The Swiss Kafka

Originally published in the January–February 2017 issue of Quadrant magazine.

The Gilded Chalet: Off-Piste in Literary Switzerland
by Padraig Rooney
Allen & Unwin, 320 pp., $45

Gilfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories
by Robert Walser
NYRB Classics, 200 pp., $29.99

Do you think of James Bond as being Swiss? He was at least half so, by birth and by descent. When Ian Fleming got around to giving his hero a backstory—quite late in the series, in You Only Live Twice (1964)—he gave him Zurich for a birth place and for a mother one Monique Delacroix of the Canton de Vaux, whom Andrew Bond met in Geneva while serving as European representative for Vickers armaments. If they had not died in a skiing accident, causing young James to be packed off from Basel to Kent, he might have crossed paths with the original Bond girl decades earlier. Ursula Andress was born and raised Bern.

Its reputation as the espionage capital of Europe is just one of the angles explored by Padraig Rooney in his engaging tour of literary Switzerland. He dates the birth of the Swiss-set spy novel to Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911), but the sub-genre did not really take off until Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928), whose titular hero spends World War One as Maugham himself did, playing cat-and-mouse with the Kaiser’s agents and Indian nationalists from his base in the Hotel Beau Rivage in Geneva. Graham Greene and John Le Carré (who was first recruited as an intelligence agent during his school years in Bern) did not have to embellish reality very much to create their own visions of a spy-ridden Switzerland. In World War Two, it was an intelligence crossroads and the haven of choice for Nazi defectors hawking secrets. During the Cold War, it was neutral territory where rival agents could spar in person on equal footing.

Over it all presided the Swiss themselves, whose very neutrality has tended to bring out the opposite in their guests. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who as a New England Puritan felt some kinship for Swiss Calvinists, was nonetheless unnerved by this sort of contradiction in their nature. “The Swiss people are frugal and inexpensive in their own habits,” he noted, “but they seem to reckon on other people’s spending a great deal of money for gewgaws.” The fact that such a devoutly capitalist country should have provided sanctuary for the likes of Lenin and Krupskaya may be written off as an irony. That their spotless probity should make them the financial haven of choice for criminals and despots shades into something more culpable.

Rooney knows well the dilemmas that arise in a career parasitic upon the morally dubious. He is himself a teacher at one of those international schools for which Switzerland has always been famous, attracting the offspring of diplomats and executives and, more recently, sheikhs and oligarchs. “International teachers have their seasoned anecdotes: minor royalty, nouveau riche Russians, corporate brats,” he writes. One especially bad gaggle from Azerbaijan “would pick at the food and then walk down to Schönreide and order a sixty-franc steak. They asked me, these thirteen year olds, ‘Where’s the whorehouse?’ And they were dead serious.” Privy to the worst behavior of the disgustingly rich, yet obligated to remain non-judgmental. No wonder Rooney feels an affinity for the Swiss.

The British as a nation have always felt a certain sympathy for them. Both peoples are notoriously practical, patriotic, and fastidious, with long experience in republican self-government thanks to their geographic isolation. Rooney’s book is thickly populated with English exiles who found refuge in the Alps, from Byron and the Shelleys to John Addington Symonds, but he does not raise the possibility that part of the attraction was its resemblance to home. In Switzerland one could escape the stultifying atmosphere of England while still remaining cozy and Protestant—and politically free. Liberalism was one part of their English inheritance that even born rebels like Shelley could not bring themselves to disdain.

In commerce, the Swiss may well excel even the Brits in their eye for the main chance. In the case of their famous sanatoriums they quite literally sold the very air. Hans Castorp of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain—to which Rooney of course gives a chapter—summed up the atmosphere of Davos: “It lacked odor, content, moisture, it went easily into the lungs and said nothing to the soul.” He was perhaps not just speaking meteorologically. When medical advances made the old sun-chaise and spit-bottle treatment obsolete, these establishments were shrewdly repackaged as psychiatric clinics. Zelda Fitzgerald spent nearly a year in one, at a cost of $1,000 a month, which furnished her husband with material for his unflattering depiction of a Swiss clinic in Tender Is the Night. He could never shake the feeling that, for all their medical jargon, these specialists were running a scam. “With the addition of a caddy house,” he wrote, “it might well have been a country club.”

Half travelogue and half portrait gallery, Rooney’s book is breezy, well-informed, and written with genuine feeling for its subject. Best of all, he goes the full 320 pages without once mentioning Harry Lime’s bit about the cuckoo clock.

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Those famous “five hundred years of peace and democracy” gave at least one Swiss author a complex to rival anything the Catholic Church ever inflicted on anyone. Robert Walser (1878–1956) may have been a sensitive soul to begin with, but it was the Swiss ethic of independence and self-reliance that provoked a fundamental rebellion in his soul and turned him into the twentieth century’s premier bard of humility and submission and, ultimately, drove him to madness.

“After Nietzsche, there had to come Walser,” claimed Max Brod, who as Kafka’s executor was an authority on authors specializing in little people and their renunciations. In fact, the advertising copy for Kafka’s first book in 1912 claimed that similarities between the two “could justify a comparison of Kafka to Robert Walser.” It is strange that the Czech has so thoroughly eclipsed the Swiss, since the latter has so many claims to precedence. He was the original. He was the more genuinely tortured. His mother went mad and had to be institutionalized and not one of the eight Walser siblings ever had children themselves, in contrast to Kafka’s fertile and well-adjusted sisters who evidently did not find papa Hermann quite the nightmare Franz did. Most of all, beneath all the quirkiness and bewilderment, Walser’s work is suffused with a quality Kafka’s lacks—joy.

Walser was the kind of man who, when he walked into a café, would help the waitresses set tables. Happy submission was the motif of his writing—submission to the world as it is, without wishing it were otherwise, and submission to one’s fellow man. There was nothing perverse about it, although this latest NYRB Classics collection does include a short and confusing feuilleton on Sacher-Masoch. Servanthood for Walser was a life philosophy rather than a fetish. Something as simple as tipping his hat to a middle-aged woman on the street was a double service: The woman would be consoled by the thought that that there are still young men with manners in the world, and planting that thought would be “of service to young people in general.” When his latent schizophrenia finally forced him into an asylum, Walser renounced writing with exquisite meekness, explaining to one fan, “I am not here to write, but to be mad.”

That is the meaning of Brod’s line about Nietzsche. The overthrow of Christianity had robbed the West of a system in which whosoever would be great must become the slave of all, for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. If Europe was to avoid a Nietzschean future of merciless competition and arrogance, it was necessary to resuscitate humility for a secularized world. The anti-übermensch persona that Walser cultivated throughout his work was, in his own unobtrusive way, a kind of saint. Today we still talk a great deal about service—“community service,” “service industries”—but we forget the basic truth at the center of Walser’s work: there can be no service without servanthood.

What prompted Walser down such a strange path, so contrary to the spirit of his age? A family susceptibility to mental illness sometimes makes people practice ways of reassuring themselves that everything is fine, and Walser’s relentless optimism may have offered such a steadying effect, if only temporarily. But the real crux of his psychology was revealed in his semi-autobiographical novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), in which a school for servants is a metaphor for life. Our student narrator recalls a childhood memory of the time his mother fired a servant, then hired him back after the man got on his knees and begged for mercy.

I recount the scene next day to my friends, the Weibel brothers, and they laugh me to scorn. They stop being my friends, because they think that my family is too royalistic. They find this falling at someone’s feet suspicious, and they go along and slander me and Mamma in the most tasteless way. Like regular little boys, yes, but also like regular little republicans, for whom the dispensing of personal and autocratic mercy or displeasure is a monstrosity and an object of revulsion. How comical it seems to me now! And yet how significant this small incident is for the tendency of the times. The whole world today judges as the Weibel brothers did. Yes, that’s how it is: nothing lordly or ladylike is tolerated any more.”

This distinctively Swiss republican spirit had been drilled into Walser from his youth: “Our form of government is a republic. We are allowed to do whatever we want. We can act as free and easy as we feel like. We don’t have to account for our behavior to anyone but ourselves.” The very concept of rebellion was anathema to Walser, but he could not help rebelling against that.

Jakob von Gunten is a better introduction to Walser than any of the anthologies, as a more cohesive and polished expression of his philosophy. Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories has the added drawback of a rocky translation. For instance, a vivacious young lady’s delight in her chores is described in the awkward sentence, “She was given the opportunity to learn the household thoroughly, which in no way disinterested her.” The only advantage of this collection is that, by ranging in date from 1907 until just before his institutionalization in 1933, it gives a clear presentation of Walser’s decline into insanity. After Rooney’s fond depiction of all the ways Swissness has charmed outsiders, it is useful to be reminded that it was not always charming from the inside.