It is notable that not every piece of literature or media by and about women is feminist. The label gets used so frequently to mean “anything mostly concerning women, created by one” that the word mostly connotes, at this point, more of a sanguine, positive approach to femininity than anything else. This makes Gabrielle Annan’s use of the word to describe Fleur Jaeggy’s 1989 novella “Sweet Days Of Discipline” in a review in The New York Review of Books surprising. I’m willing to follow this association, though given how intensely perverse Fleur Jaeggy’s work is, how much it seems to resist any reading is not on its own terms.
The book is pretty much entirely populated by women, to be sure. The men appear as bemused, slightly pathetic interlopers in the intensely feminine boarding school atmosphere. The narrator writes that she “got to know headmistresses, reverend mothers, mother superiors, and Mères préfètes.” Boarding schools are places of total submission, where every aspect of a young girl’s life is itemized and subject to inspection. The nameless narrator of Jaeggy’s novella recounts periodic, unpredictable inspections of the cupboards the students kept their linens in. The formal aspects of this strict regime seem almost beside the point, but the narrator does recount a school where all the girls kissed the hand of Mère préfète before bed.
It is unsurprising, then, that the girls increasingly only have this way of relating to each other. The plot of the book, such as there is one (Jaeggy writes in a fascinatingly atemporal way, sentences following each other with little connective material, juggling spaces and times) involves the narrator’s involvement with Frédérique, a slightly older girl who is able to embody the boarding school’s ideal of strict discipline more completely than anyone else, so much so that she “never needed to curtsey, because her way of respecting others instilled respect.” The narrator starts noticing details, like someone close-reading a text. Frédérique never looks in the mirror. Frédérique eats “with her elbows pressed against her bust.” Frédérique speaks to herself occasionally, “moving her lips and staring at something like emptiness.”
It’s unclear what the narrator wants of her, but there’s an ominousness baked into the whole process. From the get-go, the narrator says she wants to “conquer” Frédérique, something that in practice means a kind of mastery of the site of submission — the logic of boarding school miniaturized and focused on one person. It’s both erotic and not. The reproduction of this imposed discipline (and thus the reassertion of control over it) becomes the narrator’s way of relating to most everything in the world.