Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline brought on my yearning for Europe. Silent trains. The reverent mundane. In Europe a slice of bread is holy. The miracle of a towel drying on a line. Such subtle, taut delicacy, especially when read surrounded by wild American country.
Sweet Days of Discipline: A boarding school, the Bausler Institut, in the Appenzell.
Regulations, codes, discipline. Switzerland: the narrator, adolescent, possesses an old woman’s hands. At no point does the girth of the prose open to drop in what someone else might call out to her, say, as she trudges back from one of her daily 5 am walks, “looking for solitude, and perhaps the absolute” (2). Our narrator adopts the phrase “senile girlhood” on p. 70, deems the boarding school world one in which “time was out of joint” (46). Girls, supported by parents spread all across the world, are kept in the confines of the Appenzell like delicate creatures, like plants: “Though one can hardly speak of human beings in a boarding school,” our narrator writes on p. 41. A narrator who never names herself.
The authorities allowed us to use a key. It was a symbol. A symbol was part of the expensive fees. But there was no point in insisting on symbols, they’re gratuitous. I never used my key. Not because I disdained the symbol: just as I had no past, so I had no secrets… I possess nothing. (36)
Instead, from page 2 she fixes her attention elsewhere, upon a newcomer to the school, Frédérique, whose “looks were those of an idol, disdainful. Perhaps that was why I wanted to conquer her. She had no humanity...The first thing I thought was: she had been further than I had” (3). A transcendent “further,” excelling beyond the confines of the boarding school: “At school—she was top in everything. She already knew everything, from the generations that came before her.” Frédérique: a wise, decaying nihilist: “It was as though she talked about nothing” (39). Frédérique, mirroring the boarding school landscape, which “seemed to protect us, the small white houses of Appenzell, the fountain, the sign Töchterinstitut, it was as if the place hadn’t been affected by human distortions.”
And yet, Frédérique’s pristine remoteness begins to disquiet the narrator, who asks, “Can one feel disorientated in an idyll? An atmosphere of catastrophe covered the landscape” (65). So Frédérique, in her void, is the perfect vessel for the narrator to empty her own congealed, cloistered nothing.
A paragraph at the precise midpoint of this taut novel reveals the formal-thematic interweave that I find to be the heart of this work, and whose hypnotic lyricism makes it one of the best paragraphs I’ve ever read:
When it rained we would all be kept in the same room. We listened to the radio. Some girls read. A Krimi Roman. Others stared, lost, misty. The older girls, Germans, cooked. Bavarian lace makers. Mater Hermenegild kept guard. She kept guard over liberty. Those who weren’t enjoying themselves idled away the hours. The bathrooms looked out on a narrow, dark alleyway and a wall. The water had already been run for us. Very hot. I felt as if I were getting into it with my clothes on. There were two churches, Catholic and Protestant. We had freedom of religion on Lake Constance. Just for a change I went to the Protestant one. Even though the order from Brazil was: Catholic. She orders, I obey, she steers me through the terms, it’s all written in letters and stamps, bells with no sound. Dispatches.
The way that the sentences move, the subject of one spilling over to become the subject of the next, but thicker this time, more defined, like a lash: “Mater Hermenegild kept guard.” Go on. “She kept guard over liberty.” And yet the narrator offers the possibility that in this cordoning off, for some, there is still the possibility of easy amusement. Easily sated girls, like the narrator’s Bavarian roommate, languishing in the stupefaction of her mind, even primping before bed, as though she might cross over into some enchanting, other world.
But for the narrator, there is no such reality beyond the emptiness of the school, the coolness of Frédérique. And though it can rain outside, the girls go to showers looking out on a “narrow, dark alleyway, and a wall. The water had already been run for us. Very hot. I felt as if I were getting into it with my clothes on.” And yet, “We had freedom of religion on Lake Constance.” When orders are given over mail, words are “bells with no sound” words sent through the mail, orders in writing, which cannot replace the body. “Just for a change I went to the Protestant one. Even though the order from Brazil was: Catholic.” An announcement, the narrator’s whole life in letters and stamps: “Dispatches.”
The pleasure of disappointment…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. (72)