Medieval physicians bled patients to expunge damning spirits. It was all they knew. The sick grew weaker and died. Jaeggy’s debut novel, set in a postwar boarding school in the Swiss Alps, is stained with this dead-end pallor. Brilliantly so. We meet the book’s narrator at 14, just as she’s become infatuated with Frédérique, a new arrival at Bausler Institut, which grooms “senile girlhood.”
Jaeggy is out to eradicate the sentimental and to pour salt into adolescence’s every wound. Even the prettiest girls have “a faint mortuary smell”; being a boarder is to belong to “a cult of the dead”; incipient sexuality suggests “a sort of repugnance.” The sweet days of discipline are those in which the omniscient narrator is permitted to see life for what it really is, hopeless. What’s on the minds of girls at a lavish, 18-year-old coming-of-age ball? “At least half are nostalgic for death, and for a temple, and for all those clothes.”
Swiss-Italian Jaeggy’s passionately destructive approach to the details of “idyllic, desperate” youth (“One can hardly speak of human beings in a boarding school.”) is framed in gorgeously chilled prose. This is a portrait of the bled-out, of fetishists and fanatics, of incipient grandmothers pre-arranged into shadows. Disappointment is the fairest candy of them all. That it could all be made rousing, vivid, and ironically hopeful, is Jaeggy’s gift. Credit Tim Parks for a luminous translation.