I’ve been traveling to the beautiful city of Bern, –- a miniature, mostly medieval municipality of cobbled streets, canted walls, covered arcades, exquisite Alpine views, and impenetrable secrets (it’s the political capital of Switzerland, after all) –- once a year, ever since the last century turned into this one.
On that millennial New Year’s Eve nearly 20 years ago, when the swan-shaped number “two”(2) with its three hollow-eyed “zeros”(OOO) snapped smartly into place on my screen (2000), I just knew Something Bad was coming our way.
And it wasn’t long before the latest features of this new millennium –- violent physical attacks etching bloody footprints into all our lives –- began to steadily erode the hope for a stable world.
Sensibly, I took refuge in thinking and writing about eras other than our own.
Perhaps I’ve absented myself too long from the present day, because I still can’t decide how to count the year we’re preparing to leave behind.
Is it twenty seventeen? Two thousand and seventeen? Twenty hundred and seventeen?
None of these locutions appeals to me –- but then I don’t much care for the century we’re using them in, either.
* * *
I go to Switzerland in summertime mostly, to read and think and write in the air-cooled, comfortably-appointed, special research room of The Swiss National Literary Archives in Bern. If you like your descriptions enriched by fiction, imagine detective novelist Harriet Vane’s retreat to the Bodleian Library at Oxford in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1935 masterpiece of a mystery novel, GAUDY NIGHT.
Despite constant death threats (and the distractingly romantic presence of Lord Peter Wimsey), Miss Vane manages to do excellent work in the claustral atmosphere of the Bodleian. But her greatest achievement turns out to be the detection of a human heart (her own) and its deepest feelings — one of the happier consequences of thinking and writing about something other than yourself.
Archives are a mountain of calm in a world of lost content. My residencies at the Swiss Literary Archives (a paradise for inquiring minds and the best regulated research facility I’ve ever worked in) depend on one of my writerly capacities — as the authorized biographer of the great Noir novelist Patricia Highsmith (Strangers On a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Price of Salt a k a Carol, etc.).
When I’m in Bern, I sift through Pat Highsmith’s 150 linear feet of personal papers and manuscripts and 8,000 pages of diaries and cahiers; marvel at the extremity of her writing voice and the colorful instabilities of her many love affairs; and continue to admire the deviant ways she found to apply a Puritan work ethic to her distinctly homicidal impulses.
In these turbulent times, the Swiss Archives provide the order and stability I need to think and write about an author as wayward as The Dark Lady of American Letters: a singular 20th century artist who seems, all too prophetically, to be a voice for the 21st century.
On a recent trip to the Archives, instead of settling in Bern’s city center, I moved to a hilly street high above the Old Town. My new neighborhood was calmly residential, and the welcoming proprietess of its excellent bakerie-konditorei, the Obsterberg Beck in Bantigerstrasse, introduced me to something I’ll never forget: the winsomely criminal smile of the Spitzbübe — a jam-faced, Swiss holiday cookie in the linzer line.
Everything’s in a name. And so, because “Spitzbüben” (plural) translates to something like “Bratty Boys” or “Little Rascals” — and also because I really love those cookies — I took the trouble to trace the Spitzbüben’s nominal significance to a medieval German canting argot called Spitzbüben-sprache: the secret language with which 15th Century thieves communicated with each other.
Along with Yiddish and Polari , Spitzbüben-sprache is now high on the list of dialects I yearn to master.
My new Bernese neighborhood, as steeply graded as the Butte Montmartre in Paris, made the beginning and end of every walk to and from the Swiss Archives feel like a descent down the Jungfrau and then a hard climb back up the Matterhorn. Aside from crampons and a grappling hook, the best way to negotiate these local hills is by using the long pairs of stairs cut into their perpendicularities.
At the bottom of one of these stairs is the Bärengraben. It’s the town’s historic bear pit — as centralized as a giant navel. Since the 12th century, this pit has always housed a few living representatives of Bern’s totem animal: the Bear.
On past visits to the Bärengraben, I’ve watched young male tourists in board shorts (their behavioral model clearly that of the Goths and the Huns) pitch bags of popcorn down on the heads of baby bears for fun.
Naturally, I yearned to hunt these living, breathing Spitzbüben through field and forest, trap them alive, and then hand them over to my famous neighbors in Paris: the great artisinal taxidermists of Deyrolle — a world-renowned museum/store of chilling, artistically taxidermied curiousities in the rue du Bac.
Deyrolle, I felt, could supply an appropriately permanent punishment for boys in board shorts who behave badly to baby bears.
Lately, however, the bears of Bern have been moved to a new-built, tiered-and-tunneled Bear Cliff (with a mephitic whiff of Le Corbusier in its machine-for-living design), and bear-baiters are finding the bears much harder to target.
The last time I visited the Bärengraben, the bears-in-residence –- Finn, Ursina and, BjÖrk (BjÖrk? someone in the Swiss Office of Animal Management has a sense of humour) –- were shuffling boredly around their bear pit, looking, I regret to say, very much like good fur coats with feet. The previous summer, they’d been on vacation in the Vaud, grubbing idly for worms or whatever it is bears do while their glamorous city apartments are being renovated.
My own glamorous apartment in Bern, a mansarde (attic) studio administered by the Swiss Literary
Archives, had once been the local habitation of the Bernese playwright and crime writer, Friedrich Durrenmatt. Along with Paul Klee and Albert Einstein (Einstein worked in the Swiss patent office in Bern while extending the boundaries of modern physics), Friederich Durenmatt is a local hero with an international reputation.
In addition to his literary work, Durrenmatt was also an accomplished painter. And as a very young painter he made it his business to cover the walls of my (well, his) mansarde with intricately detailed, highly-colored, disturbingly violent fantasies. (Spitzbübe again.)
Because Durenmatt’s violent fantasies are not my violent fantasies (see Deyrolle for mine), I had to move my bed away from the wall on which one of his badly blanched, preposterously enlarged phalluses was caught up in a vivid intergalactic battle.
After that, I simply crossed my eyes whenever they grazed a Durenmatt-decorated wall surface; choosing, instead, to focus on the flat’s sleek, midcentury modern furniture.
Designed by the Swiss architect Fritz Haller for USM in 1963 and still being manufactured, these beautiful pieces would suit my writer’s studio in Paris perfectly –- or so I thought until I looked up the staggering prices. Nothing in Switzerland is less than expensive (matches in boxes are free; tapwater in restaurants you pay for) and well-made, midcentury Swiss meubles will cost you a leg and a liver.
Like most of Switzerland, Bern is fragrant, verdant, herbaceous, and scrupulously clean: much cleaner than central Paris and a world apart from Manhattan’s garbage-strewn grids. My long, frequent trips by foot to the Main Station, the central railway station whose warren of underground food and commodity shops were the only stores open on Sundays, didn’t dirty my shoes in the slightest. Even longer walks along the exquisite 14th century terraces behind the Bündeshaus (the parliamentary palace) down to the Marzili and the River Aare –- the turquoise band of icy, Alpine-fed water which circles the city like a horseshoe ––left my footware eerily unmarked.
But Bern’s immaculate laboratory conditions, no matter how soothing, eventually drive me straight into the raucous, celebratory mess that is the Reitschule.
Visiting the Reitschule is like taking a quick, delicious trip back in time to the 1970s.
Formerly an elegant old Riding Academy, the Reistschule fell into disrepair and was occupied for years as a squat by shifting populations of drifters. Now, it’s a heavily-grafitiied complex of hopes, dreams and anarchic collectives supporting the “No Borders No Nations” movement.
The Reitschule hosts performances on a small stage inside its bar –- and larger, louder, and more metallic manifestations outside in its enormous courtyard. And there’s a shambolic restaurant (Sous le Pont) which serves large portions of good food, with cocktails three times the size (and half the price) of drinks in Bern’s quieter quarters.
In summer, drug dealers circle the Reitschule like black flies buzzing around a lantern. They are the inevitable counterpoint to all Bern’s formal conventions.
Like Milton’s Satan, the Reitschule would have to be invented — if it hadn’t already invented itself.
But beauty blooms everywhere in Bern, and there is likely more good art on its residents’ walls than in many museums. (Bern is the only small city in the world in which I’ve seen two Van Goghs hanging in a private living room.) Among my favorite public monuments, one is in the center of the Old Town, the other is at the city’s periphery.
Ticking away at the heart of the Old Town — it seems actually to be the heart of the Old Town — is the ultimate Swiss clock, set in the ultimate Swiss clock tower: Bern’s 800 year old Zytglogge.
At almost 55 metres high and a World Heritage Site, the Zytglogge once formed part of the city’s western wall. The tower’s sonorous hour bell, forged in 1405, is partnered by a quarter-hour bell whose visual displays include a huge temporal clock face as well as an astronomical clock. The Swiss really do like to measure things.
At the top of the Zytglogge, a clock-driven mechanism controls a full-sized, finely-gilded automaton which strikes the hour bell with its hammer, while smaller automata circle out of the clock to perform eccentrically stylized movements for crowds of gawping, camera-clicking tourists.
I’m often in those crowds myself; gawping, if not clicking my iPad’s camera. The resonnant sound of a beautiful bell — and the movement of medieval automata — are very hard to resist.
Far from the Zytglogge, but just a quarter of an hour uphill from my mansarde apartment, is a public institution I would have made my way on foot from Paris to Zurich to see: a small museum devoted entirely to the genius of the artist Paul Klee.
Although I haven’t forgiven architect Renzo Piano for his role in the unendingly garish Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Klee museum he designed in Bern is modest, attractive, and exquisitely appropriate to its environment.
The Zentrum Paul Klee is set out on arable land, some of which is still used for farming. On my way to the Zentrum, I stopped to have a short conversation with a goat, who made it quite clear that he didn’t want his picture taken. But he reminded me of the aimiable exchanges I’ve had with the Bernese sow who lives in a tidy front yard a few steps from the Swiss Archives. Over the years, this sow’s appetite for apples has seriously drained my cocktail budget — but she poses for photos like a pro.
Before visiting the Zentrum Paul Klee, I had no real idea of Paul Klee’s 10,000 works; the depth, scope and gorgeous variety of his imagination; his brilliant experiments with music; or his competitively creative friendship with Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus — the subject of one of the Zentrum’s most provocative exhibitions. That exhibit displayed, side by side, the many works of art springing from Klee and Kandinsky’s long, complicated artistic dialogue.
It was, as Igor Stravinsky might have said, a “wow” — and I was as entranced at seeing Klee’s magnificent work collected in one place as I was impressed that a museum of this quality was set so near to a field where a herd of goats was peacefully grazing.
It made me think –- and not for the first time — about how we live now. And what I thought was this:
That it’s a good idea to live in a city large enough and cultured enough to accommodate fine archives and excellent museums — but also small enough and green enough to offer the occasional conversation with a goat, a bear, and a pig.
POSTSCRIPTS From Paris:
These three postscripts are all unpublished observations from Paris in 2015 – but they’re as apropos to the time we live in now as they were in 2015. Plus ça change….
One of my favorite French Feminist collectives in Paris –- Osez le féminisme – did something so impressive on 26 August, 2015, that it deserves a Letter From Paris all its own.
After calculating that less than 3 percent of Parisian streets, monuments, quais, etc. are named after women, the women of Osez decided to tip the balance with 60 new street signs –- if only for a few hours.
And so, among other notable rechristenings in the 4ème arrondissement near Notre Dame (the Cathedral whose name translates to “Our Lady”), they turned the Quai de la Tournelles into the Quai de Nina Simone. A street was renamed La rue Germaine Tillon, after the distinguished social anthropologist and résistante, Mme Tillon. And in the 5ème arrondissement we had the pleasure of a bridge dubbed for the day, the Pont Josephine Baker.
Speaking as a writer who is also a feminist living in one of only two streets in Greenwich Village named after a woman…
Brava Osez le féminisme!
On the weekend of 9 October, 2015, I was invited to present my work at the Festival international des écrits de femmes (International Festival of Women’s Writing) sponsored by La Maison de Colette, the association which administers and supports the writer Colette’s natal home in France, as well as the museum dedicated to her life and work.
Colette’s writing has fascinated me since childhood, and the invitation reminded me –- as nothing else could –- how far I’ve traveled in the decades since I was a soi-disant fourteen-year-old Existentialist plotting my desperate escape from the only American city everyone now wants to live in: Seattle, Washington.
Collette’s childhood home is in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, in an especially beautiful region of Burgundy: a place where the grand red wines flow like water; the rich, old-fashioned French food is on every table; and where, in an incandescent moment at dusk, I watched a sounder of wild boar slowly, deliberately, and in an orderly line, cross the country road just in front of me.
They looked like a medieval frieze — or like a message from the Old World: a world which is always so close to the surface in la France profonde.
In 2015, the Colette Festival in France was devoted to “Les reines de crime” – the Queens of Crime — so of course Patricia Highsmith — along with other classic female Noir writers and mystery novellists from England — was celebrated. I presented the, by now, famous 6 foot long chart I’d made for my Highsmith biography: comparing Highsmith’s love life with the murders she’d committed in her fictions.
By tracking every address at which Pat lived and loved in New York, and coordinating those addresses with the sites at which she committed her fictional murders in her New York novels, I discovered that Patricia Highsmith was a Freudian in spite of herself.
She killed her characters in fiction at every address at which she’d made love in life.
In early August of 2015, France went à l’extrême to honor three young Americans (all of them childhood friends; two of them servicemen on leave) who had tackled and subdued an Islamist terrorist on the TGV Thalys from Amsterdam to Paris. In addition to bringing down the terrorist, they’d saved the life of an injured American (a French citizen) who had made the first attempt to stop the would-be assassin. A Briton was also honored for his bravery and another Franco-American was recognized for raising the first alarm.
The French train conductors’ reaction to seeing a terrorist in their midst was gleefully reported by all the British newspapers. One glimpse of the malefactor, and the conductors all ran in the opposite direction, locking themselves up in a train compartment and turning their backs on their passengers’ desperate cries for help.
There is a French law with grave penalities attached for violating it known as “non-assistance aux personnes en danger.” Even people who don’t speak French can understand that phrase.
In the event, the city of Arras gave the three American heros medals for bravery and the French president gave them the Légion d’honneur. The young men appeared at the Elysée Palace in borrowed khakis and polo shirts –- all they could find to supplement their vacation clothes on a Sunday in Paris when most stores were closed. (That was in 2015. In 2017, French department stores have succumbed to the American style and are now open on Sundays.)
Their modesty and unaffected good manners were favorably reported everywhere in France.
There’s nothing like spending time in foreign lands to make you remember why you love your own.
That instinctively decent American response — jumping in to offer assistance no matter what the circumstances –- was a solid feature of my Pacific Northwest childhood and my New England adolescence. It was wonderful to see this response alive, well, and doing credit to the country once again.
And because facts live only to be turned into film, the same three young Americans who behaved so heroically on the Thalys are now playing themselves in a movie about their excellent adventures in France. The film is being directed by another kind of American hero: Clint Eastwood.
Bravo Strangers on a Train!
To be continued….