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 slashseconds.org
Patricia Highsmith in front of her house in Ticino, from slashseconds.org

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.

 

Signed, Seen and Just Missed: Morges 2015

I couldn’t resist the siren call of the literary festival in Morges called Le Livre sur les Quais this weekend, although I should have been working and packing for an upcoming business trip. But who can resist a boat trip on Lake Geneva in the company of the wise and witty Tessa Hadley?

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Watching chateaux and villas (usually invisible from the road) sliding smoothly by in all their glory, while listening to fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group reading from their latest book (there were more people than that at the readings, but I forgot my camera and was late to remember my mobile phone). The full list of authors reading (with links to the books they were reading from): Lesley Lawson-Botez, Ellen WallaceKatie Hayoz, Massimo Marino, Olivia Wildenstein, Nancy Freund, Gary Edward Gedall, Peter St. John, Daniela NorrisSusan Tiberghien and Leonie van Daalen, who was also celebrating her 63rd wedding anniversary onboard.

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The tent where books, authors and readers meet each other was constantly full, even at lunch time, but I forgot to take pictures of the authors I did get to see.

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To arouse your envy, here’s a short list of authors I spoke to (some of them I also got to see later in panel discussions): Christos Tsiolkas, Ben Okri, Petina Gappah, Michelle Bailat Jones, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Dinaw Mengestu. And not just English-speaking ones: Yasmina Khadra, Alain Mabanckou, Metin Arditi, Romain, Slocombe, Gregoire Delacourt, Joseph Incardona (who actually remembered me from last year – I was very flattered). The pictures I did remember to take at the panel discussions are not very good, unfortunately.

Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest Unites States respectively.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest United States respectively.

Sadly, I did not get to see any of the Greek writers who were the guests of honour at the festival: Petros Markaris, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Yannis Kiourtsakis, Takis Theodoropoulos. Nor did I have enough time to go back to the tent and meet the following authors who are very much on my TBR list: Peter Stamm, Emilie de Turckheim, Sophie Divry, Mathias Enard, Hadrien Laroche.

In its sixth edition now, the festival is becoming perhaps just a little too big to be able to see everyone and attend all the sessions you would want (many of the most interesting ones were concurrent). To me, however, it’s an unmissable event in my annual literary calendar. And when the sun comes out, it’s even more beautiful.

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A good book haul ensued as well – all with rather lovely dedications. Meanwhile, a little part of Morges will be accompanying me on my business trip: Michelle Bailat-Jones’ ‘Fog Island Mountains’ will be coming with me to Japan, where it is set.

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