The Skull Beneath the Skin

Sweet Days of Discipline

by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Tim Parks
New Directions, 101 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Sweet Days of Discipline is a novel—or rather novella—about a girls’ boarding school. Discipline is the pivot, as it is in the two best-known examples of the genre, both set in the 1920s: Antonia White’s Frost in May and Christa Winsloe’s Mädchen in Uniform (the novel on which the more famous film was based is actually called Gestern und Heute). In both of them discipline is the killer responsible for the tragic denouement. The German novel takes place in a school for the daughters of impoverished officers; the discipline there is military, rooted in an ethos of honor. In White’s convent story the discipline is Catholic, rooted in the concept of original sin, and exercised through penance.

Fleur Jaeggy’s Swiss school has no particular ethos at all: the period is the later Fifties, and the discipline seems mild, positively watery compared to the regimes in Mädchen in Uniform and Frost in May. It is based on nothing more profound than the desire of the parents (mostly separated) to keep their daughters out of the way and teach them manners. There is quite a lot of freedom and no anguish about dishonor or sin; not even about class, which plays a painful part in Frost in May. Most of the girls at the Bausler Institut in Switzerland are children of rich businessmen with chauffeurdriven limousines to pick them up at the end of the term. So Jaeggy’s novel starts with the disadvantage of a weaker armature than its predecessors. There is an ominous signpost, though, in the first paragraph: the school is in Canton Appenzell, close to where the writer Robert Walser was found dead in the snow near the mental home that had been his prison for thirty years.

The narrator is fourteen at the beginning of the story. Her parents are separated. Her detested mother lives in Brazil, and the girl spends the holidays with her Swiss father in Swiss hotels. “It was clear I would have to spend the best years of my life in boarding school. From eight to seventeen.” She is already an expert on “headmistresses, reverend mothers, mother superiors and Mères préfètes. “Her feelings are ambiguous: most of the time she feels impatient and rebellious toward the discipline she lives under; occasionally she has to admit its sweetness and pleasure, “the pleasure that comes from obedience. Order and submission, you can never know what fruits they will bear in adulthood.”

Order and submission come naturally to Frédérique, a new girl slightly older than the narrator. She is remote, austerely beautiful, elegant, intellectual, obedient, a model pupil, a brilliant pianist, unimaginably tidy, a perfectionist down to her beautiful handwriting. After a chilly start she accepts the narrator’s overtures and they become “accomplices, disdaining all the others. Like blood brothers, in a way, or sisters.” This is a classic start for boarding school fiction. Sex doesn’t come into it—or at any rate the girls don’t acknowledge …

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