud. It’s her own skin has embroidered it.

She is, however, only an average student—a fact that does not trouble her at all. At one point she admits that all she remembers from her school years is Baudelaire. No surprise. She seems to have almost absorbed his dark poetic soul. Her narrative is liberally strewn with metaphorical references to graves, coffins, corpses, and death.

She befriends Frédérique, in good part because the others find the new girl too distant, and keep their distance in return. They take walks together, and she listens with sometimes exhausted attention, as Frédérique talks of literature, philosophy, and travel. Her own obsession borders, she supposes, on love. But it is a chaste, almost brittle affection.

Spring thawThere is a simmering violence that runs beneath the surface of the narrative. The narrator, long neglected by her own family, harbours a bitterness that colours her detailed, frequently nasty, appraisals of the appearance and idiosyncrasies of others—the headmistress and her husband, her German roommate, the little black girl, and more. When Micheline, a gregarious new student arrives, she suddenly turns her back on her precious Frédérique, more it seems, out of a sadistic streak than affection for the newcomer. She registers no remorse until Frédérique’s father dies, causing her to leave the school for good.

This novella is filled with conflicted, often dark, emotion. The tension lies not so much in what happens, as in the sombre frostiness of the prose. Frédérique, it turns out, is deeply troubled; however, the nameless narrator, is perhaps more unsettling and tragic. Either way, the result is a tale—captured so deftly in this translation by Tim Parks—of stark, poetic beauty:

I persevered in the pleasure of taking my sadness to the limit, the way one does with some practical joke. The pleasure of disappointment. It wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it ever since I was eight years old, a boarder in my first, religious, school. And perhaps they were the best years, I thought. Those years of discipline. There was a kind of elation, faint but constant throughout all those days of discipline, the sweet days of discipline.

Fleur Jaeggy is an Italian speaking, Swiss-born writer. Sweet Days of Discipline is published by New Directions. Two newly translated works will be coming out, July 2017, from New Directions in North America and And Other Stories in the UK.

 

10 thoughts on ““Childhood is ancient”: Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

  1. ah that is good to see her in translation, i thought it was always very uncanny in a good apt unsettling way, showing how close the distance can be from random daily life to the more spookier aspects of existence. but also i find it shows a good light on how psychologically harsh the conditions were and what damage can do to people, exemplified where it’s said that frederique ought have had the possibility to live a different life….

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    • Some readers comment that the book is too empty, with a vague ending—but I find that the lightness of the prose holds a very dark undercurrent. That’s the beauty and power of the work. This review is cursory, I look forward to writing about her language and work at greater depth in a critical review for Numero Cinq when her new books are released.

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  2. I had a question but you answered it. I knew Parks translated form the Italian, so I was surprised to see this. Her name sounds rather Swiss German or French. I wouldn’t have thought she writes in Italian.
    It sounds very good.

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    • The biographical information I could find is scant—I will have to look for more before reviewing her new works for a journal later this year. Italian is her mother tongue and she moved to Italy at about the age of 20 (she was born in 1940). Married to publisher Roberto Calasso she has translated many writers into Italian.

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      • Ah, I see. Since Italian is one of the national languages of Switzerland, I assumed she was from the Italian region of Switzerland. I’ll see if she is in one of my books on Swiss authors and let you know what I can find.

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  3. This sounds excellent. Glad to hear And Other Stories will be publishing her in the UK. Also pleased to see that I’m not the only one who looks to a writer’s back catalogue when I see new works coming out – I recently discovered that Carmen Boullosa had a number of works published in the UK.

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  4. Even though you say your review is cursory, I think you offer enough intrigue about the text to effectively draw in readers, so from that standpoint I’d call it a success. I read this one last year based on very positive reviews from a number of my Goodreads friends, although I didn’t fall quite as in love with it as they did. I didn’t realize she had others coming out in translation soon– I was definitely captivated enough to read more, so I’ll look forward to your reviews of those.

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    • Cursory in contrast to a in-depth critical review which entails a different level of reading and analysis, which is what I will be writing for the new releases. With this book, I think saying less is more.I know it won’t offer enough plot and action for some readers, but that is its chilling beauty to me.

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