A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Padraig Rooney’s chatty wander through Swiss history and geography in The Gilded Chalet runs through a lifetime of reading, raking together all the interesting facts he’s collected about Switzerland and literature, whether relevant or not. The subtitle – Off-Piste in Literary Switzerland – sets the tone, aspiring to puns below the belt, and looks at literary lives. The chapters gobble up all stray celebrities in reach, leaping between the centuries to include all available anecdotes with the slightest relevance to the theme. If you can tolerate the ricochets in register, moving from high academic to street slang in the same paragraph, it’s a fine bedtime read for dipping into. There is no particular order within the chapters, except a general sense that Rousseau precedes the Shelleys and Byron, Thomas Mann and Isabel Eberhardt, and that the anarchists and Russian revolutionaries come before D H Lawrence, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, Nabokov, Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. Rooney’s international sense prevents this from being a ring-fenced Anglophone study, since he pays proper attention to Swiss literary culture as well. Friedrich Glauser, Hansjörge Schneider, Alex Capus, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Nicolas Bouvier, Ella Maillart, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Rainer Maria Rilke have their own chapters too.
It’s a well-rounded survey, attractive if you’re looking for racy commentary, personal insights and a sense of modern Switzerland from an ex pat Irish perspective. It also represents years of dedicated work and a focused sense of what Rooney was looking for, in the hundreds of museums and archives that he must have investigated: a truly monumental achievement. Personally, I tired of his narrative style fairly quickly – too knowing, too snap-wittery for my taste – and was reduced to dipping in and out, looking for the extraordinary nuggets of information that simply could not appear anywhere else, and certainly won’t appear in the guidebooks. Never again will I be able to read a news story about millionaires and politicians meeting at Davos without thinking of its dead Victorian tuberculosis patients being whizzed down-slope by toboggan to the cemetery.
Padraig Rooney, The Gilded Chalet. Off-piste in Literary Switzerland (2015, Nicholas Brealey Publishing), ISBN 978-1-85788-636-8, £20 / $29.95.