The Gilded Chalet by Padraig Rooney

I will be the first to admit that I am not one of the most well-read book readers. I know very little of great literature other than the books I had to read for school (such as The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, etc). So, when The Gilded Chalet:Off-piste in Literary Switzerland by Padraig Rooney came in the mail, I was not sure what to think. Once I started reading the book, I grew to enjoy its excerpts from great Western writers and its history of those writers in Switzerland and the world.

From the publisher:

From Rousseau to the Romantics, from James Joyce to James Bond, from Conan Doyle to Le Carre, from Hemingway to Hesse to Highsmith – Switzerland inspired them all.

In the summer of 1816 paparazzi trained their telescopes on the goings on of poets Byron and Shelley – and their womenfolk – across Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley babysat and wrote Frankenstein. Byron dieted and penned The Prisoner of Chillon. His doctor, Polidori, was dreaming up The Vampyre. Together they put Switzerland on the map.

Switzerland has always provided a refuge for writers attracted to it as an escape from world wars, oppression, tuberculosis. or marriage. While often for Swiss writers from Rousseau to Bouvier the country was like a gilded prison or sanatorium. The Romantics, the utopians (Wells, D. H. Lawrence) and other spiritual seekers (Hesse), viewed Switzerland as a land of milk and honey, as nature’s paradise. In the twentieth century, spying in neutral Switzerland, spawned espionage and detective fiction from Conan Doyle to Maugham, Fleming, and Le Carre.

Padraig Rooney finds the rooms crammed with curios: lederhosen and Lepidoptera, spas and spies, fool’s gold and numbered accounts. Literary detective work and treasure chest, history and scandal, The Gilded Chalet will make you strap on your skis and come off-piste to find out the real Swiss story.

Rooney clearly knows his literature. He examines nearly two centuries of writers and their works and how those writers were influenced by their stays in Switzerland. It is a magnificent tribute to a country many only see as being a banking and holiday country, with a dash of international organizations.

I am fascinated to learn little things about the writers in the book. For instance, I had no idea that Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley hung out together in Switzerland. They were quite close.  In fact, Mary Shelley’s stay near Lake Geneva greatly influenced her writing of Frankenstein.

Although Rooney has benefited from his stay in Switzerland (teaches English at International School Basel), he is not shy in criticizing it – everything from its Calvinist roots to its shady dealings with Nazi Germany to its international banking scandals. Rooney seamlessly weaves these criticisms in with his discussions of the various writers.

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