Review of Sweet Days of Discipline, by Fleur Jaeggy

A beautifully restrained and austere depiction of a schoolgirl crush at its most intense, and the ashes it leaves behind.

I don’t usually read fiction in translation any more, except from French where I feel somewhat comfortable with the original, as with The Kindly Ones. Fortunately, the edu.lib had a copy of the Italian original, and as Italian is mostly just Latin with incredibly bad pronunciation and spelling, I could cross check Tim Parks translation. It was amusing to find “in plus fours and long socks” translates “alla zuava”—what on earth can that mean, I wondered? And then a mental picture of a flashily uniformed American Civil War infantryman came to mind. Of course, Zouaves! The 19th century equivalent of Special Forces. But what did “the French were there and they were celebrating the guillotine” (“c’erano i francesi, e festaggiavano la ghigliottina”) mean? Most important, how many senses of “castigo” overlap with “discipline”? Certainly not in the B&D or S/M sense. But perhaps in the sense of military or nautical formation: a mode of life characterized by self-control, service, and devotion. The incredibly erotic relationship between the two schoolgirls is completely chaste and Platonic (in the vulgar sense); the narrator and Frédérique scarcely ever touch except when Frédérique examines the narrator’s hands. But the details of an all-consuming passion seemed perfect. When the narrator painstakingly learns to imitate Frédérique’s handwriting—that rang home for me.

As I had the good fortune to spend the summer of 1960 in Fribourg myself, much of the atmosphere brought back memories, although this book is set in German-speaking Switzerland near St. Gallen. The time is unspecified, but as one of the characters is the daughter of the president of an African country, it must have been about the same time. (That was the summer the Congo blew up.) Both the Swiss setting and the isolation a boarding school imposes create a sense of suspension in time and space—as if the rest of the world, the political world, indeed the “real” world” were on another planet. And for a teenager in boarding school, one year is almost forever.

Very little of an exterior nature passes in this slender and austere book whose principal character is almost anorexic herself. I am not sure whether to regard the ending as sad, but it certainly is tragic in the true sense: cruel, unfair, unfeeling, yet inevitable and right. Frédérique is irresistible, and unforgettable.

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