Only last night did I read the following—‘He died in the snow. Photographs show his footprints and the position of his body in the snow. We didn’t know the writer. And nor did our literature teacher.’—and today I woke up to see the snow here, covering the roofs of the buildings vis a vis mine. I didn’t know the writer either, I mean the one of this passage. It was the opinion attributed to Joseph Brodsky, printed on this cover, declaring his alleged enthusiasm into one simple ‘Extraordinary’ that ensnared my attention. I bought the book on impulse, to break my winter impasse of barely reading. And so, last night, I began reading Sweet Days of Discipline.
It is a short novel by Fleur Jaeggy. 101 pages. Fleur Jaeggy (born 1940, Zurich), is a Swiss author, who writes in Italian, as I learn from Wikipedia. I beati anni del castigo, ‘her first masterpiece,’ was published in 1989. It is strange to be simultaneously in the process of reading a text and reading about the text, as if the latter constituted some bizarre, semi-dubious intervention into the former. It is strange to write about the book before one even finishes it: whatever is said is suspended, provisory, as if only half in existence and half immaterial: a non-committal type of writing. (Or rather: it is one writing that is explicitly free from the illusion of finitude and commitment.)
The same time there is something compelling about the book, justifying those premature words. It seems to be about void. Though it is not, really. It is a story of a boarder in a school in Appenzell, a girl of fourteen, and of her fascination with another girl, Frederique. That said, even as she recollects this encounter of her youth and life of this institution, we, nevertheless, cannot really hold on to anything. We know what they talk about, but we do not know what they say. We know that they do things (eat their breakfast, take walks, brush out their hair), not how they do so. Like we tried to touch and feel the texture of things touching their photographs. As if all the presented was but a mirage, intangible and with no apparent essence. As if the life had no content, consisting solely of some sort of delicate structure.
All the book says is a simple ‘this has taken place.’ It’s like everything is outlined because everything suggests but an appearance of the real thing. The real thing, however, is absent. ‘It was as though she talked about nothing. Her words flew. What was left after them had no wings.’ I encountered this description of Frederique’s speech shortly after the aforementioned thought had struck me and the thought re-doubled, mirrored in the very words of the narrative itself. It is perhaps natural, I thought, that someone who, as we learn in the book, modelled her handwriting after that of her idol shall also readjust the manner of her own expression, thinking and language. (And don’t we, after all, sometimes reflect what we love in this strange way, infused by the object of our fixation?)
The tone is never drastic but an uncanny tension is present throughout the text, underneath the ostensive calm of the language enveloping vacuum. This slight menace suggests to the reader that they are awaiting someone’s death that one knows, however, will never happen. (But will it? There is more to that feeling than the prefiguration in the episode with the writer: it is as if this covert nothingness had to materialise itself at some point. Something both frantic and suppressed that needs resolution. Yet it remains always arrested, it must happen but it will not come, something tells me. And this, paradoxically makes it all the more present.)
I hope the snow is still here tomorrow when I finish reading. How it cushions and conceals the world underneath fits the book itself. It is beautiful, but cold.