Girls’ schools and Gothic: inside the dark and dreamlike world of Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy

Jaeggy writes powerfully of communities of adolescent girls: stagnant, hothouse worlds of spying and crushes.

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Tim Parks, novelist and translator, says he came across a copy of Fleur Jaeggy’s novella, I beati anni del castigo, while browsing in an Italian bookshop. His translation of it, Sweet Days of Discipline, won the John Florio Prize in 1992. One can see why he was so attracted to this brief tale of boarding school life and its dark consequences. Jaeggy’s works are a translator’s dream: short, lucid and complex. Her distinctive vocabulary and syntax move elegantly and it would seem effortlessly into the English language. The translator has time to weigh and to discriminate: none of the slog here of translating long volumes against the clock. Parks could consider, and refine, and he has done so to fine effect. It is a compliment to his version that one wishes at times to consult the original, to see how the smooth transition was made.

 Fleur Jaeggy is multi-lingual and has also worked as a translator. Swiss by birth, born in Zurich in 1940 into an upper-class family, she writes in Italian, but she has also translated into Italian Thomas De Quincey’s The Last Days of Immanuel Kant and Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives.

In These Possible Lives (2017, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor) she offers three very short biographical sketches of Keats, De Quincey, and the fin-de-siècle symbolist orientalist Jewish Parisian Schwob. Schwob is a character best known to me, bizarrely, as a kind friend to Arnold Bennett in his lonely Paris days; more pertinently, he was a friend of Stéphane Mallarmé and Alfred Jarry, and is said to have influenced Borges. Her three subjects are loosely linked by opium, by malady, by a delectatio morosa or morbid delight, and her essays are prose poems rather than factual narrations. She does not give facts or dates, but tells us of Wordsworth’s habit of cutting the pages of books with a butter knife, of De Quincey’s nightmares, of Schwob’s love for a tubercular working-class girl and her dolls, of Keats begging “in a lucid delirium” for more laudanum. Their hallucinatory intensity and heightened language recall the prose poems of Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, with their invocations of wine and hashish, their pose of le poète maudit.

Jaeggy invokes Baudelaire in Sweet Days of Discipline – recently republished by the independent imprint And Other Stories – along with the Brontës and Novalis, and on the very first page, Robert Walser. Walser was a German-speaking Swiss writer who died in the Appenzell snow in 1956, after decades spent in various sanatoria and institutions; the novella is set in a boarding school in the same region and in the same mountainous but prettified and half-tamed landscape, described as “an Arcadia of sickness”. Thus we are confronted from the start with premonitions of doom and decline and ill-health – the mountains inevitably suggest tuberculosis and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

The frame of literary reference is wide and multicultural, reminding us that Switzerland is the linguistic crossroads of western Europe, and the text is sprinkled with German and French phrases – the heavy German Zwang, the softer French faisandé and carnet de bal. The narrator speaks in German to her father, Herr Doktor, but in French to Frédérique, the slightly older fellow pupil with whom she becomes (for life, as emerges in later short stories) obsessed.

The story is deceptively simple. It opens: “At 14 I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell”, and we discover that the narrator is a lonely and isolated girl who has spent her life in institutions, rarely hearing from her mother in Brazil, spending uncomfortable vacations with her father and dancing in hotel ballrooms with his elderly acquaintances. She is uneasy in her relationships with her fellow boarders, and mildly repelled by her room-mate, a German girl from Nuremberg who wears bright white underwear and files her nails and combs her curls and dreams of lovers. She describes her own condition with a chilly understated dignity. “I hardly got any letters. They were handed out at mealtime. It wasn’t nice not to get much post.”

The atmosphere of an all-female community of adolescent girls is powerfully conveyed; it is a stagnant hothouse world of spying and of “crushes” (passione in Italian), of teachers who have favourites, of girls waiting for Daddy to come to dance with them at the school ball, or to whisk them away at the end of term in a black Mercedes. There are echoes of other novels in the boarding-school genre: the references to the Brontës are not accidental, though the food at the Bausler Institut is much better than the burnt porridge of Jane Eyre’s Lowood, and the narrator is reprimanded for dunking her bread in her coffee “out of sheer greed”.

Villette also hovers behind the text, and Mme Beck shares characteristics with the solid head of the Institut, Frau Hofstetter, “broad as a cupboard in a blue tailleur”, who takes a fancy to the only black girl in the school, daughter of the president of an African state, a child who is clearly tubercular. It is suggested that the standard of teaching is high, though our heroine is interested only in French literature.

Those who have attended a girls’ boarding school will recognise the rituals – the obligatory pairing off for walks, the pigeon holes too often empty, the keeping of locked diaries, the emphasis on the neat folding of clothes in cupboards, the packing of trunks at the end of term. (I am embarrassed to be reminded of how pleased I was when the maths teacher, a severe woman whom I with reason feared, told me I was learning to be “a good little packer” as she supervised the row of trunks laid out in the school gym – laid out, Jaeggy would have written, like coffins. (School lockers, Jaeggy says, are “the dear little mortuary of our thoughts”.)

Jaeggy insists that convents and girls’ schools are inevitably full of spies. “A boarding school is a strong institution, since in a sense it is founded on blackmail.” The question of whether Catholic or Protestant schools are more prone to blackmail is raised but not answered; the narrator had been to a Catholic convent before the Bausler, and her father is Protestant, but her sensibility is caught in the baroque swirls and eddies of Swiss theology and practice. In Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a study of the intensity of relationships in a girls’ day school in Edinburgh, we remember that the pupil who betrays Miss Brodie, Sandy, converts to Catholicism (like Spark) and at the end of the novel is seen clutching at the bars of her grille, as if to escape. It is a disturbing image, and one that Jaeggy would have recognised.

The narrator is mesmerised by her bold and free-thinking friend Frédérique, and their complex relationship – not physical, but une amitié amoureuse – lives on after their schooldays into a bleak, dreamlike aftermath as Frédérique becomes mentally ill, tries to burn down her mother’s house in Geneva, and is institutionalised, this time forever.

This short work is packed with violent premonitions, sudden deaths, stabbings, hangings and the language of insanity. There are metaphors drawn from shrouds, altar cloths, coffins, corpses, funeral marches, gallows, guillotines, nooses, cults of the dead and, most affecting of all, stone tablets set in churchyard walls. We are all dying, even as children: as Rilke believed, we carry our deaths within us. Frédérique tells the narrator she has an old woman’s hands; the schoolgirls inhabit “a sort of senile childhood” and they have “a mortuary look”. 

Frédérique reappears in a volume of short stories, I Am the Brother of XX (translated by Gini Alhadeff), suggesting there was or is a real-life source, along with other sketches which are overtly autobiographical and introduce us to Oliver Sacks, Italo Calvino, Jaeggy’s husband the writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and, most significantly, the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann.

The fictional stories deal with by now familiar motifs of arson, ill health, insomnia, suicide, isolation, hauntings, vendettas and murder: some are Gothic tales of the supernatural, featuring ghosts and saints and mandrakes. We learn in “An Encounter in the Bronx” that Jaeggy herself, morbidly sensitive to cold, types in fingerless gloves, indoors, swaddled in layers of clothing. The prose here has grown even more staccato and poetic: here are the orchids from a sinister tale of jealousy, “Agnes”: “Growing in the damp. White, with purple eyelets. Rosy, pale, an evil expression. Acidulous. Yellow. They last a long time. Not much earth. Not much nourishment. They reawaken in the dark, at night. Avid for company. When they wilt, they become small skulls in tuxedos.” These are flowers from the world of Sylvia Plath: death blooms, fleurs du mal. And death haunts: the death of Sissi, Empress of Austria, assassinated on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1898; the suicide of the Austrian poet and painter Adalbert Stifter, who cut his throat in Linz in 1868 (English-language readers have to look these events up: there are no notes).

There is no note to tell you the background to the shortest piece of all, a single paragraph called “The Aseptic Room”. It begins: “Once with Ingeborg we talked about old age, she smiled at that word, but that word was accompanied neither by the heart nor by a real smile.” The aseptic room is in the burns unit of the hospital of Sant’Eugenio in Rome, and it is clear that we are reading of the death of Ingeborg Bachmann in 1973, who, like Barbara Hepworth, appears to have set her bedroom on fire with a lighted cigarette. Bachmann was a very well-known poet and dramatist, whose long correspondence with Paul Celan, master of the elliptical short poem, was recently turned into a film, The Dreamed Ones.

She also appears, more happily, in the last recollection in the volume, “The Saltwater House”, an episode that brings her back to life in the summer of 1971, as she and Jaeggy set off together for a summer month in Poveromo on the Tuscan coast in an Alfa Romeo 2600. The house was vast, the water salt, the tea disgusting and the garden sickly, but they seem to have a good time, with visits from writers and publishers and Jaeggy’s husband-to-be, Calasso. The second sentence of this episode must be one of the most everyday sentences that Jaeggy ever wrote: “Ingeborg Bachmann manned the road maps.” They did not know then how near the end of the journey was. But Jaeggy writes, simply, “I would have liked it to go on a long time. And always.”

Margaret Drabble’s most recent book is “The Dark Flood Rises” (Canongate). She is an honorary patron of Cambridge Literary Festival (13-15 April)

Sweet Days of Discipline
Fleur Jaeggy. Translated by Tim Parks
And Other Stories, 102pp, £8.99

I Am the Brother of XX
Fleur Jaeggy. Translated by Gini Alhadeff
And Other Stories, 144pp, £8.99

These Possible Lives
Fleur Jaeggy. Translated by Minna Proctor
W W Norton, 64pp, £9.99

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special