Article: Teju Cole on Switzerland & the desire to be away from home

What is interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less-obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.

Great piece from Teju Cole in The New York Times from last year.

Cole was invited to spend six months in Switzerland in 2014 by Literaturhaus in Zurich with apartment and stipend thrown in.

What follows is an insightful essay in which Cole contemplates Switzerland, photography and his own discovery of the country.

Trying to develop his photographic voice, Cole reflects on the impressive mountain landscape (the key to unlocking an understanding of the country) and attempts by artists and photographers through history to capture its essence.

Travelers tend to go where other travelers have gone, and perhaps this is part of the reason travel photography remains in thrall to the typical.

In the process he reflects on the nature of tourism and his identity as a traveller, recognising that he too is “part of a great endless horde”.

As he grapples with self-doubt about his ability to say something unique about Switzerland through his photos, he descends from the grandeur and sublimity of the mountains, Switzerland’s metonym, to the detail of life its valleys.

Searching for meaning in what he observes, Cole reflects on notions of home and also Heimweh and Fernweh, the German words for homesickness and a longing to be away from home.

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’” But to have merely thought of here would not have revealed its subtle peculiarities, the peculiarities that are not written in guidebooks. Only direct observation can reveal those.

The subject of Cole’s essay claims to be travel photography or photography of places but his observations could equally apply to travel writing.

Not entirely at home when away, yet unable to remain at home, he contemplates an in between state. For Cole, Switzerland embodies that state while his search for meaning through photography could be a metaphor for the experience of travel itself.

Well worth a read.

Article: Hemingway, the Alps & wintersports

There’s nothing really can touch skiing, is there? The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run.
(from Cross Country Snow by Ernest Hemingway)

Several articles written about the Swiss Alps by Hemingway while working as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star in the early 1920s.

After returning to North America after World War I, Hemingway met his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  They married in 1921, Hemingway was hired as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star shortly afterwards and the couple then moved to Paris.  While there, Hemingway developed a love of the Alps which he reported on in a series of short but evocative articles in the winter of 1922.  

In Flivver, Canoe, Pram and Taxi Combined in the Luge, Joy of Everybody in Switzerland (Toronto Daily Star, March 18, 1922), Hemingway describes an idyllic scene of winter time Sunday outing to the mountains.  Everybody from old grandmothers and street children to the ‘rabid lugeurs’ of the British colony spent the whole day “sliding gloriously down the long, icy mountain road”.

In another piece, about the thrill of bobsledding rather than the luge, Hemingway’s joy at the winter scene seems a far cry from a man often associated with the heat of Key West, Africa and Cuba:  

While you wait for the train, you munch at ham sandwiches that a little boy peddles from a basket to the bobsledders, watch the sun go down over the great sweep of snow-covered country and wonder why people go to Palm Beach or the Riviera in the wintertime. (from Try Bobsledding If You Want Thrills (Toronto Daily Star, March 4, 1922) 

And, while describing the eclectic mix of characters who congregate at its hotels, Hemingway describes Switzerland as “a small, steep country, much more up-and-down than than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo-clock style of architecture.” (Queer Mixture of Aristocrats, Profiteers,Wolves and Sheep at the hotels in Switzerland, Toronto Daily Star, March 4, 1922.  

A love of the Alps stayed with Hemingway, who returned to them to finish his first novel, The Sun also Rises (published in the UK as Fiesta) in Schruns, Austria rather than Switzerland (possibly owing to the exchange rate? see Tourists Scarce in Swiss Resorts, Toronto Star Weekly, February 22, 1922). 

Despite sustaining leg injuries during World War I which could have resulted in amputation, Hemingway also developed a love of skiing, a sport then in its infancy, which found its way into his writing.

In the short story Cross-Country Snow, Hemingway conveys the thrill of dropping down steep slopes in passages like these:

EH7966P 1927 Ernest Hemingway skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland, 1927. Copyright unknown in the Ernest Hemingway Collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Scanned from original print by LAA DAMS2B.The gale scouring the exposed surface into a wind-board crust, Nick, waxing his skis in the baggage car, pushed his boots into the toe irons and shut the clamp tight.  He jumped from the car sideways onto the hard wind-board, made a jump turn and crouching and trailing his sticks slipped in a rush down the slope.


The rush and the suddens swoop as he dropped down a step mountain undulation in the mountain side plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body.

Hemingway also evokes the camaraderie and satisfaction of getting out of the cold and stopping at mountain inns for meals: 

They stacked the skis against the side of the inn and slapped snow off each other’s trousers, stamped their boots clean, and went in.

Schruns also founds its way into The Snows of Kilimanjaro, while Harry is reminiscing at the start of the story:

In Schrunz, on Christmas Day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the weinstube and saw every one coming home from church.

…the snow as smooth to see as coal frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made a you dropped down like a bird.

Ultimately, Hemingway recounted his experiences in the Alps in his posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast.  Although well known for describing his period as a struggling writer in Paris, the final part of the memoir recalls his time in the Austrian mountains while writing The Sun Also Rises:
I remember the snow on the road to the village squeaking at night when we walked home in the cold with out skis and ski poles on our shoulders, watching the lights and then finally seeing the buildings, and how everyone said ‘Grüss Gott’.
It was obviously a time he remembered with fondness: walking up mountains to ski with seal skins on the bottom of his skis, sleeping in alpine club huts, avalanches, skiing lessons and the smell of pines.

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Hemingway’s time in Austria also marked a period of transition, with the completion and publication of The Sun Also Rises, the arrival of the rich in the ski resorts and also the impending breakdown of his first marriage.

In literary terms, at least, the Alps were for Hemingway a gift that kept on giving. 

Cross Country Snow and Snows of Kilimanjaro are both published in The First Forty-Nine Stories

        

Book: Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities

Fleming Thrilling CitiesThrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Vintage (with an introduction by Jan Morris)

“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.”  Ian Fleming

After the Second World War, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond and brother of travel writer Peter Fleming), joined the Sunday Times newspaper as Foreign Manager.  He was responsible for sending correspondents around the world and seeing that they delivered “intelligent stuff”.

In 1959, it was his turn and Fleming was urged by his editorial board to “do something exciting and write about it.”  He did and so made two journeys around thirteen “thrilling cities of the world.”  The resulting essays, which Fleming referred to as ‘mood pieces’, were serialised in the Sunday Times in 1959/60 and then published as Thrilling Cities in 1962.

The book follows the two journeys.  The first half recounts a 30 day round the world air trip in 1959 taking in eight ‘exotic’ cities. The second, a six week, six city and 6000 mile trip around Europe in a seven litre Thunderbird made in the spring of the following year (1960).

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming was asked by presenter Roy Plomley whether there was much of him in James Bond.  Fleming laughed and replied:

I hope not…people do connect me with James Bond simply because I happen to like scrambled eggs and short sleeved shirts and some of the things that James Bond does but, err, I certainly haven’t got his guts nor his, err, very lively appetites.

That may be but, as the title suggests, what Fleming records are not the ‘tourist sights’. Instead, he uses his “tin-opener” to “find out what goes on behind the facade” of his stop-offs and reveals the exotic, shady and, at times, seedy background of his James Bond thrillers.

Whether describing Hamburg’s nightlife or Berlin’s transvestites, having tea with Lucky Luciano in Naples, spending time with fortune tellers and geishas, dining with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, meeting Hollywood producers or crime reporters in Chicago, Fleming is always in his element and moves effortlessly between respectability (and his Establishment friends and contacts) and the more unusual side of his destinations.

Some encounters, like that in Macao with Dr Lobo, a multi million pound gold dealer, and his “powerfully built butler, who looked more like a judo black-belt than a butler” could almost have come straight from the pages of his novels.

Fleming is equally at ease with a champagne and jet-set lifestyle and provides interesting glimpses of what travel used to be like – smoking on aircraft, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics handed out to passengers, refuelling in ‘the’ Lebanon and flying your car across the Channel rather than using a ferry.  They convey the excitement and glamour of travel at the start of the jet age and also Fleming’s enthusiasm for travel and delight at “hammering out the miles” driving across Europe in the post war period.

On his way, Fleming makes absorbing observations about travel and tourists.  He complains in Honolulu about the “high-pressure tourist atmosphere and the uniformity of the tourist and retire population.”  He prefers his hotels “unsullied by the tourist smear” and accuses tourists who pay to hear the Vienna boys choir of only “collecting the occasion, like a postage stamp.”  In Italy, he avoids Venice, refuses guides and guidebooks at Pompeii and makes wry comments about the country and its people.  In a post-imperialist lament, he notes the decline of British cultural and commercial influence around the world and exhorts younger people to show more interest in the ‘Orient’ and to travel more.

Bond is never far off, whether in the Las Vegas gambling tips courtesy of Fleming’s ‘connected’ contact, the advice on how to drink sake or in the casino at Monte Carlo.  At times it feels as though Fleming is playing to the gallery but perhaps there is more of him in Bond than he admits.  (A distinct possibility for a man whose idea of a literary gaffe is making reference in his novels to half bottles of Pol Roger champagne, when Pol Roger does not in fact produce half bottles.)

Fleming modestly claimed that he was not in the “Shakespeare stakes” and had no ambitions to more serious writing.  However, he was obviously well travelled and had an eye for the interesting and unusual combined with a lust for life and foreign travel.  As a result, Thrilling Cities is never boring but is an enjoyable whistle stop world tour seen through the eyes of James Bond’s creator just before that world was presented to cinema audiences in the first of the Bond films.

It is worth pointing out that Thrilling Cities was not Fleming’s only contribution to the travel writing genre.  In the late 50s while still Foreign Manager at the ST, he sent Norman Lewis to Cuba to report on Castro’s chances against the Batista regime. While there, Lewis interviewed a Dubonnet-soaked Hemingway, an episode recounted by Lewis in The World, The World.  But that, as they say, is another story.