The Setting Is Switzerland

gildedchaletPadraig Rooney: The Gilded Chalet

This was one of my Christmas presents to myself – a reference book of writers who have made Switzerland their home or source of writing inspiration. A combination of biography and personal travel memoir (on the tracks of these writers), it is effortlessly erudite and charming, while also pointing out many shortcomings of Swiss society. There is something for every kind of literature lover in this book. From Rousseau and Voltaire, to Shelley and Byron, from Conan Doyle and Thomas Mann, to cross-dressing Muslim convert Isabelle Eberhardt, James Joyce and Herman Hesse, the Fitzgeralds and even the chalet school stories of Elinor Brent-Dyer. The spy novels of Graham Greene,  Ian Fleming, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Le Carré, and the founder of Swiss thriller Friedrich Glauser.

Patricia Highsmith in front of her house in Ticino, from
Patricia Highsmith in front of her house in Ticino, from

Nabokov in a hotel in Montreux and Patricia Highsmith living in the most uncomfortable, poky, dark house in the world in Ticino. The self-conscious and self-critical Swiss writers such as Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Peter Stamm.

Switzerland took writers in, sometimes grudgingly, often with good grace. It gave them a room with a view and a place at the table – maybe not the Stammtisch, but you can’t have everything. Service was brisk and efficient, the wine not too bad, the food rough and ready but nourishing… And the writers responded by doing what they do best… They bit the hand that fed them. They pointed out the dry rot. Suggested there’s a smell under the floorboards. Often enough writers just got on with it – up some secluded valley… What would the world be if there were no chalet, no refuge, no little lifeboat?

OkriBen Okri: The Age of Magic

A strange, hypnotic journey searching for Arcadia in a Swiss mountain village. A film crew stop in a formerly trendy resort on a lake in Switzerland on their way to the real Arcadia in Greece – and each crew member has a profound transformative experience. It’s more of a meditation on life and art, on personal fears and quests, rather than an actual novel. Some beautiful phrases and thoughts worth pondering on, worth rereading. The Bad Sex award seems a bit harsh, especially as there is only one half-explicit sex scene in the whole book. A book which will appeal more to poets rather than readers, difficult to describe, with no real narrative arc as such. Oddly satisfying in parts; not sure I understand it at all in others.

wallcreeperNell Zink: The Wallcreeper

What is it about Switzerland that drives bored expat wives to take up adultery as a hobby or as extreme cries for attention? This is the second one published in 2015 (after Hausfrau) to deal with the topic. Many readers complained in the case of Hausfrau that the main character was too passive and self-pitying (I thought it described depression pretty well). In this case, it is the voice of a young person, completely self-absorbed, with an utter lack of concern for consequences and a strange disconnect with other people’s feelings.

The story starts off in Berne and then moves on to Berlin and other parts of Europe. The narrator’s husband becomes involved in the ecological movement, they are both birdwatchers and there are some forced analogies and heavy symbolism throughout the book about the harm humans do to wildlife, to the planet, to each other, but it feels largely aimless. An opportunity for the writer to display her wit and erudition, it feels like it’s trying a little too hard: everything I hate about American MFA writing. However, I have to admit: in spite of this overall coldness and lack of empathy which I felt that most of the characters displayed, it was witty, funny, readable in the way you enjoy hearing an acerbic tongue being exercised on other people, although you wouldn’t necessarily want it in your own life.


19 thoughts on “The Setting Is Switzerland”

  1. I love that Gilded Chalet jacket! Great idea, too. It reminds me of the city-lit series published by Oxygen Books which I’ve taken away with me before now. The Wallcreeper’s already on my list. I wasn’t at all sure if it was just another media phenomenon – social and otherwise – but it looks as though it’s worth a look.

    1. Funnily enough, Nell Zink responded yesterday on Twitter that I forgot to mention yet another book about adultery in Switzerland, namely ‘Adultery’ by Paulo Coelho, which I haven’t read (although perhaps I should, seeing that it’s set in Geneva).

  2. The Gilded Chalet got my attention right away, Marina Sofia! I can see why you’d have been absorbed. And Switzerland is such a great setting, too. I think I need to do a post at some point on Swiss-set crime fiction…

  3. The Gilded Chalet sounds great – ideal for adding zillions of other books to the TBR! I had to think what Conan Doyle had written, then duh! Of course! Reichenbach Falls – how could I have forgotten?

  4. The Gilded Chalet sounds like a wonderful book, but the cover reminded me instantly of The Magic Mountain, which I loathe. Thankfully, you mentioned enough writers to rescue my curiosity about the book. 🙂

    1. It has one chapter on sanatoria (?) and talks about many authors, not just The Magic Mountain, so you should be safe. Also interesting to hear that after tuberculosis ceased to be a problem, they had to find other uses for the sanatorium – finishing schools, luxury hotels and the like.

  5. I have to say that the Chalet School books were what I immediately thought of when I saw the cover and title of this book. I came to them as an adult rather than as a child and I have to say that while many of the attitudes towards women made me cringe, what Brent-Dyer had to say about international relations has always struck me as particularly enlightened.

    1. It was very cosmopolitan for the time, wasn’t it? I was at an international school when I read them and it felt very similar, so I was surprised when I discovered that it wasn’t representative of schools everywhere.

  6. I recall you mentioning the Gilded Chalet in your previous post on Christmas presents. Delighted to hear that it hit the spot for you – it does sound delightful. Funnily enough, I’m just read a Graham Greene at the moment: The End of the Affair, which has been languishing on my shelves for years.

      1. *butts in* I’ve just finished The End of the Affair… my first Graham Greene; really enjoyed it but can’t deny the appeal was largely helped by it being in audible form with Colin Firth narrating😶

        So pleased you treated yourself to The Gilded Chalet… it sounds an excellent Xmas read.

        I was a big fan of Hausfrau so I’ll definitely be reading The Wall creeper at some point as do love to see how different authors tackle similar premise.

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