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.