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.


Friday Fun: Writers and their Writing Dens

A day early, but just in time to build up a little book(shelf) envy for the weekend: a peek around the studies or home libraries of famous writers. Some impress us with their tidiness…

Colson Whitehead in his study. From New York Times website.
American novelist Colson Whitehead in his study. From New York Times website.

British writer Ali Smith takes a more relaxed approach to bookshelves…

Ali Smith at home. From The New Statesman.
Ali Smith at home. From The New Statesman.

Others excel in collecting precious items not just in the kitchen, but also in their study.

Food writer Nigella Lawson at work. From Buzzfeed.
Food writer Nigella Lawson at work. From Buzzfeed.

One might expect Karl Ove Knausgård to dedicate a lot of time and thought to his books. Sure enough… and he smokes too!

Knausgaard in his studio. From The Guardian.
Knausgaard in his studio. From The Guardian.

Of course, you expect a trendy office for fashion journalist and co-founder of Clique Media, Hilary Kerr.

Hilary Kerr's office redesign. From Domaine Home.
Hilary Kerr’s office redesign. From Domaine Home.

But then again, simplicity is best. Here is Louis de Bernière’s garden shed – things don’t get much simpler than this! Proving that all you need to write is willpower.

Louis de Berniere's outdoor study. From The Guardian.
Louis de Berniere’s outdoor study. From The Guardian.




Friday Fun: Writers’ Studies

I’ve been struggling with a poetry assignment all this week, so no time to be clever, or poetical  or witty today. Instead, I wish you a happy weekend and leave you with this pictures of the studies/workrooms of famous authors. Today I opt for the glitzy, glamorous and rather tidy…

Michael Pollan, American journalist and foodwriter. From
Michael Pollan, American journalist and food writer. His writing hut from
Hilary Kerr, fashion writer and stylist. From
Hilary Kerr, fashion writer and stylist. From
Colson Whitehead, American novelist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.
Colson Whitehead, American novelist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.
Roddy Doyle, Irish novelist and dramatist.  From Tmagazine, New York Times.
Roddy Doyle, Irish novelist and dramatist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), American poet. From
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950), American poet. From

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Our heads contain worlds. Or is it just the one over and over?

People pop out to smoke cigarettes,

simper, gossip, fuck and pray.

Maggotty ideas fester – let them die –

voices assault us daily.

What is real I cannot say.

He’s tried to flirt with the mainstream.

His world always out of kilter

at an angle only he can measure,

drumming beats no one will follow.

There is no shared vision,

yet we wish horses of belonging for us beggars.

Come inside, ladies and gents!

If only you’d discover that underneath I’m much like you,

a gentler man of erudite barbs.

One read and you’ll be captivated.

I know I’ve worked so hard for this:

how can I share that knowledge, that wonder with you?


How do you keep your balance as a creative person?  That is the question that Joe Hesch would like us to consider at Open Link Night on dVerse Poets. Always a sore point with me…

Sunday Escapism: Where Would You Go to Write?

New Forest Tree House Study Centre,
New Forest Tree House Study Centre,

What inspires you most?  A tree house?

Or maybe a house on the water?

A castle with a garden for all the five senses?

Chateau, Yvoire.
Chateau, Yvoire.

A book-lined garden shed? (Don’t think about damp and other practicalities for a moment!)


In my grandiose moments, I dream of escaping to the old Royal Salt Mine designed by that mad visionary Nicolas Ledoux.  It may be architecture on a huge scale, but it’s soothingly remote.

Saline Royale, Arc-et-Senans
Saline Royale, Arc-et-Senans

In the end, though, it will have to be sofa. Or maybe my garden deck.  Still, it could be worse, right?


All I Want for Christmas…

… is peace of mind and a bit of rest, if I am honest.

If that is an unlikely proposal, then here are some alternatives that this writer (and maybe other writers you know) would appreciate.

  1. Adopt a book at the British Library and help fund the conservation of rare and precious books.
  2. One year’s membership of the Poetry Society in the UK or its US twin
  3. Mslexia’s fabulous Writers’ Diary for 2013 – or even an annual subscription to Mslexia
  4. For writers who are also Formula One fans, this beautiful Ferrari pen in red – although, to be honest, for writing smoothness, I prefer the simple gel pens you can get 3 to a pack at supermarkets. (I personally have supported McLaren since I was knee-high, but their pens are just not as cool.)
  5. Sample of notebooks

    Notebooks.  One can never have enough of those.  My current favourites are the incredibly smooth, practical, yet luxurious Rhodia orange-and-blacks.

And, since I don’t expect my family to come across this wish-list on my blog, I have to admit that I have gifted myself a couple of the above for Christmas already…

What have you got your writerly eye on this Christmas?  Other than books, obviously, which make the best presents of all!  Oh, and by the way, I have not been paid to advertise any of the above products or websites.

Who Needs Writers’ Groups?

Like Murakami, I tend to draw parallels between running and writing.  I did quite a bit of running when I was in school, but then forgot about it for years and returned to it fairly recently.  I am a long distance runner, not a sprinter (and I see myself as a novelist rather than a short story writer or a poet).  I am an avid consumer of magazines and books about improving your running and writing skills.

But, despite all advice to the contrary from these magazines, I do not have a running partner.  I prefer to run on my own.  Maybe it’s because I use running as a way to clear my head, maybe it’s because I am too embarassed that I may not be able to keep up with other runners, but I have steadfastly avoided running clubs. And the few wild stabs at running with a partner have ended in miserable defeat: one got pregnant, one fell and dislocated her hip, one ran off in the woods without me… and I have sprained my ankle three times on such occasions. Must be the multitasking (running and talking at the same time)!

Same with my writing.  I was doing fine on my own, thank you very much! No need to share.  However, in running, I did notice after a while that, if I did not have a race deadline or an accountability partner (a coach or a knowledgeable running partner), I began to slacken.  I began to find excuses for not running. I suffered from injuries. I stopped entering races.  You can see how this analogy is going.  I began to fear that my ‘ivory tower writing’ was making me self-complacent, self-absorbed and completely cut off from the realities of writing life.  A crippled, lazy, eternally unpublished, armchair runner/author.

I had been too afraid, too ashamed, hyper-sensitive and nervous to join a writing group.  Until I started this blog, I had hardly ever shown my work to anyone (and I made sure that I told no one how to find this blog at first).  Then the readers, the likes and the comments started coming in.  I began to think: ‘There, sharing your work with others is not that bad after all!’  Now, I know you are all nice folk out there, who bother to comment if you have something nice to say.  Otherwise you just move on to the next webpage or website. So it’s not representative of the ‘real’ world.

But I had made a start.  I was no longer quite so private, quite so timid.  I thought it was time to face my demons (and no, I am not referring to the other writing group members here). There is a rather well-established writers’ group in my area, one that organises conferences and invites well-known writers to run workshops, but I’m still working my way up to that level of public scrutiny.  Instead, I found a very local sub-set of this group.  We meet at someone’s house in idyllic conditions: a converted blacksmith’s cottage with a sunny terrace overlooking a stream. It’s a small group and each of us has about 20 minutes for reading and debating. It was my first proper meeting this weekend just passed, and perhaps they were all being especially nice and friendly, so as not to scare off the newcomer.

What I had feared most (other than being ripped to shreds upon reading the first paragraph or stanza), was that the experience would be useless.  In other words, that the other participants would be too polite, making all the right noises, nodding and agreeing, but giving me nothing to work with, no constructive feedback.  Or else that they would just like or dislike something at a visceral level, offering no reasons, no suggestions for improvement.

So, in other words, I feared blandness and rejection.

Instead, I discovered some interesting people, fascinating stories and poems, beautiful images and language…  and really helpful remarks.  Such as: ‘I’m stumbling a little when reading this line, is it the punctuation mark that makes all the difference?’  ‘How about breaking the lines down this way, would that open it up?’  ‘If you cut the first sentence out,  or even the first paragraph, would this story lose anything?’

Yes, that’s the kind of nitty-gritty advice that makes one leave with a (good) furrow in your brow and a sizzle in your belly.  Especially when it’s followed by a ‘I love the joy, the sound, the colour of this piece.  I want to read more!’  I look forward to reading and listening more.  Here’s to conquering your fears and to continuous improvement!