This slim little book is 101 pages of stark and startling beauty.
The story is about a young girl at boarding school in the Appenzell region of Switzerland in the 1950s. The narrator (only ever known as “Miss X”) is detached enough from her life to be able to give us a sharp and observant perspective. At 15 years of age, she has been in boarding schools for seven years (and is destined to be there for another two). She is acutely aware of her isolation from the world.
She takes no interest in studying, nor in socializing. Instead she glues reproductions of German expressionist paintings and crime stories from newspapers into her exercise book, and gets up at 5 a.m. every morning to walk in the hills. She internally deconstructs the people around her in an unemotional, devastating manner.
And then, abruptly, there is Frédérique:
“It happened one day at lunch. A girl arrived, a new one. She was fifteen, she had hair straight and shiny as blades and stern staring shadowy eyes. Her nose was aquiline, her teeth when she laughed, and she didn’t often laugh, were sharp. She had a fine, high forehead, the kind of forehead that makes thought tangible, a forehead past generations had endowed with talent, intelligence and charm. She spoke to no one. Her looks were those of an idol, disdainful. Perhaps that was 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.”
Thus begins the sparse, subjective chronicle of the relationship. It is not your typical schoolgirl friendship or crush, because these two are not your typical schoolgirls.
To summarize the rest is to say too much. The book is brief, like its perfectly honed sentences—there’s nothing in these pages that isn’t essential. It dips its toe into love and madness and savagery. It conveys a world in the most minimal of ways, and still manages to make it sharp and clear.
Fleur Jaeggy was born in 1940 in Switzerland. She writes in Italian, and five of her books have been translated into English. My edition of Sweet Days of Discipline was translated by Tim Parks, and much credit to him.
It also seems to have inspired much poetry by its reviewers. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the edition I have:
If, like me, you enjoy wallowing in the fine craft of an exquisite sentence, do yourself a favour and pick up a book by Fleur Jaeggy.