Book Review - Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Death, the abyss, the pain of solitude and the loss of loved ones are recurring themes in Fleur Jaeggy’s fiction. Jaeggy grew up in Switzerland but lives in Italy and writes in Italian. Her novella, Sweet Days of Discipline, superbly translated by Tim Parks, is inspired by her childhood in a Swiss boarding school in the 1950s and focuses on the torment of adolescence. The original English edition (translated by Parks) was selected as one of the Times Literary Supplement’s Notable Books of 1992. 

The unnamed narrator has lived in boarding schools since she was eight, apart from a brief period with a grandmother, who rejected her as “a savage”. She inhabits a privileged, ordered environment where routine is paramount. And yet, we quickly realise how unmoored she is from her family. Her mother resides in Brazil and sends letters with instructions as to her schooling while her father lives out of hotels and rarely visits. Consequently, the narrator’s moral parameters are limited, she struggles with her identity, and has to rely on her teachers’ guidance and affection, which are largely lacking.

Inevitably, the girls develop crushes on one another and the narrator becomes fixated by self-contained new comer, Frédérique: “Her looks were those of an idol, disdainful. Perhaps that is why I wanted to conquer her. She had no humanity. She even seemed repulsed by us all. The first thing I thought was: she had been further than I had.” Very little happens as the days pass and the girls become women until Micheline, a vivacious new boarder, arrives and the narrator swiftly shifts her affections. Frédérique’s father dies and she has to abruptly leave school. Immediately regretting her disloyalty, the narrator is convinced she will never hear from Frédérique again. Looking back on the period she refers to as her “senile girlhood”, she muses: “perhaps they were the best years… those years of discipline. There was a kind of elation, faint but constant throughout… those sweet days of discipline.”

A few years later, the narrator stumbles on Frédérique living in destitution. Despite signs of her friend’s fragility, the narrator sees her deprivation 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.”

Jaeggy explores the thin line between order and madness and illustrates with perfect precision how swiftly loneliness can turn into despair.

Originally published by the TLS