Book review: The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in literary Switzerland

WHAT is Switzerland actually for? It is where the self proclaimers gather and gorge themselves while hob-nobbing with Bono while Davos plays host to a battalion of bankers and politicians.
Book review: The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in literary Switzerland

Padraig Rooney

Nicholas Brealey, £20

Those of us who have worked with the Swiss will be aware of a smugness available only to a nation that provides a home “ . . . to oily royalty, jumped up Generals, Macbeths, carpetbaggers, and sundry keepers of the desert flame.”

Switzerland forbids the naming of bank account holders and uses its neutrality very conveniently — like taking a fur clad whippet for a walk.

But great writers — the greatest — have gone to inhale alpine air and blended their ideas over glasses of gluhwein.

F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway drank together and were inspired to create stories at the Palace Hotel in Gstaad throughout he 1920s.

In Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, his lovers holed up in a chalet just down the road from their drinking chairs to escape the First World War.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson could have chatted about double barrelled names. Who knows?

We do know how Sir Arthur did for his detective in his story, The Final Problem; Holmes dresses as an Italian priest and makes for Switzerland, with Watson in tow for an epic tussle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

Watson arrived at the scene after the event “ . . . but there was no sign of him and it was in vain that I shouted. My only answer was my own voice reverberating in a rolling echo from the cliffs around me.” Perfect. No body, so Holmes could yet rise again.

Writers went in search of the full spectrum of sex and some went to get over it.

Ian Fleming went to Switzerland following some trouble with a skivvy at Eton, and then copping a dose while at Sandhurst.

He recovered well and then conceived his spy hero, James Bond, driving to Geneva in a black Buick to join the ‘jeunesse doree’.

James Joyce consummated his love for Nora Barnacle in Zurich, although this was not his first outing with her.

John Addington Symonds, the English poet and critic came to Switzerland in search of “art and health”.

He was a Harrow boy where a fellow pupil “ . . . suddenly dared to throw his arms around me, kissed me and thrust his hand down my trousers.”

Symonds married and had four daughters of whom one, Janet, had The Owl and the Pussycat written for her by Edward Lear.

But this marriage was a ‘faute mieux’; “I could not conquer the bent in my instincts” he wrote, and went to Switzerland with his young boyfriend.

Interesting choice of words.

A “century of spies” was created in the Alps. Bond from Ian Fleming, of course, and Grantley Caypor, the double agent in Somerset Maugham’s espionage books, lived in Lucerne with a German wife.

The inspiration was probably DH Lawrence who was married to a Von Richthofen and who lived his life under constant suspicion.

Patricia Highsmith who once spotted a man in sandals and shorts and turned him into Tom Ripley, the social fraud and murderer in The Talented Mr Ripley, lived in Switzerland for 50 years, where she felt comfortable with her anti-Semitic views and enjoyed a shot of vodka for breakfast.

Her second novel, the cult lesbian classic, Carol, has just been made into a film starting Cate Blanchett.

Switzerland has strange freedoms.

It is where Hannibal Gadaffi and his wife allegedly beat their servants, while drawing down billions from their secret accounts — and where inspiration is drawn for the greatest novels.

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