“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.

 

In good company: The Walk by Robert Walser

On Christmas Day, sixty years after Swiss writer, Robert Walser, took his fateful last winter stroll, I went for a walk through my neighbourhood. It was cold, -23C, but the low sun shone on a fresh 15 cm of snow, making it an ideal day for photographs. This being the first Christmas after the deaths of three of the people closest to me, it was a time of invigorated spirit and creativity mixed with sadness. Not entirely unlike the emotions recounted in the book I opened after returning home—Walser’s novella, The Walk.

walkNotably the first of Walser’s work to be translated into English, the path that led to the present edition of this book, a part of New Direction’s Pearl series, is interesting and informative. The original translation by Christopher Middleton was published 1955, and based on the 1917 stand-alone publication of The Walk. When the same piece was released as part of the 1920 collection, Seeland, the author had edited his first version—streamlining some sections, padding out others. With this in mind, translator Susan Bernofsky, applied Walser’s edits, only as necessary, to Middleton’s work. The resulting volume is a unique collaboration and, as Bernofsky notes in her introduction, the two versions offer fascinating insight into Walser’s “evolution as a writer.”

The narrator is a writer and a self-styled flâneur whose environment is not the bustling metropolis, but a semi-rural/semi-suburban setting featuring bucolic scenery and peopled with eccentric characters. The novella opens with our hero leaving the gloomy isolation of his daily confrontation with the empty page, to set off on a series of errands. He is in a jaunty, positive mood. It’s evident that being out on the street is where he feels most free, confident, and at ease.  Opinionated, observant, and self-conscious, the narrative that unfolds is marked by an excessive chattiness. Whether he is addressing the reader or someone he encounters, a certain manic energy drives the perambulator’s account:

In the water of a fountain a dog refreshes itself, in the blue air swallows twitter. One or two ladies in astonishingly short skirts and astoundingly high, snug, fine, elegant, dainty colored booties make themselves as conspicuous as anything else. Moreover two summer or straw hats catch my eye. The story about the straw hats is this: it is that in the bright, gentle air I suddenly see two enchanting hats; under the hats stand two fairly prosperous-looking gentlemen, who by means of a bold, elegant, courteous waving of hats seem to be bidding each other good morning, which is an occasion upon which the hats are evidently more important than their wearers and owners. The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses. It is hoped that he understands this, once and for all.

This excessive attention to detail, and the tendency to address himself in the third person with slightly self-deprecating humour, creates a distinctively Walserian tone that would influence Bernhard and be so admired by Walter Benjamin and W.G. Sebald.

As he continues on his walk, Walser’s narrator, will stop into a bookshop and bakery, dine with a female friend, and attend to a variety of errands. He waxes lyrical, sometimes taking his praise well over the top when describing some of the houses, gardens, and natural settings he passes by, while he explodes with outrage at the slightest provocation. Inspired to impromptu speech-making, he bends over backward to flatter several women he encounters, and recites from memory a long-winded insulting diatribe to the unknown recipient of a letter he mails:

“He who works honestly, and devotedly exerts himself, is in the eyes of people like you, an outspoken ass. In this I do not err; for my little finger can tell me that I am right. I must dare to tell you to your face that you abuse your position because you know full well how many annoyances and tedious complications would be entailed if anyone were to rap your knuckles. In the grace and favor which you enjoy, ensconced in your privileged prescriptive position, you are still wide open to attack, for you feel without a doubt how insecure you are.”

In his outbursts, it becomes increasingly apparent that the writer/walker is channelling his own insecurities such as in the much-foreshadowed incident in which he angrily confronts a tailor whom he is determined to take for task for the fit of a suit—one it’s uncertain he either wants or, more likely, can afford. At his next stop, he proceeds to grovel before a tax official, explaining how his writerly profession does not provide a reliable income and he thus requires that he be taxed at the lowest feasible rate. When the taxman points out that he always seems to be out walking rather than plying his trade, the narrator launches into a detailed explanation of the critical importance of his daily excursions to the gathering and processing of the ideas that he will commit to paper when he returns to his dwelling:

“Walk,” was my answer, “I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could neither write the half of one more single word, nor produce a poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and would long since been forced to abandon my profession, which I love passionately.”

As the narrator reaches his destination, the end point of his outing where he will rest and reflect, all pomposity and bravado give way to the underlying sadness and loss that he carries with him. He walks then, not just for inspiration, but to try escape a gloom that is not confined to his room alone.

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The Walk was the only one of Walser’s works to be published in English during his lifetime. Now, sixty years after his death, his many novels and short story collections continue to appear regularly in translation. For a man who spent so much of his life confined to mental health facilities, nearly forgotten, and who fell silently in the snow on a solitary walk, this particular novella, so lovingly tended by two of his best known translators, is a fitting honour to his memory.

Souls in disarray: The Country Road by Regina Ullmann

It is no coincidence that the landscape of the earth is identical to that of the heart.

The work of Swiss poet and writer, Regina Ullmann, is permeated with an abiding sadness that seems to speak to the core of human existence. Her language, contemplative without moralizing, pierces the surface of the façades we present to the world. Encountering her work, one has the sense that she is drawing on a deep, dark well. But light filters through, creating a canvas that evokes rural and small town life in the early decades of the twentieth century—a world inhabited by farm labourers, young girls and women harbouring secrets, lonely old folk, circus performers, and hunchbacks.

2016-11-11-23-11-09Ullmann was born in Gallen, Switzerland, in 1884, into the family of a Jewish-Austrian businessman. Her father died when she was only a few years old. In 1902, she and her mother moved to Munich, where she would first read a number of the key poets of the day, including Rainer Maria Rilke who would become an important mentor and patron. However, Ullmann’s personal life was difficult. She had two daughters out of wedlock, the second with psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who left her emotionally wounded. Depression dogged her, worsening after her mother’s suicide in 1938. Her conversion to Catholicism in 1911, a move that greatly informed the tone of her work, was not sufficient to prevent her expulsion from the German Writers Association in 1935 on the basis of her Jewish heritage, so she left Germany, spending several years in Austria before relocating to her Swiss birthplace, where she would remain for over twenty years. She returned to Germany only a few months before her death in early 1961.

Throughout her career, Ullmann, won critical praise from the likes of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Robert Musil—in addition to her champion Rilke—but she remained largely unknown and often struggled to make ends meet. She was, perhaps a step out of time, a modernist trailing ghosts of the past, but with the release of her 1921 story collection, The Country Road in English translation (by Kurt Beals, New Directions, 2015), her fragile, haunting work is offered a new lease on life.

And I, for one, was ready to meet her.

From the opening paragraphs of the title story, I was struck by the spare, unforgiving earnestness and sombre beauty of the prose:

Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be in the way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me… The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve my bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.

In a sense, this opening sets the tone for the entire collection, evoking a landscape with its illusory freedom that will reappear again and again, balanced against the confined spaces—rented rooms, taverns, houses—occupied by people who often live alone or are drawn into shared solitude. Her narrators tend to affect a dispassionate distance, a non-judgemental piety, whether telling their own stories or imagining the thoughts and motivations of others; however, there is a persistent awareness of social stigmatization against which the most disadvantaged of her characters are regarded or disregarded. Ullmann’s world is one in which deeply burdened souls cross paths, rarely unveiling the true nature of the crosses that they bear.

It is difficult to convey the mood of these stories without implying that this is a catalogue of darkness and despair. There is rather a grounded and humane sadness, an awareness of loss that recurs. But there is more. Throughout the collection, an animated natural world—flowers, forests, gardens, vegetables, berries, stars and blue skies—regularly reminds the reader that an unquenchable beauty does exist against the odds. The story “Strawberries,” one of several tales narrated by a young girl who, like the author, has an older sister and a single mother, captures perfectly the summer magic of childhood:

Perhaps you will argue that the three of us had never learned to go without. But what does it mean to go without—assuming that we really couldn’t do it—if not to take pleasure in looking at things. We returned from our trips to the market feeling sated, and often we hadn’t bought a single bouquet, a single basket of early cherries. And the treasure chests of our minds was wide open. But the little mirror inside that chest had only to reflect the ground; it showed the stand piled high with fruits and vegetables. But we felt how that world, like jewelry and old music, was transformed and passed over into us.

Ullmann’s other worldliness that sees her writing suspended somewhere between modernism and an earlier form of gothic folk tale is best illustrated in “The Old Tavern Sign,” one of the strongest and most striking pieces in the entire collection. It begins with an old tavern “in a hidden corner of Styria,” that stood, “as if it had been left vacant, like an etching made by one soul to tell another just what a house really is.” The story follows the troubled emotions of a young farmhand who falls for a beautiful young girl—deaf-mute and simple-minded—who had been taken in and cared for by the old horsekeeper. The girl, as she grows, remains indifferent to all and everything around her, but her caregiver and the beasts, wild and domestic, protect her and keep her safe. The farmhand knows his affections are misdirected, and struggles to fight his persistent desire to go to the horse pasture:

But if he didn’t know this love, it surely knew him. It always recognized him. It knew if he lifted the pitchfork, how he lifted it, whether he took large steps or stood still, where he stood and dreamt. And when he slept, it took the power of its dreams for its own, and dreamt for him. He was climbing a fir tree, up to the top and then beyond. He didn’t even notice he was past its tip. And so he fell over it, down to the ground, and lay there with dream-shattered limbs, on the edge of the forest, and yet in his bed, and it was night, or morning. It didn’t matter, anyway.

In the end, as human desire meets the force of nature, with savage intensity, Ullmann maintains a measured poetic account that is as breathtaking as it is brutal.

This is a collection that is at once perfectly pitched my current state of sorrow, grief, and depression—and yet stunningly beautiful to read. Ullmann’s vivid imagery, her lost and lonely characters, and the gentle, thoughtful pace of her prose offers unexpected comfort for the weary soul. This is, in the end, an offering of small and tender joys.

The unmaking of Man, the Maker: Homo Faber by Max Frisch

“We were leaving from La Guardia Airport New York, three hours late because of snow storms.”

Max Frisch’s 1957 novel Homo Faber begins with a matter of fact tone, an air of precision and efficiency. The narrator, Walter Faber, is a Swiss engineer traveling to Venezuela on behalf of UNESCO. Traveling is a way of life for him. But this trip, from the portentous delay on the runway onward, will mark the beginning of a systematic unraveling of a life bound to logic and technological certainty.

Faber’s account of his journey is spare and unromantic; he favours an exactness in his documentation, insisting that he is a practical, pragmatic man. He places, he tells us, no stock in “providence and fate”. Where others see chance, he relies on probability. Yet as a series of incidents appear to conspire against him, the laws and order of his heretofore measure of existence start to blur, to fall away in a stream of seemingly implausible circumstances. Even though he is obliged to admit that he has found himself caught in a flood of coincidences, he seems to hold to this as an excuse to absolve his part in the tragedy that ultimately unfolds. At least until that is no longer possible.

2016-03-09 18.31.00 During a brief stop over in Houston, Faber, feeling overwhelmingly ill and anxious, makes an attempt to miss his connection to Mexico City. He is located at the last moment and ushered aboard. Before long, the plane loses one and then two of its four engines and is forced to make an emergency landing in the desert where the passengers will remain for four days. During this time he will discover that his German seat mate is in fact the brother of his friend Joachim, a man he has not seen in 20 years. Even more surprising, he learns that this friend was, at one time married to Hanna, the woman he once loved.

This unexpected resurrection of ghosts from his past knocks Faber off balance but he still manages to describe the tedious and brutally hot days spent waiting for rescue in a manner so unaffected and matter-of-fact that some scenes take on an element of the absurd:

“Towards evening, just before dusk, the promised aircraft arrived, a sports plane; it circled around for a long time before it finally ventured to drop the parachute – three sacks and two boxes that had to be collected from a radius of three hundred yards – we were saved. CARTA BLANCA, CERVEZA MEXICANA, good beer, even Herbert, the German, had to admit as we stood around with our beer tins in the desert, a social gathering in brassières and underpants with another sunset, which I took on coloured film.”

Once they are finally on their way, Faber will opt to make a detour to seek out his friend and in the process learn of his unfortunate fate. After his intended stop in Venezuela he then returns home to New York where he finds that Ivy, his mistress, has ignored his attempt to break off their relationship. Dismayed at the prospect of a week in her company he makes the impulsive decision to travel to his next business engagement in Paris by ship, rather than plane. As the ship makes its way across the Atlantic he will meet and fall for the dynamic 20 year-old Sabeth, a young woman 30 years his junior. He has, he assures us repeatedly, no idea that she is his daughter.

“What difference does it make if I prove I had no idea, that I couldn’t possibly have known? I have destroyed the life of my child and I cannot make restitution. Why draw up a report? I wasn’t in love with the girl with the reddish ponytail, she attracted my attention, that was all, I couldn’t have suspected she was my own daughter, I didn’t even know I was a father. How does providence come into it? I wasn’t in love, on the contrary, she couldn’t have seemed more of a stranger once we got into conversation, and it was only through unlikely coincidence that we got into conversation at all, my daughter and I. We might just as well have passed one another by. What has providence to do with it? Everything might have turned out quite differently.”

Yet, from this point forward, he is on a collision course with a destiny of Oedipal and tragic dimensions.

With Walter Faber, Frisch has created a character who engenders empathy, in spite of the taboo circumstances in which he ultimately finds himself. He is defensive, he equivocates, and he expresses opinions that, especially to our more socially conscious ears, sound dated, racist, and chauvinistic. They are, of course, in keeping with a man of his times, especially one so inclined to black and white reasoning. However with respect to women, Frisch intentionally places very strong, independent women in his protagonist’s line of sight – and they are the women who hold the deepest attraction for him.

The prose is brilliantly tight and restrained. Repetition and rhythm combined with shifts forward and back in time create a remarkable tension. Faber, as a man making a report on these recent events in his life, a critical accounting as we learn at the end, hides from his narrative only that which is hidden to himself – the depth of his own personal, emotional engagement. The result is a book that resonates with the reader long after the final page is turned. As our hero realizes, far too late perhaps:

“To be eternal means to have existed.”

Originally published in English in 1959, Homo Faber: A Report by Max Frisch is translated by Michael Bullock.

2016-03-09 18.29.26As a postscript, it’s worth noting that this book has no North American rights and, in Canada at least it is as rare as hen’s teeth. I ordered a copy from the UK in early February which has yet to arrive. The ante was upped when I was asked to provide a short “trailer” about this book for the upcoming Spring issue of The Scofield Magazine (Max Frisch & Identity). I ordered a second back up copy for $1, also still missing in action, and placed an inter-library loan request for one of the two copies held in this entire province. Apparently that route has an expected 5-6 week turn around, so getting desperate I finally had to have a librarian from the central branch coax the U of Alberta to find it on their shelves and courier it (at my expense) so I could read it and get my requested piece off by the end of last week.

Ah, but some day I will own two copies of this book! Good thing it’s a keeper.

Dark brightness and bright darkness: Berlin Stories by Robert Walser

“Up above is a narrow strip of sky, and the smooth, dark ground below looks as if it’s been polished by human destinies. The buildings to either side rise boldly, daintily, and fantastically into architectural heights. The air quivers and startles with worldly life… And always people are walking here. Never in all the time this street has existed has life stopped circulating here. This is the very heart, the ceaselessly respiring breast of metropolitan life. It is a place of deep inhalations and mighty exhalations, as if life itself felt disagreeably constricted by its own pace and course.”

Great cities have their own personalities and in the company of Swiss writer Robert Walser, Berlin of the early twentieth century becomes a living, breathing entity, a dynamic metropolis drawing in the ambitious, the hopeful and the desperate in equal measure. As a guide to the city, its haunts, and its colourful inhabitants, he is endlessly engaging. His name has been surfacing in my consciousness for a while now, but I had not gotten more than a few stories into this collection before I wondered why it had taken me so long to “discover” him for myself.

BerlinBerlin Stories from New York Review of Books is a collection of short stories composed during Walser’s years in Berlin and the first few years after he left, originally edited and organized by German Walser scholar, Jochen Greven. In her introduction to this edition, translator Susan Bernofsky tells us that, with the beginnings of a literary career underway, Robert Walser moved to Berlin in 1907 at the age of 27. His brother had already enjoyed success as a set designer in the thriving theatre scene. The city was bursting with life. Over the next six years he would record that life in short stories or “prose pieces” and three novels. But financial security eluded him and his own eccentricities did not help him secure the patronage that would have benefited him. He returned to Switzerland in 1913.

The pieces in Berlin Stories are divided into four sections or “movements”: The City Streets, The Theatre, Berlin Life and Looking Back. Most of the pieces are quite short, often no more than a page or two. Narrators who may or may not be Walser himself, wander the streets, ride the trams, or take in theatrical performances while offering attentive discourses on the sights and experiences of city life. He can be thoughtful, melancholy, humourous or sarcastic, sometimes striking playful barbs at contemporaries.

As with any collection of short works, especially one with 38 stories, it is hard to capture a sense of the volume in a brief review. There is so much magic in these pages, it is difficult not to marvel at the acuity of Walser’s observations. He is especially gifted at peering behind the glitz and creating moving accounts of what Bernofsky calls the “humbler aspects of city life”. He has an uncanny eye for the small details that play across the faces and animate the actions of the characters he sketches. Sometimes his observations are direct, at other times his intentions are delivered with a deft backhand as in “The Little Berliner” a story in which he takes the voice of a precocious 12 year-old girl, who enjoys a life of wealth and privilege. But all is not as wonderful as one might suspect. She reports that: “For reasons whose depths I cannot understand and consequently cannot evaluate, my parents live apart. Most of the time I live with Father.” She admonishes herself for confessing to her diary, but Father, for all his wealth and charm, is sometimes a very angry and unpleasant man. The observations and attitudes swirling around in her child’s head present a rather caustic view of the rich delievered in a wonderfully clever way.

Another piece I really enjoyed for its pure descriptive power is “Fire”, in which the narrator and his companion get caught up in the excitement of what must have been a fairly regular occurrence at this time – a house on fire. A spectacle drawing the curious, it is an event at once ordinary and extraordinary:

“an entire street is brightly, garishly lit up by it, it resembles a sunset in the distant south, ten evenings ablaze, a host of suns setting in unison. You see the façades of buildings looking like pale-yellow paper, and the bright red glow of the fire approaches, a thick glowing, wounded red, and beside it the street lanterns look like feebly burning damp matches.”

No one is injured in this instance but a distinguished old piece of architecture is lost, a fact greeted by one of the observers as a healthy form of natural selection, clearing out the dead wood and making room for new construction.

I could go and quote from this work at length, there are little gems nestled in almost every piece. More than 100 years on, his work is vital, entertaining and immensely readable. At the height of his career he was a favourite of Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin. The resonance of his voice has carried on through the influence of those who admired his work giving it the immediacy that feels so surprising when one first encounters him now. In his lifetime which was increasingly spent in mental asylums, Walser seemed to disappear off the radar. Greven’s German scholarship in the 1950s and the first English translation of his work not long before Walser’s death in 1956, brought him to the attention of a new generation of highly influential writers including WG Sebald, Peter Handke and JM Coetzee.

Now, if you have yet to make the acquaintance of Robert Walser, hurry along and check him out. Personally I’m sold and can’t wait to read more.