Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (transl. Tim Parks): Happiest days of your life…

Cover image Fleur Jaeggy’s novella is part of And Other Stories’ response to Kamila Shamsie’s ‘provocation’ back in 2015, calling for a year in which only books written by women should be published. For me it’s not so much the gender ratio of authors published that’s the problem, more the level of serious coverage books by women are given. I imagine Shamsie wasn’t expecting much of a take up but And Other Stories responded with alacrity. Written in 1989 and set in post-war Switzerland, Sweet Days of Discipline explores life in a boarding school with all its stifling intensity.

Our unnamed narrator looks back to when she was almost fourteen. She’s boarded at a variety of schools since she was eight, spending holidays alone with her taciturn father. Her mother lives in Brazil, sending instructions about her daughter’s education but having little else to do with her. When an elegantly dressed, perfectly behaved new girl arrives, our narrator determinedly monopolizes her. Soon she and Frédérique are the closest of friends. Our narrator has nothing but contempt for her German roommate with her pink cheeks and frilly dresses, only cool admiration for the girl who tells her all about her Andalusian adventures and talks to her of philosophy. Then Micheline arrives, brightly vivacious and full of tales of her flirtatious father. Frédérique fades into the background but our unnamed narrator will not forget her, meeting her later in life and coming to a deeper understanding of her friend.

Written in austere, pinpoint sharp prose, Jaeggy’s novella takes a scalpel to teenage boarding school relationships. Our narrator’s determination to win Frédérique’s devotion seems, at first, more about the challenge it presents than a sincere interest and yet Frédérique is the person she continues to look for, even in adult life. The cruelty of boarding school life is painfully vivid – our narrator’s apparent regret at the hurt caused by rejecting a younger girl’s overtures turns out to be something else entirely: I had lost a slave, without getting any pleasure out of it. The school’s cloistered claustrophobia is smartly skewered: We saw life pass by beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks. The effects of this life stripped of parental affection are clear: The pleasure of disappointment. it wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it since I was eight years old. Obedience and discipline are the school’s watchwords but love seems nowhere to be found in Jaeggy’s elegantly expressed, forensically observed novella. A deeply unsettling piece of fiction.

28 thoughts on “Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (transl. Tim Parks): Happiest days of your life…”

  1. There’s something delicious about a campus setting, whether that’s a university or a boarding school. I’m keen to get hold of this one. It’s interesting to see that she wrote in Italian.

      1. I used to dream about a British boarding school, after having read Mallory Towers and St.Clare’s, but then a friend of mine went to a girls’ boarding school in England and hated every minute of it, so I stopped idealising it.

        1. I live with an ex-boarder and have no ideals about it whatsoever! I’ve never entirely understood why people have children only to pack tham off at the age of seven or even younger.

          1. She was packed of at secondary school – because her parents were diplomats and moving from country to country, so it kind of made sense. Nevertheless, both she and later her sister were not happy at all there…

          2. I’m not surprised. My partner was always hungry, and still eats his food too fast. He’s relataively unscathed, though. I hope your friend and her sister are, too.

  2. I’d forgotten about Shamshie’s provocation. There’s always a question in my mind whether those kinds of public stances ever have an impact beyond the first few weeks. From this book it’s clear this did.

  3. I really love this book (it has been available in North America for about 25 years). It was my first Jaeggy and to date still my favourite.Of her translated works, I only have one left to read and I’ve been saving it.

      1. I think the attention around Jaeggy’s more recent releases (published simultaneously by New Directions and And Other Stories last year has raised interest in her work. There are still earlier novels that have never been translated and hopefully that will now change.

        1. I think this one has had a bit more attention because of the link with Shamsie’s provocation which will perhaps spur on And Other Stories to publish more. Let’s hope so.

  4. This sounds like it would make an interesting companion to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath, two other novels about relationships at boarding school written by feminists. Even though I should know better, when I heard boarding school, I still think Enid Blyton, even though I reread A Little Princess just as many times!

      1. She was my first favourite author; I wanted to read anything with her name on it. But, eventually, I grew away from the short stories and Willow Farm and I became more of an Adventure and Famous Five girl, although my favourite was The Secret Island (a gentle survival-ish story). The school stories were less available to me, whether because they weren’t being bought for the libraries I grew up with or were between printings so I only read a couple and didn’t get as hooked on them as I’m sure I would have with earlier opportunities.

        1. They might have been considered a peculiarly British sort of book. I’m sure I would have hated boarding school but the idea of midnight feasts appealed very much!

  5. This book makes me think of A Little Princess, but I’m sure it’s much different! The boarding school setting is appealing as well as the time and place. I’ll be adding it to my novella list!

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