There is a book that I’ve read and reread maybe six or seven times—it’s only 101 pages long, but I can never remember the ending. The book is Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, a novella first published in Italian in 1989 and translated into English in 1991. I find it almost impossible to believe that this book was written in the late 1980s, just as I find it almost impossible to believe that Cy Twombly really liked to shop at Walmart, although both are apparently true. Some people anchor themselves so effectively to another time, or a space outside of time; their work streaks across the floor of history like dusty light in the late afternoon, thickening the air above it.
Sweet Days of Discipline belongs to a timeline more distorted and truthful than decades or generations; it is set in memory, that extra century. And so it feels ironic that I have such persistent amnesia regarding this book in particular, this book so heavy with the duty of remembering. The ending is always a shock. Not in a whodunit kind of way, with plot twists that lull me into the wrong expectations on each reread, but more like I forget that the book has an ending at all. For something that starts so close to the finish (101 pages, remember), how can I continue to be surprised that it does not remain perpetual, open, undone? I realize I could ask the same question about being alive.
Sweet Days of Discipline is set in a girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Switzerland, “an Arcadia of sickness,” where our narrator, Eve, falls in love with the new girl, Frédérique. “Falls in love” is a simplification and an understatement, but then again, isn’t it always? I remember the feeling of Frédérique like a kick in the belly; I remember my own Frédérique, who was named Sophie. I remember the way Frédérique folds her underwear “like altar cloths,” that she smokes tobacco from the south of Spain, how she wears her clothes loose when everyone else cinches their waists, that she plays Beethoven perfectly with “no emotion, no vanity, no modesty, as if walking behind her own coffin.” At fifteen she speaks of men as “a completed parabola,” and she isn’t sad when her father dies.
To sum it up, she’s the coolest girl in school, which means she is the coolest girl in the world, forever. I text my friend Janique, who can recite entire passages from Sweet Days, to ask if she can remember what happens to Frédérique. Not a trick question, I say, I’m testing a theory. “Does she die?” she texts back. “I have no memory. Or does she go crazy? Does she get married?” Well, at least we’ve ruled out a happy ending.
The retroactive ongoingness of Jaeggy’s writing might arise because she always starts with death and works from there. I mean this somewhat literally: in all her translated novels, death appears in the opening lines. She does not rely on narrative structures that mimic and reinforce the bizarre fictions we are taught about life’s trajectory: eager beginning, accrual of specificity, parade of choices, climax!!!, unfurling consequences, waning action, wisdom and generalization, finish. Reading Jaeggy, I am reminded that having a brain actually braids all of those feelings together, and my nonexistence is by far my most longstanding contribution to reality. Life is not a mere precursor to, but also the aftermath of, the void. So is plot. With nothingness on all sides, one can expect that a little leaks in, from time to time.
Born in 1940 in Zurich, Jaeggy writes novels and stories that are often semi-autobiographical, but they are as much poetic examinations of what it’s like to have a past, to endure its mercurial nature and unrelenting influence, as they are narrations of her past itself. Her more experimental writing is like a dream that contains the memory of having dreamt it before, a sleepwalking déjà vu. In her novel The Water Statues, first published in 1980 and in English translation by New Directions last year, the main character, Beeklam, “had a horror of anything hereditary, because whatever comes to us by natural inheritance belongs to the dead.” To Jaeggy, every inheritance is a kind of haunting, and we inherit almost everything.
In Sweet Days of Discipline Eve learns to perfectly copy Frédérique’s handwriting, leaving behind the “uncertain, childish,…round, wide ‘o’s” of the other girls. In a private act of worship, she secretly practices her friend’s penmanship, which Jaeggy only describes as similar to “a dedication Pierre Jean Jouve had written on a copy of Kyrie” that Eve discovers twenty years later. To Eve, and to everyone, Frédérique is a reincarnation of the French poets; they “come down to her,” bestowing unjustified gifts. Decades later Eve shows Frédérique that she still writes like her, that is, like Jouve—still in a state of blessed imitation. They write adieu to each other and that too “becomes part of the language of the dead.”
It is no coincidence that of all the devoted affectations of teenage girlhood, all the small aesthetic knots one tightens at fifteen, it is in writing itself that Eve most successfully inhabits Frédérique, and that Frédérique is most inhabited by ghosts. As in the novels of Virginia Woolf or Nathalie Sarraute, writing is not the singular expression of a discrete, coherent aliveness. All of Jaeggy’s books are written in the clairvoyant italic of the bardo or the young girl. Language flutters between selves, a winged transmission across a verdant cemetery.
Even her name is a concise collision of romance and its mortality. First name, Fleur, French for flower, figuratively used to mean a kind favor, the best of something, a woman’s virginity, and substances in a state of purity, like, fleur de zinc, or better, fleur d’arsenic. Last name, Jaeggy, which in English (mis)pronunciation becomes a sister to “jagged,” a word often employed to describe her prose. Certainly her writing has a serrated intimacy, the unexpected potential to wound. Although the soft yank of the J in her native languages—she grew up speaking German, French, and Italian, in both standard and Swiss dialects—undoes that association, the wound remains.
The name Jaeggy comes from the Old German word for hunter. In German, jagen is to hunt, to chase, to pierce. (It’s a fateful name for a writer, Flower Hunter; she might as well be named Darling Murderer.) Petals fall, but there is no breathless pursuit in her affect. If Fleur Jaeggy hunts, it’s by laying traps and waiting for the inevitable. Her favorite trap might be called “having a body.” As she writes in her story “A Wife,” from Last Vanities (1998), “Aside from rotting, there’s little flowers can do, and in this they are not unlike human beings. Flowers and corpses are in a race to turn to forgotten dust.” Jaeggy doesn’t have to murder her darlings. They are already dead.
Like most hauntings, her books are often quite baroque, sometimes verging on florid, but they cast a strange spell that causes everyone to remember them as nothing but chilly, sparse, and austere. Perhaps that’s because we can only associate brevity (none of her books is more than 122 pages long) with a kind of self-restraint, an ascetic minimalism. And it’s true that Jaeggy is preoccupied with the ascetic and the aesthetic, how they tangle together like weeds beneath a lake’s polished surface. Her characters often return to beauty as others might return to penance. But when I hear a writer described as minimalist, I think factual, action-driven, suspicious of adjectives. Brief, yes, but also essentially to the point, pulling back from the potential voluptuousness of a phrase for the intensity of pure, uninterpreted behavior. There’s a necessary element of withholding. Jaeggy’s books are brief as being plunged deep underwater and pushing back to the surface is brief, or kissing someone you shouldn’t, just once, or a gunshot. I wouldn’t describe any of those experiences as restrained, but sudden, distilled. Lush, even.
The Water Statues, by far Jaeggy’s most ornate piece of fiction, opens with Beeklam, as a small child, listening to an echo. His father interrupts “in a low stinting voice, announcing the death of his wife (and my mother) Thelma.” I always flinch at that maternal parenthesis, on par with Nabokov’s “(picnic, lightning).” Reacting to this news, Beeklam laughs “almost soundlessly,” and Jaeggy takes us on a digression: “Much has been said of the crystalline, celestial, happy laugh of children.” She lists all the things that children might laugh at:
At themselves, at cool and collected dromedaries, at the boats of the Yucatan, at iridescent fish scales, and so on, ad infinitum: at their mothers, at the ample arms that held them, at the mighty arms that held me, too, when they came to our house as though in lifeboats to convey their solidarity with our mourning and silence.
Jaeggy is a genius of the obverse—children’s laughter, harrowing grief, flipped as if on a coin. She presents opposites in high contrast only to reveal that they belong to the same object. Wandering among armchairs full of supportive visitors, Beeklam
became aware of something multicolored—words pronounced distinctly, an attitude unaccustomed to ceremony, the slow movements of girdled bodies—I was even caught unawares by a nuanced red cherry resting on a hat.
Detour, detail, ambivalence, and secrecy: these are the building blocks of childhood. There is no standard acknowledgment of what has happened, except that the boy returns to his room as dusk falls, “perhaps so as not to forget the exact descent of night that day, that social day of the loss of my mother.” The most painful part, for me: there is no way to memorize the twilight, although all writers wish we could. What we recall is usually, inevitably, the cherries.
Beeklam grows up to collect statues, which he keeps in his perpetually flooded basement: “The child now wished to live as though he’d drowned.” He names the statues after his mother and her friends (“Rosalind, Diane, Magdalena, Thelma, Gertrud”), and as the book continues, skipping like a stone over narrators and timelines, it becomes increasingly unclear who is a statue and who is merely acting like one, frozen in contemplation or grief. There is an almost mocking dramatis personae at the front of the book, which disintegrates into a list of names with few functionally identifying relationships. Both Beeklam and his father, Reginald, are emotionally reliant upon their servants, Victor and Lampe, who seek “the mute companion[ship]” of the reclusive employer, tending devotedly to the “tasks in domesticity that appear to belong to the world of dreams.”
Victor acts as a parent to Beeklam, and Lampe a partner to Reginald. Their intimacies are the most lucid in the book; the bonds of employment supersede the familial, the fraternal, and the romantic. But the connections among them eventually warp, obscured by each character’s “theological ability to live alone” and Jaeggy’s general disdain for linear narrative. When Victor asks Lampe if he is happy, he responds, “In places like these it’s as if all that is yet to happen were already in the past.” Sometimes I wonder if the characters are in a kind of purgatory, frozen in the basement between the chattering glow of the house and the watery depths underneath. But Jaeggy does not seem interested in the contours of literal afterlives. Instead, this is what it means to be alive, in a certain kind of mood, in a certain moment of history: the years sink toward you, everything has already happened, and you can hear the ocean through the cracks in the walls.
In September 1973, two years after the publication of her novel Malina, the brilliant Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann nodded off in bed with a cigarette in her hand, setting herself on fire. She had been using a combination of alcohol and barbiturates heavily for years, exacerbated by heartbreak—her turbulent relationship with Max Frisch eventually capsized, her lover Paul Celan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine. Friends had noticed small burns healing on her arms before, from smoking and dozing, startled awake by the hiss of skin. But this time she slept, and more than a third of her body burned, along with her apartment on the upper floors of the Palazzo Sacchetti in Rome. She was in the hospital for three weeks, where she suffered from extreme drug and alcohol withdrawals. “Hell” is a paltry catch-all for the unlucky capacity of the human body to shelter infinite kinds of pain, but the thought of detoxing combined with extensive third-degree burns limits my vocabulary. Hell is all I can say. Bachmann died there, in convulsions, at forty-seven years old. She was Fleur Jaeggy’s best friend.
I have been wondering if it is possible to write about Jaeggy without mentioning Bachmann. Jaeggy is often contextualized by the fame of her peers: her husband, Roberto Calasso; her friend Bachmann; her interlocutors Joseph Brodsky and Oliver Sacks. These are big names, with big intellectual projects, casting long shadows. I fear losing the outlines of her taut, lissome books in their shade. But Jaeggy leads us back to the scene of Bachmann’s death, again and again, with such insistence, the insistence of steadfast grief. Her story “The Aseptic Room,” which appears in her collection I Am the Brother of XX, is the most direct reference to her friend’s suffering. It is only two paragraphs long. In the first, the young women talk about growing old together, “a longevity without death, a house in the country, a wall,…a garden within the walls and again I said to her the two of us.”
Actually, Jaeggy is the one talking. Bachmann plays along, half-heartedly, as if she knows something her friend does not. There is an odd moment in the first paragraph when the room they are in suddenly sharpens, comes out of the mist: “As she sits on the blond wood Biedermeier couch, its striped upholstery, the round Biedermeier table and the vase of flowers seemed to be listening.” The story closes with Jaeggy visiting Bachmann in the eponymous aseptic room, with no explanation. We are left wandering an empty architecture—the imaginary garden of mutual old age, the memory of the attentive apartment, and the cell of the wounded, scrubbed free of past, present, and future.
It is unsettling, then, to encounter a repetition, a small haunting, in the next story in the collection, “The Heir.” A ten-year-old girl, orphaned, is adopted by a lonely older woman whose apartment she witnesses being overtaken by a fire, with the woman inside. The child thinks the home must be left to burn, as it is the fire’s “vocation to annihilate.” There is no one to blame except the most obvious: “It is God who sends the flames into the apartment with its Biedermeier furniture.” The twinned objects crackle with recognition, staring across the page. Is “The Heir” set in a fictional version of Ingeborg Bachmann’s apartment? Restaging a fire—it’s a bit like memorizing the twilight. Jaeggy describes how the older woman wrote a will leaving all her belongings to the orphan girl, who is now watching her (and her things) burn to death without intervening.
The old woman sits at her desk (“also Biedermeier”) and writes in “her small, orderly, affected handwriting” on an egg-blue sheet of paper, chosen by her to resemble Djuna Barnes’s stationery, “which had actually been white.” Jaeggy describes Barnes as a double to the isolated old lady, knowing that the avant-garde novelist became a willful recluse in her later years, “surrounded by innumerable prescription bottles and [wearing] a light blue dressing gown.” Who is doubling who here? Just as Eve trained her hand to reflect Frédérique’s, the woman’s will becomes a palimpsest, tracing over other female writers, in blue and in ash.
I admire how Jaeggy always snags her mysticism on the whetted edge of a decorative object. She’s writing about longing in the face of an endless abyss, after all, which means writing about fashion. Clothes, furniture, adornments, floral arrangements, personalized stationery—they annex our relationship to the holy. In her story “Agnes,” the narrator comments on the crucifixion: “I know what nails and a crown of thorns are. Ornaments.” Clothes are often the only channel through which one character can understand another, especially when “the clothes were a moral cover for the various crimes of sadness.” They provide a way to survive our bodies and to remember what happened to them—the cherries on the hat, the folded underwear.
The beautiful object is a hook, and we hang time upon it. In Sweet Days of Discipline, one of the girls, Micheline, invites everybody to her lavish birthday party and promises her father will dance with each of them. Fathers are in short supply, as usual, and Micheline’s is fetishized for his presence, his promise-keeping. They spin, exulting in their rarefied daughterhood. Frédérique does not attend. Jaeggy writes, “What are the girls thinking of? At least half are nostalgic for death, and for a temple, and for all those clothes.”
This circuitous reverence, the connection to the sublime and other human beings moving through blouses and couches and portraits and statues and skirts, makes the recurring apartment fire in Jaeggy’s fiction all the more destructive. I can’t list every home that burns down in her work. There are too many. A woman walks through a house, burning room by room, again and again. Often the fire has an audience of children, who watch the structure turn to ruins. These are suicides with wide margins, killing not only the body but all its accompanying tethers, all the silky bows that tie an enclosed history to a limitless person. No mementos—no memories—left.
But, of course: “Some years later, Frédérique tried to burn down her house in Geneva, the curtains, the paintings and her mother. Her mother was reading in the lounge.” Frédérique is the only one who fails in her attempt to annihilate. She lives through and past the flames, as does her mother, as does the house, and she spends the rest of her life interred in a mental institution. It doesn’t seem like an ending I could so easily, so frequently, forget. In the last chapter Eve visits her friend and her mother, Madame. Jaeggy lists Madame’s things, unburned: “the fervourless indolence of cushions and upholstery,” “a clouded silver teapot,” “white napkins bearing the initials of the dead,” “the stillness of a desk in a corner, its stack of little drawers, ivory knobs, conjur[ing] up an invisible scribe with neither pen nor paper, dictating his letters to no one.” Frédérique does not speak, but every time she breathes, there is an echo.