“O Switzerland!” Interview

The questions are from Satu Binggeli. This interview is also on the Bergli Books website. 

Can you explain the title of the book? 

The title of the book consists of the first two words of the book, and comes from a letter that Mark Twain wrote to a friend in 1878 expressing his longing to return to Switzerland. In the context of this letter, “O Switzerland!” is a cry in the vein of “Oh Glory!” or “Oh Loveliness!—the cry of a man overwhelmed with the beauties of the country.

I liked it as a title, however, because it can be read in so many ways. “O Rover!” is what you might say to your dog when it pees on the rug. “O George!” might be what you say when your boyfriend brings you home roses. “O Tamara!” might be when your five-year-old daughter reveals that she’s just shoplifted some candy. The phrase ranges from glorification to condemnation—and that’s just what the 430-some quotes in this book do.

The subtitle of the book mentions that you cover more than 2000 years of quotes. How can you write about “Switzerland,” when the country is not that old yet?

For Julius Caesar, it was Helvetia; for Napoleon, the Helvetic Republic; early travelers referred rather to, say, the Grisons, or the Bishopric of Sion. Switzerland in the sense of the book means the territory that is currently referred to as Switzerland.

How did you find so many good quotes?

Often my starting point was the bibliography in Gavin de Beer’s 1949 book, Travellers in Switzerland. De Beer was an evolutionary embryologist at Oxford, and later the director of what is now the Natural History Museum in London. He had an obsession with journeys through Switzerland. During World War II he worked in intelligence by day—but at night, by way of relaxing, he collected the itineraries of travelers, sometimes adding a quote from something they had written, but more often than not simply citing the name of the traveler and the itinerary.

It seems to me a strange way to relax, but it was certainly very useful to me. Still, he missed a lot of big names, like Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and, of course, everyone after 1949.

What is your favorite quote, and why?

That’s a hard one. John Evelyn’s account of crossing the Simplon Pass in 1646 is certainly one of my favorites. He describes the “goodly sort of people” living on the pass, with their “strange puffing dress, furs, and that barbarous language, being a mixture of corrupt High German, French and Italian,” a people “of great stature, extremely fierce and rude, yet very honest and trusty.” He goes on to report on the trouble he gets into when his traveling companion’s “huge filthy cur that had followed him out of England” kills one of the Simplon goats—which reminds me, hilariously, of something straight out of Shakespeare. Evelyn is disarmed of his beloved carbine, thrown into a makeshift jail, and fears having his head cut off. Reluctantly buying his way out of the jam, he ends up in Brig, which he misidentifies as “the Valpelline,” and where there is a “bear’s, wolf’s, or foxes head” nailed on the outside of every door. “As the Alps are full of the beasts, the people often kill them.” The contrast with today is striking, and the story is told with great gusto.

Evelyn, by the way, is whom the soap company Crabtree & Evelyn is named after. He also wrote the first book about salads, another on reforestation, and a third that recommends combatting the foulness of London air by planting sweet-smelling trees. He’s best known for his Diary, however, which is where I took my quotes from.

Other favorites are some one-line zingers. Oscar Wilde said, “I do not like Switzerland. It has produced nothing but theologians and waiters.” And F. Scott Fitzgerald daringly declared Switzerland a “flat and antiseptic-smelling land.” Quite a lot of chutzpah, to call Switzerland “flat”!

Any quote that did not make it into the book?

Hundreds if not thousands didn’t make it in. I had instructions to limit the book to 100,000 words. Which was probably for the best, or I’d still be working on it.

The one I most regret leaving out is by Rainer Maria Rilke concerning Valais. Early on in the book I have some disparaging quotes by Rilke, such as, “How happy I am to have broken out of Switzerland, which, more and more, I really can take only for a waiting room on the four walls of which a few Swiss views have been hung up.”
But once Rilke started living in the Château de Muzot above Sierre, he became far more appreciative. “This Valais (how is it people do not mention it when they enumerate the most famous regions of the earth?) is an incomparable landscape,” he wrote, and went on to characterize it as “a reality beyond all dreams.” (I won’t quote the whole letter, which is long, but you can look it up. It’s written to Frau Knoop on November 26, 1921).

A few weeks after writing the letter Rilke became completely possessed, and penned both the greater part of the Duino Elegies (very little of which was written in Duino—they might rather be called the Veyras Elegies) and the Sonnets to Orpheus in only a few weeks. After this possibly unparalleled performance, he went on to write, in French, over 400 poems in praise of Valais. He chose to be buried in front of the beautiful Felsenkirche in Raron.

Since I live in Valais myself, it was especially hard to leave this one out. But, like many of the others that I left out, it didn’t fit into any of the threads I was drawing through the chapters. So it had to go.

Which was the most surprising quote for you?

You would never see someone today saying about Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald what the Irish naval surgeon James Johnson said in 1823: “The Highland glens and valleys [of Scotland] are not quite on a par with Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, and Meiringen; but they are not blotted and deformed by goitres and cretinism.” Nor would you see a guidebook saying what John Murray’s did in 1861: “[In Grindelwald] most of the children are beggars—occupations arising from the influx of strangers in to the valley, which has exercised an injurious influence upon its morals and ancient simplicity of manners.”

There were some amusing attempts to figure out why Switzerland was home to so many cretins—which used to be the medical term for what we now call people suffering from congenital hypothyroidism—before it was discovered that both goiters and cretinism were due to the low levels of iodine in Alpine soil. I include a quote from an English priest named Richard Lassels in 1670: “One thing I have observed particularly in this windy country, which is, that they have many natural fools here, which makes me think it no vulgar error, which is commonly said, that the climates that are most agitated with winds produce more fools than other climates do.”

The best explanation, however, comes from Victor Hugo. Speaking of the fantastic view from the Rigi, he says, “In the presence of this inexpressible spectacle one understands the cretins who abound in Switzerland and Savoy. The Alps produce large numbers of idiots. It is not given to every intelligence to live with such marvels and to walk about from morning to night with a view of fifty leagues’ radius without becoming stupefied and dazed.”

Which of the people you quote in the book is your favorite author or contributor?

I find Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas the most comic, John Ruskin the best stylist, Gertude Bell the most fun, Henry James the most refined, D.H. Lawrence the most pessimistic, James Joyce the most obscene, Voltaire the wittiest, and Mary Shelley and James Baldwin the most heartrending.

Have I successfully evaded your question?

You were not born in Switzerland, yet you became Swiss in 2013. Do you consider yourself to be Swiss?

In one sense, yes. I feel most at home here. Emotionally, though, I feel a stronger attachment to particular places than to a nation-state. I’ve lived in Hasliberg, Lenk, Sissach, Gümligen, and now in Villaz in the Val d’Hérens. But to go one step further, I feel a greater attachment to parts of the natural world than to a given society. Particular places in the mountains, rivers, forests give me the feeling of belonging. Many of those places are in Switzerland.

What was your favorite part of writing “O Switzerland!”?

A favorite part came toward the end of my research, when I was looking for some very obscure, short texts in German. I was in the Swiss National Library in Bern, and the books I had ordered were waiting for me in a special glass case because they were so old. I had to wear latex gloves to handle them—which made turning the pages rather difficult—and I had to leaf through them directly under the watchful eye of a librarian seated in front of me at a raised desk. One book even had to be placed on a double foam wedge, to be sure that I didn’t open it more widely than at a certain angle. The books were all in the old German script, and a couple of times I was looking for a single sentence in a four-volume work, with no idea where I would find it. Talk about skimming! Or a needle in a haystack! It was extremely satisfying to locate the last quote I needed.

But the most lasting “favorite part” is that I now see Switzerland so differently. Almost wherever I go, I see not only what is there, but can hear one writer or another describing his or her experience in a different time and context. It is as if something two-dimensional has just become 3-D. This is marvelously enriching. Traveling through Switzerland has actually become a bit like reading a book. There is much more present than was ever there for me before. My great hope is that readers of “O Switzerland!” will experience this same effect.

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