Padraig Rooney spent the best part of 40 years outside his native Ireland and lives in Switzerland. He has published three collections of poetry and won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Poetry Business Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Listowel Poem Award. His work is anthologised in Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry (Viking), Haiku World and The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha), and his short stories appear in Best Irish Short Stories 2 & 3 (Paul Elek).
I’ve read The Gilded Chalet was inspired by a visit to Basel’s Paper Mill and Literary Museum. How did the Earls of Ulster’s journey kick off the idea to explore the relationship between Switzerland and writers?
Clio, muse of history, presides over The Gilded Chalet. In March 2008 there were a number of commemorations in Switzerland and elsewhere, marking the passage of the Earls of Ulster from the Low Countries to Rome in March 1708. They passed through Basel and along the road to Liestal and most likely through the St. Alban Gate, nearby the present Basel Paper Museum. I’m a poet, and I like the way images cohere unexpectedly, bringing together disparate times and events. I’m also an Ulsterman and the sad romance of the end of the old Gaelic order is touching in its political and linguistic ramifications, which the passage of the Earls represents in Irish history. I was brought up a mile from the border during the Troubles, my father was an Irish speaker, and so there was a certain allegiance to a now rather old-fashioned Gaelicism.
You’ve a passion for writers and their locations in a wider sense. What’s at the heart of your interest? The influence of location on their work, their perceptions of the place or is it driven by your own exploratory nature?
I think because I’ve travelled quite a bit myself, I tend to assume place is central to the experience of exile. It may not be. Many of the writers in The Gilded Chalet were exiled in one way or another, and in search of a home. In Irish literature the fashionable term for exiled writers is the diaspora. For Russians at the beginning of the last century, it was the émigré life of Berlin and Paris. Switzerland still seems to me to be a very multicultural place, where people from all over the world congregate and communicate in several languages. It’s not just one homogenous culture, which island nations tend to veer towards.
I left Ireland after graduating in 1976 and haven’t much lived there since. I’ve always been attracted to travel, the details of place, to negotiating the world in several languages—second nature to me now. I do like a good, detailed, particularised setting in fiction, rendered in a painterly way. When there’s a description of a meal, as a reader I want to know what’s on the menu. I like the particulars.
You cover a huge time period in The Gilded Chalet and provide insights into the writers’ private lives as much as their writing. How far was your intention to add a human level to some of our literary icons?
Gossip is an underrated activity. The danger with this kind of book is to make it overly academic—there are enough of those—so some ‘human level’ as you put it, alleviates the tedium of academe. Maybe even a low human level. Byron with his boys and Rousseau with his kids farmed off to the workhouse, present interesting opportunities to showcase canonical writers, warts and all. Nabokov couldn’t have afforded to spend 16 years in the Montreux Palace Hotel without the cash from the sales of Lolita and from Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The fact that John le Carré was recruited as a spy in Switzerland and is the son of a con man, is no minor matter as regards the direction his fiction has taken him. There are certain dangers in keeping literature in the province of academia, with its critical-reverential approach.
Humour, too, tends to pull down icons: that is a good thing. I wish more people would use humour against the pervasive business culture, executive culture, celebrity culture of our time. These are our new vulgarians for Mammon.
When we met in Geneva, I’d just had a lively debate on the subject of academia and the dangers of educators getting stuck in ‘transmit’ mode. Yet you, as a head of an English Department, seem to actively seek the experience of learning, be it travel or researching other authors’ work. Do you make a conscious effort to keep ‘curious’?
Much of education these days is in ‘deliverology’ mode—to borrow a term recently used in the London Review of Books—a mode patented by Tony Blair. The ideology of business has in the past 40 years moved into areas traditionally regarded as hands-off—water, education, health, patenting seeds. The wonderful Noam Chomsky has been writing about this recently too with regard to the use of non-tenured faculty in American universities: the culture of temps. I give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s. Caesar is going to steal from you anyway, so you can short-change him now and again! I have to fight for my time and I’m curious by nature.
Much of The Gilded Chalet got written between six and eight in the morning, and then I went into homeroom. It used to be that academia or teaching were favourable occupations for writers but I think that’s no longer the case, and hasn’t been the case for several decades. There’s a lot of fluff talked about fostering creativity in schools. It’s the bottom line which increasingly rules; fluff comes cheap.
A poet, journalist, author and photographer have different constraints/freedoms. Can you hop easily between roles or are they strictly separate? Where do they blend?
The late writer W. G. Sebald pioneered a blend between those formerly distinct modes or genres, and good travel writing that partakes of journalism and a poetic sense. I find that I didn’t write much, if any, poetry while working on The Gilded Chalet. I just didn’t have enough energy. Poetry requires pressure from the poem—you can’t will it into being. Many bad poems come from merely being exercises of the intellect. Poetry is also about waiting, whereas prose can be got on with, a thousand words a day, until you have a draft. So, personally, I wasn’t able to hop easily between them.
You’re a border man. Growing up just on the border of Northern Ireland and now living in Basel, right on the hub of three countries, what effect does that have on a sense of identity?
The fashionable lit-crit jargon for that is liminality, but “a border man” sounds great to my ear. I love moving between the butter people and the olive people, from north to south, and back again. One of my uncles was a small-time smuggler across the Northern Ireland border, and my mother smuggled butter into the South all the time—it was considerably cheaper in the North, and she had five children. So the world of smuggling has a certain appeal in borderland, even in Switzerland.
The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.
One of my favourite quotes is from Bob Dylan: “Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” I’m writing this in the week the Panama Papers have revealed how the rich and famous smuggle, steal and launder. It’s an imaginative terrain—John le Carré wrote a novel called The Tailor of Panama and Graham Greene tackled Panama somewhat in Getting to Know the General. The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.
I sometimes miss, too, the particular language of the border counties, the accent and diction of my parents, surrounded as I am by Anglo-Americanism or globlish. I miss the linguistic pattering of my childhood: bits of Ulster Scots, Gaelic inflections in the English, countrified pronunciation. I sometimes hear the clichés and ready-made phrases of mid-Atlantic English as a vulgar tide, swamping everything.
If you could bring back three characters from The Gilded Chalet for a round-the-table discussion with yourself, who would you choose?
I’m not sure all three would work round the same table together, so perhaps individually. I’d like to have a coffee with Annemarie Schwarzenbach because I’m translating some of her journalism about 1937-8 New Deal America at the moment. She travelled to the American South at a time of labour unrest and segregation. We might talk about the death of the left, about the current state of American politics. I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov would be very chatty, with nothing off the cuff, but I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time and would like to hear his rolling, preening accent in English. Finally, if I sat down with Anthony Burgess I could thank him for a kind review he gave of one of my short stories back in 1976. Late, but better late than never.
Edmund White described The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland”.
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