Henry James, Transatlantic Sketches, 1875.
James’s wit, erudition and awesome powers of observation animate the Switzerland he travelled through in a manner that is still vivid today. Everything James casts his eye on, from village fountains to the ugliness of the Bernese, from British tourists fretting about their bathtubs to the wars of the great Grey Leagues, dances and dazzles in his prose. Not all of the “sketches”concern Switzerland, but there are enough that do to make this collection one of my very favourites.
D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy, 1916.
Despite the title, there is a lot here on Switzerland, which Lawrence walked across in 1912. Lawrence’s delightfully sour take on the country makes for a bracing read, especially in moments when you are fed up with Swissness!
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1878.
Twain’s hilarious and good-natured take on everything from bedbugs to beggars renders his serious moments all the more profound.
Alexandre Dumas, Travels in Switzerland (Impressions de Voyage, en Suisse), 1832.
Dumas is as funny as Twain, but more rambunctious and high-spirited. His spirits are so high, in fact, that you might doubt the veracity of all of his details—but you are so taken with them that you won’t care.
Helen Maria Williams, A Tour in Switzerland, 1798.
An abolitionist and influential supporter of the French Revolution, Williams was imprisoned once during the Reign of Terror and a second time by Napoleon. After her release from prison in 1793 she fled to Switzerland and travelled about the country with her (still married) lover. A Tour in Switzerland is just that, and Williams’s observations about the many places she visits are incisive and heartfelt.
Her account of the over-the-top pomp surrounding the installation of a Swiss-German bailiff to rule over what is now Ticino is a hilarious tour-de-force, and her comparisons of Milton’s Satan with the Devil who is said to have built the Gotthard road demonstrate how much our views of the landscape have changed since her time.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Over the Alps on a Bicycle, 1898.
In the late 1890s the American art critic Elizabeth Robins Pennell crossed ten Swiss passes on her bicycle (which bore little resemblance to today’s mountain bikes!) Her accounts range from caustic to swooning.
James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1953.
Baldwin spent the winters of 1952 and 1953 in the small village of Leukerbad in the Valais working on his novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain. This essay from Notes of a Native Son depicts his reception by children and adults who had never seen a black man before.
Vincent Carter, The Bern Book, 1973.
Carter claimed to have been the only black person living in Bern in the 1950s. The Bern Book: A Record of a Voyage of the Mind is a phantasmagoria, a mix of fact, fancy and fiction that has been compared to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
Mark Morrison-Reed, In Between: Memoirs of an Integration Baby, 2009.
Morrison-Reed’s personal account of growing up black during the era of the civil rights movement includes two years as an adolescent in Switzerland, the first in Bern and the second at the Ecole d’Humanité in Hasliberg (BE). His description of the treatment he received at the hands of gawking Swiss and racist Americans provides much food for thought about the different types of prejudice that were prevalent in the two countries. Morrison-Reed also writes about the far more diverse Switzerland he encountered on his visits to the country in later decades.
Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudities, 1611,
Switzerland as seen through the eyes of a former jester at the court of James I is spicy, ribald, and down-to-earth Shakespearean. Coryat’s account of his five-month foot-tour of Europe, with a significant section on Switzerland, is worth it for the title alone—Coryat’s Crudities: hastily gobled up in five moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Netherlands: newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this kingdome. When he returned to England, Coryat introduced the table fork, which he found in use in Italy, to his countrymen—who have been using them ever since.
John Ruskin, Modern Painters Volume IV, 1856
This volume of Ruskin’s great work is dedicated to the Alps and contains the sections “Mountain Gloom”and “Mountain Glory,”with profound reflections on life in Switzerland that delve into the misery of its impoverished peasants and the destructive influence of the newly burgeoning tourist trade.
Ashley Curtis is the author of “O Switzerland!“: Travelers’s Accounts, 57 BCE to the present (Bergli Books, 2018) and of Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?, also published by Bergli.