On the anticipated publication by New Directions of two new books by FLEUR JAEGGY : THESE POSSIBLE LIVES and I AM THE BROTHER OF X.X. in July 2017.
Here is a review that was never published of SWEET DAYS OF DISCIPLINE by Fleur Jaeggy. New Directions. I forget why either the Washington Post or Chicago Tribune refused to publish my review back in 1993.
Sweet Days of Discipline is a masterpiece. Probably there is no overcoming a reader’s skepticism at reading such a sentence. Frankly, I was also skeptical about my own initial reading of the book and so to check it I took the advice in the blurb by Joseph Brodsky, “Reading time is approximately four hours. Remembering time as for the author, the rest of one’s life.”
INTERJECTION: I wrote this review in 1993... so 24 years later… not a word has to be changed.
Rereading Jaeggy’s novel I found myself increasingly sadder because the novel is short and the inevitable last page gets closer and closer: I wanted to continue to live in the world of the author’s sensibility and dreading the difficulty of how to convince another to read it…
Like all truly great works of literature the story can be summed up quite simply. The un-named narrator is remembering a year, among many years in the 1950’s spent at a boarding school in Switzerland. But this year was different because it was the year that a new girl, Frederique, was also a student at the same school. The novel traces out the course of that year and the growing friendship between the two girls.
Every cliché that such a situation might suggest is avoided: there is no sadistic headmistress, no randy kitchen help, no lesbian sexual encounters. Instead Jaeggy creates an entire world populated by the children of the high bourgeois of Europe who are destined to be equally comfortable in Zurich, as in Paris, Milan or Munich.
The opening of the novel suggests in the sureness of the language what is to come:
“At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzeel. This was the area where Robert Walser used to take his many walks when he was in the mental hospital in Herisau, not far from our college. He died in the snow. Photographs show his footprints and the position of the body in the snow. We didn’t know the writer. And nor did our literature teacher. Sometime I think it might be nice to die like that, after a walk to let yourself drop into a natural grave in the snow of the Appenzeel after almost thirty years of mental hospital in Herisau. It really was a shame we didn’t know of Walser’s existence, we would have picked a flower for him. Even Kant, shortly before his death was moved when a women he didn’t know offered him a rose.”
Upon re-reading this opening paragraph I am again captivated by the tone of elegiac sadness and the author’s ability to both distance and involve the reader. I am flattered in my knowing who Robert Walser is and having seen those famous photographs of his death steps and I appreciate the apt detail from the life of Kant which avoids the commonplace of the citizen of Koenigsberg setting their clocks to the punctuality of his daily walk through the town.
Such a paragraph sets the tone and allow the reader to enter Jaeggy’s world by remembering too that he or she has probably had a similar experience of growing up. Going to grammar school in Patchogue on Long Island I did not know and my teachers did not know that Henry David Thoreau had passed through Patchogue on his way to look for the bones of Margaret Fuller who had drowned off of Fire Island, opposite Patchogue.
Never have I read such an accurate description of the process by which one attempts to become the friend of another--- knowing that friendship is the near physical absorption of the other.
“In our lives at school, each of us, if we had a little vanity, would establish a facade, a kind of double life, affect a way of speaking, walking, looking. When I saw her writing I couldn’t believe it. We also most all had the same kind of handwriting, uncertain, childish with round wide ‘o’s. Hers was completely affected. (Twenty years later I saw something similar in a dedication Pierre Jean Jouve had written on a copy of “Kyrie.”)
(LATER: again I was flattered as of course I knew the French writer, didn’t everyone at that moment who really read even only in English)
Of course I pretended not to be surprised, I barely glanced at it. But secretly I practiced And I still write like Frederique today, and people tell me I have beautiful handwriting.”
And I too remembering a boy who came to my school in four grade in Patchogue who wrote with the left hand and of how I tried to write with my left hand so as to become this friend. And to think how far away a boarding school in Switzerland is from Patchogue!
But the novel does not isolate the narrator: she takes walks dislikes her roommate rejects another girl who wants to be her friend. The narrator suggests a complete world and that is what we demand of an author: invent a world into which we can fall, slide, insinuate our own experience.
Of course Frederique is not destined for great happiness but for something more interesting: she has taken up residency in the memorial heart of both the narrator and the reader.
An anthology of epigrammatic items of truth could be culled from this book and to set it in its proper context the reader would have tocall to mind such books as Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge or Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles or Glenway Wescott’s The Grandmothers or Fred Uhlman’s Reunion.
Years after the year at the school the narrator runs into Frederique at the cinemateque in Paris. They go back to her attic room, “Frederique was about twenty now. She dressed as she always had. A dark zinc grey over body, narrow hips, long neck. The jugular was pulsing. She had pushed back her hood. The pale oval of her face, legs crossed. The perfection of school days had taken up residence in this room of hers… She lives, I thought, as if she were in a grave.”
PS I did not describe Jaeggy's other books, LAST VANITIES, SS PROLETERKA, THESE POSSIBLE LIVES, I AM THE BROTHER OF XX... I did not write about Jaeggy's husband Roberto Calasso... I suspect that SS PROLETERKA belongs in the Pantheon of the greatest of modern books... I guess you can say I hold Jaeggy's book in the same imaginary hand that I also hold the books of Hannah Green, ERNST JUNGER, GLENWAY WESCOTT, JULIAN GREEN, JUAN CARLOS ONETTI, JOSE LEZAMA LIMA, PETER NADAS...