I’m continuing Literature in Translation Week for Novellas in November with Sweet Days of Discipline by Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy.
Fleur Jaeggy’s short novel, beautifully translated from Italian (the language Jaeggy writes in) by Tim Parks is an atmospheric evocation of the cruelties and emotions rife in a boarding school in postwar Switzerland.
The narrator, Eve, recalls her life as a 14 year old student in an international boarding school catering for girls from all over the world. The school is a privileged one – financially – but the girls are all lonely, abandoned by wealthy parents who have no time to look after them. Eve’s mother as gone to live in Brazil, while her father lives in a succession of expensive hotels. The other girls parents are upper-class, businessmen and dignitaries, and in the case of one girl, the president of an African country.
The girls are cloistered and childish, but as with every tight-knit group, the innocent rivalries of school and friendship are tinged with an easy cruelty and a need to conform to the overarching discipline of their environment.
As the book opens, a new girl has arrived at the school. Frederique is haughty, accomplished and beautiful and her presence comes to obsess the narrator. Frederique is new to boarding school and so brings with her an air of worldly knowledge and of unconstrained life. Frederique does not need the discipline of her teachers as she is entirely self-disciplined, with no obvious need for friends or validation. Eve becomes determined to befriend the aloof and worldly girl, sensing that her place in the school hierarchy will be elevated by such a friendship.
Eve’s desire to win Frederique’s friendship is immediate and strong. But, when she does, the dynamic is unsettling. There is a sexual undercurrent to their friendship although they never become physically close and ultimately, despite getting what she wants, Eve will spurn the object of her desire.
I still thought that to get something you had to go straight for your goal whereas it is only distractions, uncertainty, distance that bring us closer to our targets, and then it is the targets which strike us.
What follows in an elegant and lucid exploration of the all-consuming friendships of early teenage years. The story of Eve and Frederique told with vivid complexity and a distinctive take on the lifelong issues that growing up in an institution, no matter how comfortable, can create.
Brief references to the adult lives of these characters are shown, with Eve still unable to shake the influence of her childhood and Frederique taking the idea of discipline to the extreme. They meet, years later and the encounter is as unexpected as their friendship was.
I thought of this destitution of hers as some spiritual or aesthetic exercise. Only an aesthete can give up everything. I wasn’t surprised so much by her poverty as by her grandeur. That room was a concept. Though of what I didn’t know. Once again she had gone beyond me.
Sweet Days of Discipline is a book that is heavy in atmosphere and unconcerned with plot. Jaeggy’s prose is effortless and the narrative deceptively simple. She perfectly captures the stale and stifling atmosphere of a boarding school and subtly suggests that life for the girls is akin to an educational prison.
I see my little companions from when I was eight years old, in bright white sheets, with their smiles, their lowered eyelids; their gaze has slipped away. We shared our beds with them. In prisons too, the prisoners don’t forget their cellmates. They are faces that both fed and devoured our brains, our eyes. There is no time, at that time. Childhood is ancient.
This is a book with very European sensibilities – it is quiet yet overwrought, evocative yet cold. There is a sense that Jaeggy is withholding, yet despite its reserve, a well of emotion bubbles underneath the surface. Tim Parks does an excellent job with the translation, perfectly juxtaposing the otherworldly atmosphere with Jaeggy’s sharp tight sentences.
This is a novella where little happens, but all of human existence is on display.
Read On: Kindle
Number Read: 291
Number Remaining: 455
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!