Friday, 9 November 2018

Book Review: The Convent School by Barbara Frischmuth
To bring up children means to prepare them best possible for adulthood, but standards and methods of education have undergone constant change in the course of human history. While children today enjoy a lot of freedom because we believe that they should be allowed to explore their nature, notably their talents and tastes, with as little guidance as reasonable, they were often subject to brutal suppression, even violence until not so long ago. Set in the 1950s in the austere surroundings of a Roman-Catholic boarding school tucked away in the mountains of Austria, The Convent School by renowned Austrian writer Barbara Frischmuth shows teenage girls, notably the unnamed narrator, who gradually pass from childhood into a confusing adult world. Strict discipline and the teachers’ tries to instil a very conservative female role model in their charges can’t prevent the narrator from turning into a young woman with an independent mind.

Barbara Frischmuth was born in Altaussee, Austria, in July 1941. After high school she did Translation studies in Turkish, English and Hungarian at the University of Graz and after a year at Atatürk University in Erzurum, Turkey, she moved to Vienna to embark on studies of Turkology, Iranian Studies and Islamic Studies that she never finished, though. In 1962, she joined the important authors’ assembly called Grazer Gruppe and became a full-time writer four years later. The novella The Convent School (Die Klosterschule: 1968) was her first published book and many novels, plays and radio dramas along with juvenile fiction followed since. The author’s work has been widely translated into other languages, but apart from her debut novella only two other early books, The Shadow Disappears in the Sun (Das Verschwinden des Schattens in der Sonne: 1973) and the collection of stories titled Chasing after the Wind (Haschen nach Wind: 1974), are available in English to date. Extensive travels brought her to many countries including England and the USA where she was writer and poet in residence at Oberlin College in Ohio and at Washington University in St. Louis respectively. Barbara Frischmuth lives in Altaussee, Austria, with her second husband.

The unnamed narrator is a boarder at The Convent School in an old manor in the Austrian mountains some years after World War II. The days of the girls are dominated by the strict rules and rigid routine that the nuns impose on them with best intentions as they have always done. Their world is imbibed with the ancient religious maxim of ora et labora (pray and work) that leaves as little room for privacy and individuality as for vice. As the narrator explains, the teenage girls joyfully say countless prayers every day and go to mass because they want to please God and to stay on the stony path leading to salvation as they have been taught. In contrast, they are much less inclined to practise their English conversation skills during the one-hour walks after lunch meant to fortify their bodies, but since the English teacher is at the rear of the double line and neither the sisters at its head nor in the middle speak English it’s easy for them to make believe and chat instead. Being far from home and family, the girls yearn so desperately for warmth, both bodily and emotional, that they often sneak into each other’s beds at night although it’s strictly forbidden. Sooner or later the adolescents also begin to explore the pleasures that their awakening, yet unfamiliar female bodies can give them and that help them to shape an idea of how it might feel to be with a man. Their experimenting doesn’t stop there, though. In secret they practise kissing with each other. At the same time, the teachers give them well-meant instructions about how to behave in order not to invite immoral advances of men, while the priest makes them feel uncomfortable touching their budding breasts when he blesses them…

Recounting her years in The Convent School, the unnamed narrating protagonist alternates between first person plural that identifies her as member of a close-knit group of teenage students with common views and first person singular that reveals her at shortening intervals and at growing length as an individual with her own mind, especially in the letter-like final chapter addressed to a probably male “you”. The increasing power of “I” over “we” clearly mirrors her coming-of-age, but it isn’t merely grammatical. The gradual change also becomes visible in the typical, not to say clichéd scenes from daily life in a religious boarding school for girls that make up the novella and that include ever more critical overtones regarding the traditional and limiting world view that the nuns teach their charges. Being set in the 1950s, it’s inevitable that the female role model of the time that most women today will consider antiquated and sexist gets much room in the novella. And of course, nobody cared about children’s rights then or talked about a priest’s maybe paedophile penchant. In the original edition in my native German, the language is agreeably simple and concise which invites to finish the novella in one go.

Admittedly, reading The Convent School by Barbara Frischmuth hasn’t been a particularly grand experience for me considering that it doesn’t offer much of a plot and that the practically independent scenes only repeat ideas that outsiders like me already have of life in boarding school, notably one run by Roman-Catholic nuns. Nonetheless, the book has its merit as time piece of the post-war era before the sexual liberation of the 1960s. And it goes without saying that the confusion that fundamental changes of body and mind under the influence of sexual hormones bring about during adolescence is a timeless topic. It has been interesting, occasionally even slightly amusing from today’s perspective, to follow the teenager’s increasingly critical train of thoughts. Having read also another novel of the much-praised Austrian writer, I must say that her work isn’t my cup of tea, but others may well enjoy it. Thus my recommendation.

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