The Gilded Chalet: Travels through Literary Switzerland by Padraig Rooney
In less than 300 pages, Padraig Rooney takes the reader through Switzerland's rich literary history in The Gilded Chalet. From the 19th Century through to today, dozens of incredible storytellers have either been born in and left Switzerland, or arrived in Switzerland, with talent that would leave its mark on writers and readers around the world.
Switzerland, despite its small size, has always captured the imagination. During the World Wars, it stood for neutrality (however true this was), and always it was a place for the wealthy and the unwell, to come and seize a bit of respite or cure with the pure mountain air. Its imposing, stark, snowy appearance alongside its true, well-secreted nature in finance and banking set the background for a number of spy tales. For all of these reasons, Switzerland has drawn powerful and prolific authors from so many walks of life, whether it be escaping wartime persecution, reinventing one's wealthy life, the pursuit of happiness and well-being, or a place to alleviate the breathy pains caused by tuberculosis.
As an avid reader and sometimes writer, I relished in this historical literary walk, with reminders of known writers through time who called Switzerland home. Rooney begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his rebellious nature in Switzerland during his lifetime, which would later serve as the foundation for so much across politics, religion and writing. Then we moved to the bad boy poets of Lord Byron and Peter Shelley. But, of course, there was also Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and Byron's doctor, John William Polidori, author of The Vampyre, both books that shaped an entire genre of literature.
Then we move to the number of authors that came to cure their TB, from author of Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson to creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. Oh, and we mustn't forget Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain. From Switzerland also came a series of wealthy Swiss-born or Swiss-raised wanderers. In the 19th Century, there was Isabelle Eberhardt and Joseph Conrad. More recently, there was Nicolas Bouvier, Ella Maillart and Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Unlike the American beats, they were multilingual, wildly astute world travelers, who ventured east to Afghanistan or south to Algeria to see the desert beyond the Swiss mountain ranges.
Other notable authors (and there are SO many) include H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Ian Fleming, Friedrich Glauser, T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, Somerset Maugham, Patricia Highsmith, Friedrich Durrenmatt, John le Carré, Max Frisch, Fritz Zorn, Daniel de Roulet, Peter Stamm, Erich Maria Remarque, Rainder Maria Rilka, Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene... A history of Switzerland is a history of so much of modern writing, I'm amazed. (And then of course, there were the actors drawn here, like Charlie Chaplin, George Clooney, etc.) Rooney gives you a few pages on each, peaking your interest just so before learning about the next writer, with expertly selected passages and images to capture the many stories that have unfolded here.
There were the voices who called to raise a glass to Switzerland's beauty, and those who spilled their drink to see if it would stain the eerily false facade Switzerland sometimes created. As much of a marvel it is to bear witness to Switzerland's literary history, you are also left wonder what dark grab it managed to have, despite its immediate illusion of refuge, wealth and pristine nature, which so enticed these many disturbed writers.