Reading Like a Writer: Sweet Days of Discipline and an Idiosyncratic Voice

Posted on Wed, Mar 26 2014 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

Editor's Note: One of the new features on our blog is the monthly Reading like a Writer column. The column features craft-focused book reviews by Allison Wyss.

Some narrators like to brag. They're proud of their thoughts and their actions, eager to proclaim their stories. Others keep their secrets. They're too shy or too ashamed or too sensitive. How can a guarded voice tell a story?

Fleur Jaeggy's Sweet Days of Discipline (translated by Tim Parks) is a short novel in which a first-person narrator tells of a boarding school crush that turns into a lifelong obsession. It's about loneliness, cruelty, and obedience.

But even though she is the main character, the narrator hardly describes herself at all. Instead, Jaggy uses the narrator's language, her eccentric verbal tics, to reveal her personality.

Here's the opening:

At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell. 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 his body in the snow. We didn't know the writer. And nor did our literature teacher. Sometimes I think it might be nice to die like that, after a walk, to let yourself drop into a natural grave in the snows of the Appenzell, after almost thirty years of mental hospital, in Herisau. (1)

Walser is not, at least in a traditional way, important to the novel. His name doesn't appear beyond the first page. Yet he's at the very beginning, the place most authors use to set up central themes and conflicts.

It's an allusion, for sure. And knowing Walser's work can deepen and complicate the novel. But I don't think a reader needs to know Walser's writing to appreciate the opening. I think his inclusion does another very important thing.

This opening introduces us to the sensibilities of the narrator, the particularities of her way of knowing and describing the world.

The oddness of the first page makes us wonder about the voice. What kind of person describes a place, one that must be very beautiful, by telling of a mental patient who died there? What kind of person tells about that man even though she never knew him? We sense the narrator's strangeness.

Even more interesting is the way this narrator presents her ideas.

First, the narrator introduces Walser, but she immediately cuts away his life. She pares him down to a photograph of his footprints and his dead body. Then she whittles him further out of the narrative by saying she never knew him. It's an especially wicked slice when the literature teacher doesn't know the writer, or perhaps even his work, and it makes Walser's ghost fainter. The narrator gives us a man, but instead of building him up with careful description, she takes him away, piece by piece.

When we reach the line "it might be nice to die like that, after a walk, to let yourself drop into a natural grave in the snows of the Appenzell," it makes sense. We understand that this narrator is the type who wishes, in some ways, for death. She is intent on stripping life to its barest, rawest bones.

Her violent method of description, the slashing away at initial, too-vague images, continues throughout the book.

I thought of winter in hotels. The icicles weeping on the branches outside, they would melt in spring. I never saw them melting. (100)

Again, she starts with something vague: winter. Then she strips it to a single, harsh image—not at its strongest, but as it dies—the weeping icicles. And then she takes away even that image by asserting she never saw it.

It makes me think of a sculptor displaying first a faceless stone, then the chiseled-away pieces, but never revealing the final statue. Through this peculiar method of description, we can deduce the shape of the statue—this narrator's deepest self. It's too tender, despite her violence (or perhaps because of it), for her to expose it outright.

This voice is hard, sharp, severe. And lonely. When she's first too vague, we sense she's hiding something. We suspect it's something raw and tortured. When she cuts away at her first broad image, we guess that her aggression is in defense of some vulnerability. So it's in her particular style of not telling that she reveals herself.

And what about the story? How does this style benefit it? Her mission, it seems, is to depict emptiness, a central theme of the novel. She even says so.

But how can emptiness be represented? Is it perhaps a falsification of everything as it was in the beginning? (37)

And so her habits of language reveal not just her personality, but the thing that she means to say. Instead of describing emptiness, she makes us feel it by wrenching things away.

Meanwhile, the taken-away bits—the writer she never meets, the icicles she never sees—become ghosts. They're not in the story and yet they are. We remember them, faintly, and they color all later perceptions.

It's a strange and wonderful book, made so by an intriguing, idiosyncratic voice—one that's worth careful study.

When has an idiosyncratic voice grabbed you? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.

Allison Wyss earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has also studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and Grub Street Independent Writing Center. Her stories have appeared or will appear in [Pank] Magazine, Metazen, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Golden Key, and The Southeast Review.