Fiction

Pictures from an Institution

Sweet Days of Discipline BY Fleur Jaeggy. New Directions. Paperback, 112 pages. $13.

Today’s challenges of transparency and opacity in everything from the personal to the institutional have created a desire to experience these qualities afresh in literature. I have often thought of these issues as lake-like, because lakes are eerily both. It is a psychic challenge to imagine what cold, still pools of water withhold below a calm, shimmering surface. The work of the Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy is similarly lacustrine, typified by cool observations that quickly plunge into uncertain depths. Sweet Days of Discipline, set in the 1950s at an elite girls’ boarding school in Switzerland near the Alpine waters of Lake Constance, was originally published in Italian in 1989 and was the first of her works to be translated into English, in 1991. This reissue by New Directions is the latest example of the renewed interest in the writer, following the recently released short story collection I Am the Brother of XX and a book of speculative literary portraits called These Possible Lives.

A strict girls’ boarding school is certainly a clichéd setting for explorations of sadomasochism, psychological cruelty, and early sexual experiences, but Jaeggy’s treatment of the educational institution reaches for something profound and strange. Her semiautobiographical novel is more concerned with discipline as an organizing principle for erotics, social bonds, and the life of the mind. The narrator begins by reflecting on her life at the age of fourteen, when she was resident at the Bausler Instititue in the Appenzell region, following a childhood spent in a Catholic convent. Her voice is unsparingly jagged and autopsic, summoning Jaeggy’s line from S. S. Proleterka, in which she declares that children abandoned by their parents become “passionate and cold.” She briefly appraises surfaces like veils on reality before ripping through them in the space of a sentence, as when she describes walking in the Appenzell on the novel’s first page: “If you look at the small white-framed windows and the busy, firey 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.” Flowers and frills not only fail to mask the rotting heart of things, they are a tell: a sugary smile with dead eyes.

The social order that the girls are being trained to observe is charged with the responsibility for this pallid atmosphere of malaise. The cultivation of feminine obedience seems to open up a kind of deathliness inside the girls: “Part of your education is learning how to thank with a smile. An awful smile. There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls.” Though not directly addressed in the novel, notably, women did not gain suffrage in Switzerland until the appallingly late date of 1971, and our “Arcadia of Sickness,” the Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, was indeed the last region to allow women to vote on local issues, when forced to by the Swiss Federal Court in 1991. The tradition of femininity and subservience that the girls are learning is a grave, and the landscape of the novel is plotted with nooses, car accidents, and mausoleums. Describing a pretty twelve-year old with violet eyes, we are plunged straight into the cold earth: “We find her eyes in cemeteries by gravestones: there’s a stalk and on the stalk a violet iris.”

When the elegant fifteen-year-old Frédérique arrives at the school, “hair straight and shiny as blades and stern staring shadowy eyes,” she wrenches the narrator out of childish apathy. Frédérique appears to her as the apotheosis of discipline and restraint, seemingly having reached a higher plane of existence through self-control, and it is this gulf between them that the narrator fills with desire and obsession. In the typical staccato of her incisive evaluations: “Her looks were those of an idol, disdainful. Perhaps that was why I wanted to conquer her. She had no humanity. She even seemed repulsed by us all.” The two develop an amitié amoureuse led by the older girl’s high-minded, tense discussions. Frédérique’s rigor is both unearthly and attractive, as though she has managed to rearrange her inner world into sharp, straight lines. “I understood those children who jump from the top floor of a school simply to do something disordered, and I told her,” Jaeggy’s narrator confesses. “Order was like ideas, something you possessed, something that possessed you.”

It is held as a mark of the narrator’s immaturity that her sense of order has been related most readily to the earthly realm of bodies. The narrator’s severe treatment of her schoolmates’ corporeality as an indicator of their strength of character, for example, is ascetic, if not anorexic. Touching other female bodies creates disgust, while her German roommate’s body is perceived as “sham” and “lazy.” “In bright white underwear her body was quite attractive, shapely almost, but if by accident I were to touch her I had a feeling of repugnance.” She recalls to Frédérique how years ago a girl had climbed into her bed: “Her breasts were just forming, they were still muscly. She felt hot, I threw her out, she fell like a sack.” But Frédérique, the most disciplined of all, chastises her for focusing on the importance of hot sacks. Tue es un enfant. “Frédérique was violent. I was only violent—I can think of no other way to put it—carnally. . . . I could have wrung my German roommate’s neck. . . . ‘Tu es un enfant.’ Was I un enfant because I wanted to kill just for fun? Ideas are strength, she said.”

The power of the prose is its condensed, crystalline qualities, which seem as though they could be cracked open to reveal a network of veins. But it is a violence dredged from the depths of consciousness that is the most darkly glittering seam running through this world, be it chaotic or clinical. It is later revealed that Frédérique’s grasp of order is nihilistic and wild, and the protagonist appears to grasp that she is in fact dealing with a kind of void. On a winter day, when the older girl tells her about a love affair:

For a moment it occurred to me there was no man. I took another pastry. The snowflakes hung still. It crossed my mind that Frédérique was inventing another life for herself. Fleetingly, as she was speaking, I thought I saw a strange light in her eyes, like the snowflakes, mad and pointless, hanging still in the air. I was afraid, I wanted to tell her to save herself, but I didn’t know from what. My thoughts were suspended halfway, I had the impression of danger, the danger of experiencing something which doesn’t exist. Then everything was relaxed again, that glimmer of disorder faded away.

Tiring somewhat of the efforts required of the friendship, the narrator abandons Frédérique for the Gilda-like Micheline, a redhead with Daddy issues. Frédérique leaves the school after her own father passes away, and the narrator is left regretful and abandoned, clasping a disturbingly formal note from her former companion. She sees her once more, years later on the streets of Paris, where she has become even more austere, living in a cold empty room in an office building, burning alcohol in a pan for light and warmth, and living on next to nothing. “I wasn’t surprised so much by her poverty as by her grandeur. That room was a concept. Though of what I didn’t know. Once again she had gone beyond me. . . . Something very banal came to mind: we hadn’t been educated to live like this. I was full of admiration. I felt cold.”

It’s precisely this rejection of the institute’s teachings that makes the older girl endlessly compelling for the narrator. And though Frédérique’s chilly psychopathy becomes clear when she is committed after attempting to burn down her mother’s house, one cannot help but surmise that the Bausler Institute is also in some sense mad. When the school is destroyed many years later, the narrator tells Frédérique that it gave her un parfait contentement. “I also said to Frédérique that maybe it had been our thoughts, or the vibrations given off at the age of innocence, that had destroyed it. She said that innocence was a modern invention.” True enough, but the remark about a childhood faced by institutions of tradition rings true. As the late social critic Mark Fisher wrote of Franz Kafka’s and Lewis Carroll’s treatments of institutions “mad” and “pointless”:

Kafka’s observations of the banalising terror of the decaying Hapsburg bureaucracy as it moved towards Weberian impersonality owes much to Carroll. K’s Trial after all has no more sense than the trial at the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Like Alice, K often comes across as a lucid child—for only a child can be lucid in Carroll and Kafka’s world—observing the senseless and arbitrary cruelty of adult caprice, whose only alibi is precedent.

The failings of institutions today are different, but the lucidity with which Jaeggy narrates being raised by them is exhilarating. In its attention to struggles for power and possession, and the effects of institutions on consciousness and desire, her writing suggests that if there are institutions that we desire to save rather than burn down, we might need something “passionate and cold.”

Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and Curator at Swiss Institute, New York.