Tag Archives: Swiss fiction

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

Cover imageFleur 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.

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti (transl. by Charlotte Mandell): Coming of age in 1976

Cover imageI have to admit it was nostalgia that drew me to Roland Buti’s Swiss novella set in 1976. Anyone who was alive and conscious in that year will remember the long hot summer which those of us not yet working luxuriated in throughout Europe. Rather more recently, H and I were walking in the Swiss Alps through a similar landscape to the one in which Buti has set his story of the Sutters who have farmed the same patch of land for many years but for whom the events of 1976 will prove momentous.

Thirteen-year-old Gus spends the summer holidays helping his father and his cousin Rudy who has Down’s Syndrome. He visits the family’s ancient horse with whom his grandfather sleeps in a nearby stable, preferring to bed down in hay than stay in his flat. When a young woman turns up, clad in a long patchwork dress and spouting hippie ideas, Rudy becomes besotted but it’s Gus’ mother who’s the object of Cécile’s attentions. His taciturn father becomes increasingly morose until village tittle-tattle proves too much. His wife moves out, his daughter throws herself into practicing for a school concert and Gus frets about what’s to become of them all. Meanwhile, the aged dog faints from the heat, the new chickens roast in their hen-house and the sun beats relentlessly down. The inevitable storm brings disaster with it.

Buti unfolds his story from Gus’ perspective as he looks back on the dramatic events of that summer. His language vividly summons up the deadening heat: ‘The yellow sky, the yellow fields, the car splitting the yellow air on the yellow road… They were all unreal’. Gus’ father is wedded to a way of life that’s fast passing, his plans for a future farming chickens blown apart by the cataclysmic weather. He’s left bereft, puzzled and angry by the behaviour of his wife, unaware of her long unhappiness: ‘Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair’. There’s a nice thread of humour running through the novel lightening its tone, from the fainting dog to Rudy’s spit-polished red apple handed to Cécile as a token of his adoration. Altogether an enjoyable read and not just because of a double dose of nostalgia.

Speaking of which, Buti’s novel brought back memories of the farm where we stopped for the last lunch of our holiday. We had a cheese plate, looking out at a fabulous view then across to the open stable at the cows who’d produced what we were eating. Idyllic for us, hard work for the family that ran it.