Article published on November 19, 2015.
In the summer of 1816 paparazzi trained their telescopes on the goings-on of poets Byron and Shelley – and their womenfolk – across Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley babysat and wrote Frankenstein. Byron dieted and penned The Prisoner of Chillon. His doctor, Polidori, was dreaming up The Vampyre. Inspired by Rousseau’s Julie and a desire to escape a landscape wrecked by Napoleon, together they put Switzerland on the literary map.
Writers have flocked to Switzerland ever since. Padraig Rooney’s new book, The Gilded Chalet reveals how, from Byron to Bond, Rousseau to the Romantics, Conan Doyle to le Carré, Hemingway to Hesse to Highsmith, Switzerland attracted the great, the dazzling, the eccentric and the notorious. They came to escape world wars, political persecution, tuberculosis. They came for sanctuary (from oppression or the tax man), for fresh air and nude sunbathing, for scenery resembling, as Rooney puts it, ‘Mother Nature on steroids.’
Switzerland’s unique political situation drew anarchists, spies and detectives. Secrecy and political intrigue inspired Ian Fleming, Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene (both of them were spying in Switzerland) and John le Carré who was recruited there. Two centuries after the Romantics went there to invent Gothic horror, the lure of Switzerland hasn’t left us – Bond returns to the Alps in Spectre, and Carol hits the screens this autumn too – based upon a novel by Patricia Highsmith (who spent her last years in a granite home in Ticino with a fridge containing little but peanut butter and vodka.)
When it comes to literature, it seems all roads lead to Switzerland. But what did all these writers get up to once they got there? All is revealed in The Gilded Chalet. We learn how Hermann Hesse had himself buried to the neck as a cure for alcoholism, and meet Thomas Mann as he wrote The Magic Mountain and lusted after the sailor suits. H G Wells envisaged Utopia there. Ian Fleming came to recover from the clap. James Joyce hung out in the Café Odeon in Zürich (also a hangout of Lenin who pronounced Switzerland ‘the most revolutionary country in the world’). It was in Zurich that Joyce finally got down to writing Ulysses, his language infused by that multilingual city’s unique soundscape.
Back to those Romantics in Geneva we find Dr Polidori spying on Byron for a kiss-and-tell diary for Byron’s publisher, John Murray, and Shelley nearly drowning in the lake, while Byron, a strong swimmer, looked on. In a curious literary triangle Charlie Chaplin who arrived to escape McCarthyism, read Graham Greene part of his autobiography in manuscript, while actor James Mason (who played Humbert Humbert in Lolita and later played Dr Fischer in the 1985 adaptation of Greene’s Swiss-based tale) lived next door. The writer, the comic genius and the matinee idol were in and out of each other’s houses.
For many, Switzerland was a playground. Erich Maria Remarque hooked up with Marlene Dietrich, throwing a bottle of his valuable vintage into Lago Maggiore to celebrate their relationship (it was retrieved, intact, in 2012 by a group of Remarque fans). And Nabokov, who retired to the opulent Montreux Palace hotel, chasing butterflies with a net often dressed in a 1950s sack suit and desert boots.
Not all writers necessarily felt at home here. D H Lawrence hated the ‘stiff, null “propriety”’ of the Swiss – though he still thought they ranked above the English (‘slime’, in his view). Others took a while to settle in. Robert Louis Stevenson was disillusioned by the atmosphere of ‘death by gradual dry-rot, each in his indifferent inn’ until he discovered tobogganing with J A Symonds. The 19-year-old Borges was sent by his father to be deflowered by a woman in the red-light district of Geneva – a harrowing experience for the awkward 19-year-old, but it didn’t stop him returning to live in Switzerland in later life.
And what of the home-grown Swiss writers? As Rooney shows, from Rousseau to Bouvier, many ‘headed for the border and kept on running’. Others remained critical of their home country; Dürrenmatt’s essay ‘Switzerland – a Prison’ (1990) written for Vaclav Havel, described how ’the real purpose of the prison is not to guard the freedom of the prisoners but to guard banking secrecy…’
Switzerland may be small but it punches well above its weight in the literary ring. Part detective work, part treasure chest, full of history and scandal, award-winning writer Padraig Rooney takes you on a grand tour of two centuries of great writing by both Swiss and foreign authors and shows how Switzerland has always been at the centre of literary Europe.
Joyce * Rousseau * Byron * Hesse * Fleming * Fitzgerald * Wells * Bouvier * Dürrenmatt * Highsmith * Conan Doyle * le Carré * Nabokov * Shelley * D H Lawrence * Borges * Maugham * Greene * Remarque * J A Symonds * Spark * Hemingway* Eberhardt * Frisch * Conrad * Burgess
With a sharp eye for detail and a historian’s capacious knowledge, Padraig Rooney has written a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland. This is a book that should be stuffed into every stocking – the perfect Christmas gift!
– Edmund White, author of The Flâneur
About the author
Padraig Rooney was born in Ireland and studied at Maynooth College and at the Sorbonne. When he was sixteen he first came to Switzerland, saw the Rolling Stones in Bern, and never looked back. He has lived in Switzerland for fifteen years, and teaches English at International School Basel.
Padraig Rooney has published three collections of poetry. His poems have been winners of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Poetry Business Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Listowel Poem Award.
The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland by Padraig Rooney, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing on 19 November 2015 at £20 (hbk)
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