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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 it: “With us there was a kind of fanaticism that prevented any physical expression.”

After a while, the narrator unaccountably drops Frédérique in favor of a pretty, rather common Belgian girl. Frédérique drifts off, as imperturbable as ever. Then her father dies and she is to leave the school for good. The narrator rushes to her room, commiserates, follows her to the railway station, begs her to write and keep in touch. Frédérique just disappears. Five years later the narrator spots her in a Paris movie theater. Frédérique allows her to accompany her to the freezing attic where she lives at the end of a row of lavatories above an office block. A light bulb dangles down over a solitary chair. “I wasn’t surprised so much by her poverty as by her grandeur. That room was a concept.” The dead come there to speak to Frédérique, but the narrator never manages to find the building again.

Some years later Frédérique tries unsuccessfully to burn down her mother’s house in Geneva. The mother invites the narrator to tea and petits fours. Frédérique is present but does not speak. Afterward the two friends meet in a café. “Is it sorcery that brings lovers together? We joke. She smiles. It’s our last meeting.” In the course of it Frédérique blames the narrator for losing the St. Gallen costume doll that each girl was given at the Bausler Institut. “She was still insisting on being the most disciplined of us all, the most obedient.” Twenty years pass. Then a letter comes from Frédérique; she is about to leave the mental home where she has spent those years: “If she went on staying there, she’d be on her way to the cemetery.”

Death permeates the novel. Jaeggy draws it out from the snug, smug landscape of Appenzell:

If you look at the small whiteframed windows and the busy, fiery flowers on the sills, you get this sense of tropical stagnation, a thwarted luxuriance, you have the feeling that inside something serenely gloomy and a little sick is going on. It’s an Arcadia of sickness. Inside, it seems, in the brightness in there, is the peace and perfection of death, a rejoicing of whitewash and flowers.

In the school itself “there is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell even to the youngest and most attractive girls.”

Frédérique’s mother is death’s victim as well as his accomplice: in her drawing room “Madame’s hands had composed the objects, both living and dead. The living included herself, the rings on her finger, wedding rings, a golden charnel house, oases of widow-hood and betrothal.” One could, if one wanted to, regard this description as an extreme—morbid—outpost of feminist discourse.

But death is everywhere, and quite gratuitous. For instance, during her infatuation with Frédérique, the narrator rejects the advances of a younger child called Marion. She sees her again at the Belgian girl’s coming-out dance in Brussels: Marion is prettier than ever in a black ball gown—black because her parents have just died in a plane crash. The headmistress and her husband come next, killed in a motor accident; and one night at dinner in a hotel restaurant the narrator points out to her father a particularly happy-looking family with three daughters: “You see… wie glücklich sie sind.” During the night, the youngest child hangs herself.

The style of Sweet Days of Discipline might be called deadpan mystificatory. There are no aids to grasping the connection between discipline, madness, and death which the novel seems to be proposing. Frédérique is clearly already slightly deranged when she arrives at the school; its discipline can’t be blamed for her condition. And death is already out there in the landscape. Or is it really inside the narrator? She is certainly much possessed by it, but there is no suggestion that you are meant to think this another form of madness. She tells us nothing of her life after school beyond the two meetings with Frédérique, and during those she plays the part of Horatio to her friend’s Hamlet—as sane as anyone could be.

Jaeggy’s tone is abrupt, and there is a kind of dismissive haughtiness (not unlike Frédérique’s) about the way she leaves her readers to flounder, and about her carelessness too. Carelessness seems incongruous in a work that has perfection and perfectionism among its principal themes. For instance, the sentence already quoted, “Order and submission, you can never know what fruits they may bear in adulthood,” is true to the point of banality, and the next sentence is worse: “You might become a criminal, or, by attrition, a normal conventional person.” So you might after any other form of education too; these are among the options for any adulthood. The short narrative—one hundred pages—is dotted with repetitions, loose ends, and unexplained transitions: How, for instance, does the narrator get to know of Frédérique’s attempt to incinerate her mother? And how does the mother manage to find the narrator? These flaws are irritating in a novel as free from fougue and as tight-lipped as this, and so is the literary name-dropping (beginning with Walser). But in spite of them, and because of its hypnotic intensity, this is a gripping, even haunting work: powerful and hard to shake off.

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