Since it’s officially summer and a friend from South Africa has been visiting, I’ve dragged myself out of the writing cave—and been bombarded with serendipity. A trip up the mountain, a mistyped internet search, an article found on the bottom of my to-read pile, all brought me a piece of literary esoterica. Or more precisely, Swiss literary esoterica.
Oh, it goes beyond the writer’s retreat at the edge of Lake Geneva, where the host was Lord Byron and the challenge was to dream up a horror story. I’ve known for a while that Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein just down the road from me. What I discovered is fresh and new to me—and maybe to you too. So, if you’re interested in discovering a few Swiss literary curiosities, please read on and find out What Was on on My . . .
Mistyped Search: Reichenbachfall, rather than Rheinfall, where I once celebrated the birthday of my husband’s aunt Heidi. (Yes, there really are Heidis in Switzerland.) Sherlock Holmes fans will know that the Reichenbach Falls was the site of Holmes’s and Professor Moriarty’s fight to the death. What I didn’t know was that by 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle was so exasperated with how Holmes had taken over his life, he decided to kill him off. That same year, he and his wife toured Switzerland and when he saw the Reichenbach Falls he had his solution. He went home and four months later, Holmes was dead, all the details set out in ‘The Final Problem.” Well, you know the rest. Doyle had to renege. In 1901, Holmes was resurrected in The Hound of the Baskervilles and he continued to appear in new stories up until 1927, three years before Doyle died.
Mountain Path: The Great St. Bernard Hospice, a monastery and safe house for travellers since 1050. It is renowned for the dogs the monks bred to guard and rescue travellers crossing the Alps—and also known for its many famous visitors, including Charles Dickens. But while our family polished off the round-trip drive in 120 minutes as part of my daughter’s end-of-school celebrations, Dickens and his 11-member party took 4 days for their round-trip journey, traveling by steamer, then coach, then mule.
To-Read Pile: On top: Louise Hawes’s Anteaters Don’t Dream and Other Stories, Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker, Amy Plum’s After the End, and at the very, very bottom, an article on Switzerland’s Motto. Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno. Sound familiar? Maybe not in Latin. But translate it out and it is unmistakable: One for all—All for one. It turns out that before Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers, he travelled extensively in Switzerland, where the motto was used to rally support during the last Swiss civil war. Who stole the motto from whom? There’s no real proof on either side, but no self-respecting Swiss would say they pinched it from the Musketeers.
Favorite Discoveries List: Dickens and his family lived on the edge of the Lavaux (where I live) for five months in 1846. He apparently loved Switzerland so much that when he went back to England and received a Swiss Chalet in the mail from a friend, he put it together piece by piece and used it as his writing studio. All of his later works were written there: A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Mind: Shifting Perceptions.
Many of the Alps around Lake Geneva are named with the French word dents—teeth—as if their name-givers saw them as incisors, pushing up from the earth to tear apart and ravage anyone that dared to climb them. In a letter to his friend John Forster, Dickens described a valley near the St. Bernard Pass as ‘awful and tremendous’ and the pass itself as ‘a great hollow on the top of a range of dreadful mountains.’ His fright of the Alps is apparent.
Doyle also must have perceived the Reichenbach Falls with equal trepidation. Via Dr. Watson he describes them as ‘a fearful place.’ ‘The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house.’ And the English painter J.M.W. Turner portrayed the Falls like this:
All these representations resonate fear. Yet, here is how the Falls actually look:
Not so awful and fearful after all—right? In fact, the first time I saw a photo of the Reichenbach Falls, I was deeply disappointed. Really? That is the site of the epic battle of justice and evil. Those are the falls that took down Moriarty?!?
Through a filter of modern consciousness, those falls look anemic and unfrightening. What brought on terror in 1893 looks almost tranquil today. So much so, the creators of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows turned to computer graphics to up the ante on what comprises ‘a fearful place’:
And this makes me wonder . . . do we, as readers and viewers, require fictional depictions to be amplified beyond what is real? Is the authentic not frightening enough? Because I can tell you that when I leaned over the barricade at the Reichenbach Falls, I knew that if I lost my balance and plummeted into the Falls, I wouldn’t survive like Holmes. It might look anemic, but that thin rush of water is covering sharp boulders that would tear you apart. And having just returned from the Great St. Bernard Pass, I can tell you Dickens was right. Up close, there is no escaping that the mountains and valleys there are awful and dreadful and tremendous.
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Be sure to stop by again on July 10 for National Book Award Winner William Alexander and on July 20 for the incredibly talented and incredibly wonderful LeUyen Pham.
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