Full on action/shallow characterisation or minimal action/deep characterisation, which is your preference? Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline belongs in the second camp. Not my preferred reading, but there was something so uncomfortably familiar about the psychology of young girls at school, that I had to keep reading.
Memories of junior school (age 5-11) came flooding back. There were two queen bees, and they were always falling out with each other. We lesser minions had to choose between them, and, if we didn’t, then we were shunned. Shunned too if one day our face didn’t fit. Who knew what girly jealousies and rivalries would emerge on any given day in the playground. Fortunately I didn’t follow the queen bees, opting to attend a different school at 11, so I left all that behind me. And I didn’t notice anything like that in my new place. Though perhaps by the age of 14, I was immune and too bookish to be bothered with such nonsense.
This is the age of Jaeggy’s unnamed narrator who introduces herself thus: “At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell.” Her parents are divorced; her mother now living in Brazil, her father in luxury hotels. They never visit, though her mother issues instructions on how she is to be educated, which school she is to attend, who her room mates should be. She is a mediocre student with no ambition to be otherwise. She is looking forward to the end of her school days, to what she considers her captivity.
This isn’t one of those boarding school dramas full of bullying and physical cruelty, but it is replete with the politics of friendship and manipulation. (Hence my flashbacks.) Older girls receive requests from younger. Please let me be your favourite …. and I will be at your beck and call forever more. But our narrator isn’t interested in that kind of friendship, she’s after something altogether more challenging. So when Frédérique appears on the scene – aloof and distant – she sets about making her conquest. It becomes an obsession. But Frédérique is a self-contained law unto herself and while our narrator makes inroads, Frédérique is never entirely hers.
Enter Marcheline, the polar opposite of Frédérique, an extrovert who draws everyone, including our narrator, into her orbit. At which point Frédérique is dropped and our narrator takes a sadistic pleasure is her friend’s obvious confusion and isolation. That is until the death of Frédérique father, which triggers her departure from the school, much to our narrator’s chagrin. This regret at her own behaviour is set to last a lifetime, because, occasional meetups notwithstanding, these friendships are not set to endure in the outside world.
This is a strange, slippery novella. The narrator’s bitterness at being pushed to one side by her parents (they don’t even come to pick her up when term ends) is a dark filter colouring many unkind utterances and actions. The vocabulary of obsession and possession may have acquired sexual undertones in today’s world, but given the setting in post-war Switzerland, I’m pretty sure these are unintentional allusions. Nevertheless power over another lies at the heart of this not so innocent tale with the tables turning on the narrator, because she’s the one who has to live with a enduring absence in her heart.