Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, trans. by Tim Parks

There is nothing sweet about this novel. Though it is a short and quick read, every word resounds with a silent echo that makes the clean, sharp prose searing and intense.

Set in Switzerland, the narrator speaks of her time at various boarding schools and of one friend at a certain school in particular: Frédérique, a clever, beautiful girl who keeps her distance from the others. The narrator wants Frédérique for her own.

The absence of parents or adults whose interest is more than obligatory, gives friendship a lacing of passion and desperation as these girls try to make sense of the world on their own, performing the tasks of school as their families and guardians see fit.

“The bell rings, we get up. The bell rings again, we go to bed. We retire to our rooms; we saw life pass by beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks, watched the seasons change. It was always a reflection, a reflection that seemed to freeze on our windowsills.” p13

The narrator goes for walks in the Alps, getting up before breakfast, not caring that it makes her sleepy in lessons. Every morning she goes on these walks seeking a state of “‘ill-happiness’. A state that required solitude, a state of exhilaration and quiet selfishness, a cheerful vendetta. I had the impression that this exhilaration was an initiation, that the sickness in the happiness was due to a magical novitiate, a rite. Then it went wrong. I didn’t feel anything particular any more. Every landscape constructed its own niche and shut itself away there” (p50). Then she would go back down the school, waking up the next day to seek the very same ‘ill-happiness’.

The characters long to escape boarding school and encounter the world, but they are then disappointed by the world. It is no wonder that nothing lives up to the isolated intensity of their early lives.

Like her collection of short stories, I am the brother of XX, you want to start rereading the moment you finish because although the book is short, it has the lasting impact those early years had for the narrator. It may be that this book isn’t for everyone, but for me the word that sums it up is inspiring. Sweet Days of Discipline is a book that sings with the sharpness of a cutting blade.

Next week I’m reading Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.