Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg — book review

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From the first page I was drawn by Natalia Ginzburg’s incredibly vivid prose. The title of this memoir encapsulates much of Ginzburg’s recollection of her family. She remembers in minute detail the way in which within her family certain words and phrases had a particular significance or meaning, one that is known only by a small group of people.
For example, the father reiterates the same words and views so much so that readers can predict not only what he will say but the words he will use. The same goes for the rest of Ginzburg’s family…I never thought of them as ‘characters’ but as real people. And of course they were ‘real’ but it is rare to find a memoir—or a book in general—that really brings to life these different personalities.
Maybe I found a lot of the family discussions and anecdotes relatable because I’m Italian, and Ginzburg’s father reminded me very much of my own grandfather (from their quirks and habits to their idiosyncrasies). And in a way in this portrait of her family Ginzburg evokes the typical Italian family (the brothers who fight with one another, the temperamental father, the pacifying mother).
Behind the laughter and mundanities of this family’s everyday life is a country in turmoil. The rise of Mussolini and fascism repeatedly threaten the safety of Ginzburg’s loved ones (her father was jewish and her first husband—born in the Russian Empire—was an anti-fascist). Yet, even as her brothers and father are imprisoned and released time and again, there is a sense of normalcy that alleviates the gravity of these situations.
A memoir full of humour, love, and deeply insightful, I would definitely recommend this to readers who might want an immersive and entertaining glimpse of an Italian family in the 30s and 40s.

side note: the cover for the English edition of this book is beautiful.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5 because I listened to the audiobook)

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