I seem to have a habit of calling books “atmospheric” when I damn them with faint praise: “atmospheric” feels like a code word for books with lots of detail and texture but very little story. But Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, an account of boarding school translated by Tim Parks from the Italian I beati anni del castigo, is different. At only 101 pages with lots of white space, Sweet Days of Discipline is just short enough, just long enough, and just elegant enough to feel complete as – here, I’ll say it – an atmospheric portrait of a young woman and her surroundings.
Our first-person narrator is a teenage girl sent to school in post-war Switzerland. She has a German roommate because her mother requested it; the narrator disdains the roommate and imagines her meeting dates in her sleep. Sweet Days of Discipline contains all sorts of early warnings that this isn’t a heart-warming tale of high school camaraderie: we learn in the first paragraph that writer Robert Walser walked nearby and died in the snow. On page two, the narrator tells us she remembers only Baudelaire from her study of French literature. I wrote “uh-oh” in the margin.
Flowers of evil, indeed: our narrator has girl crushes (or maybe something deeper?) on beautiful, perfect new girls, first Frédérique, later Micheline. What hides behind the perfection? Life at school, the narrator tells us, involves establishing “a façade, a kind of double life” – she even emulates Frédérique’s handwriting. Sweet Days of Discipline contains lots of other creepy little details, like the comparison of boarding school with a harem and reading “a few lines of Novalis about suicide and perfection.” Frédérique is described as a nihilist, and we confirm toward the end of the book that not all is right in her world.
Then there’s all that discipline and obedience. The narrator speaks of the pleasure of disappointment and sadness in her life, and wonders if the discipline of religious school, where she was a boarder at the tender age of eight, might have been the best years of her life. She also finds pleasure in obedience… This is a short book, so I’ll leave things at that, though I would love to tell you about the book’s very last sentence.
I probably wouldn’t recommend Sweet Days of Discipline to readers who prefer fiction with strong stories and plots, but I think those who enjoy eerie character sketches will love it. Enigmatic somehow works for me here, and Sweet Days of Discipline succeeded where Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto (previous post) did not. Though both books concern females – not all of them stable – living and interacting in restrictive, closed places, in Parks’s translation, Jaeggy’s writing is spare, wonderfully restrained and, yes, disciplined, giving this novella a poetic beauty as it describes life’s dark corners.
And now I’m curious about Robert Walser…
Disclaimer: I have discussed literature in translation with New Directions, the publisher, but received Sweet Days of Discipline from a friend in a book trade. Thank you, Daisy, and enjoy the baking!
Up Next: Michael David Lukas’s Oracle of Stamboul.