Friday 05 Feb 2021

Some Facts About Ecolint’s Fiction

Breaking into print is notoriously difficult for aspiring novelists. William Golding, who eventually went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, saw his Lord of the Flies (now revered as a classic) rejected by no fewer than 20 publishers before an editor in Faber & Faber decided to give it a second chance. Many a less persistent author would have reasonably given up before then; who knows how many literary masterpieces gather dust in drawers, or linger phantasmagorically in hard-drives, lost to mankind because their creators, talented though they may be, lack luck – or the right connections? Some writers of unquestionable merit (among them Ecolint alumni), rather than consign their work to such a limbo, understandably have recourse to a range of self-publishing options, sometimes achieving considerable recognition1.

However, a number of Ecolintian novelists have indeed been published professionally – in some cases, to great acclaim. Consider, for instance, Michel Butor, who in 1956 wrote L'Emploi du temps (which won the prestigious prix Fénéon) while teaching Philosophy and History at La Grande Boissière. The following year he scaled the heights of French literature with his ground-breaking La Modification (recipient of the prix Renaudot), which is now regarded as a modern classic and a prime example of the Nouveau roman movement. 

We owe to Professor Christoph Ribbat from the University of Paderborn (Germany), who recently corresponded with our Foundation’s archives in connection with his research, the realization that the novelist Ilse Barker (née Gross), better known under her nom-de-plume Kathrine Talbot, was a student at Ecolint in the 1930s. She already displayed her literary promise in the June 1937 issue of Ecolint, our school’s flagship journal at the time, in the form of a lengthy poem in German: “Momentaufnahmen aus unserem Alltagsleben.” In the 1950s, several of her novels (including Fire in the Sun, The Innermost Cage and Return) were issued by prestigious publishers such as Faber & Faber and Putnam, and elicited laudatory reviews. During the years she spent in the United States, Ilse Barker-Gross became a close friend of the great poet Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she maintained a lengthy correspondence that is preserved in the Princeton University Library. Both The Times and The Guardian devoted prominent obituaries to Barker-Gross in 2006.

Lucía Graves, daughter of the great World War I poet, novelist and scholar Robert Graves, who enrolled her in Ecolint, followed in her famous father’s footsteps with a novel that she wrote both in English and in Spanish (possibly a unique feat). It was first published in Spain in 1999 as La casa de la memoria, and subsequently in the United States in 2002 under the title of The Memory House. In addition, Lucía Graves is one of the Hispanic world’s preeminent translators of its modern fiction (such as Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind) into English, and of novels in English (by authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Anaïs Nin and – needless to say – her father) into Spanish. 

Another alumna, Elizabeth Frank, who is the Joseph E. Harry Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Bard College in the United States, was already well known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and as an art critic when her vast novel Cheat and Charmer, set in Hollywood, New York, Paris, and London during the 1950s, was published in 2004. Its sweeping scope, which has been described as “Tolstoyan,” encompasses a period marked by the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities. It has been praised by Chinua Achebe as a “magnificent novel (that) will take a front seat in contemporary American writing.”

The most recent, characteristically discursive novel by Roger Boylan, The Adorations, is partly set in Geneva, with which he initially became familiar as an Ecolint student. He first attracted critical attention in 1997 with the repeatedly reprinted Killoyle: An Irish Farce (which has been translated into German and Italian), and its sequel, The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad (2003).

Still active among us, both as a teacher of History and as a novelist, is Stéphane Bodénès. His provocative works of fiction, such as Le pape et le tombeau vide (2004) and Genève 2050 (2006), reveal a restlessly probing, penetrating and well-informed imagination at work. In addition, Bodénès has authored works of non-fiction, such as the charming Promenades sur la frontière franco-genevoise (2002) and Flâneries philosophiques genevoises (2011), as well as the iconoclastic, philosophical wake-up call of La tyrannie du travail (2009).

An Ecolintian who has recently emerged in the fiercely competitive world of commercially published fiction is Griffin Barber, whose 1636: Mission to the Mughals (2017 – co-authored with Eric Flint), an intriguing example of alternative history fiction (in the tradition of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Robert Harris’ Fatherland), combining genuine erudition and a lively, entertaining imagination, will soon be followed by a companion volume: 1637: The Peacock Throne (2021).

The prevailing tendency nowadays is for schools and universities to keep an affectionate eye on their alumni’s literary successes and highlight them when the occasion arises. It is less frequent that a writer of distinction should herself draw attention to an alma mater in her fiction; but this is precisely what happened last September when the prestigious The New Yorker magazine published the autobiographical short story “Switzerland” by Nicole Krauss, one of the English-speaking world’s most talented and acclaimed contemporary novelists, whose work has already been translated into 37 languages and won an array of literary prizes.

Krauss was an Ecolint (LGB) Year 9 boarder in 1987, while her parents lived in Basel (where her father, a surgeon, was pursuing a medical fellowship). Her English teacher at the time was – appropriately enough – Elspeth Williamson, the Scottish left-wing firebrand who ensured that in her classes Shakespeare and Dickens were complemented with healthy doses of Mary Wollstonecraft and Noam Chomsky. Our records show that Krauss was appreciated by all her teachers without exception, both on academic and personal grounds. 


Left: Nicole Krauss around the time she joined Ecolint (1987) / Right: Nicole Krauss today (Photograph by Goni Riskin)
 

In “Switzerland,” however, Krauss focuses primarily on two fellow Ecolint boarders, both five years older than her, to whom she refers as Marie and Soraya. The three of them lived with Mrs. (Winifred) Elderfield, who by then, after a 20-year career in our school, had retired as a Primary School teacher at La Grande Boissière, though she still did substitutions on request. Many alumni (including me) remember Mrs. Elderfield (who passed away in 2016 at the age of 97) with great affection. Mrs. Elderfield plays a substantial role in “Switzerland”, and Krauss’ portrayal of her is not entirely flattering; but the extent to which fact and imagination fuse in her short story is deliberately ambiguous, as Krauss makes clear in an accompanying New Yorker interview (September 14, 2020):

Everything in this story happened to me, in one form or another, at one time or another, and the reimagining of these experiences and observations now feels as real and true as my actual memories, which, as any neuroscientist will point out, are themselves the result of an active process of alteration that results in “reconsolidation.” “Switzerland” is a reconsolidation of my year as a thirteen-year-old, living in a boarding house in Geneva with two much older girls: actual events mixed with my imagination and shaped by the long passage of time and its revelations.2

After teaching English Literature at our school for over three decades, it is thrilling for me to discover that Ecolint may have had a modest formative input in shaping Krauss’ prose, which any sensitive and discerning reader will recognize as brilliant in its economical but surgical precision. A succession of seemingly simple sentences from “Switzerland” suffices to whiff the understated originality of a major author and whet your appetite for more: 

We used to set out for school in the dark. To get to the bus stop, we had to cross a field, which by November was covered in snow that the sheared brown stalks sworded through. We were always late. I was always the only one who’d eaten. Someone’s hair was always wet, the ends frozen. We huddled in the enclosure, inhaling secondhand smoke from Soraya’s cigarette. The bus took us past the Armenian church to the orange tram. Then it was a long ride to the school, on the other side of the city. Because of our different schedules we rode back alone. Only on the first day, at Mrs. Elderfield’s insistence, did Marie and I meet up to travel together, but we took the tram in the wrong direction and ended up in France. After that I learned the way, and usually I broke up the journey by dropping in at the tobacco shop next to the tram stop, where before catching the bus I bought myself some candy from the open containers that, according to my mother, were crawling with strangers’ germs.”

Krauss is not at all sentimental, but her 13-year-old persona in “Switzerland” nevertheless engages the reader through her wide-eyed, unprejudiced, humane observation of the various realities she encounters in 1987 Geneva – including those, most notably, of her two wayward fellow boarders. Inextricably interspersed throughout Krauss’s 1987 reminiscences are the incisive, retrospective ruminations of her 2020 self, as if to emphasize that there can be no watertight sequestration of the past from the perceptions of the present. 

A sizeable passage in “Switzerland” is devoted to Jorge Luis Borges, who – as Krauss discovered many years later – had died in Geneva barely a year before she came to Ecolint. She remembers sitting at the foot of the Mur des Réformateurs, gazing up at the colossal Calvin, in a pose almost identical to that of the great writer in a photograph she eventually came across in Atlas, a pictorial compilation of his travels. Krauss doesn’t mention (though she probably knows) that Borges had previously lived in Geneva as an adolescent during World War I, and for several years attended the Collège Calvin, a decade before Ecolint was founded. I had several brief encounters with Borges in Buenos Aires during the mid-1970s. On one of these occasions I made so bold as to inform him (who was I to be a subject of any interest?) that I too had benefited from a Geneva education, eulogizing the world’s first international school and its 1924 “education for peace” project. He smiled vaguely in my direction (Borges was exquisitely courteous but blind) and said, with his characteristic slight stutter: “What a shame I missed it.” I like to think he meant that. 

Krauss’ most recent novel, Forest Dark (2017) – a reference to the opening lines of the Divina Commedia – was greeted by such an outpouring of unstinted praise in the English-speaking world’s most prestigious (and fastidious) newspapers and magazines that it would be an overkill to quote it all here. (Suffice it to say that The New York Times describes her as “one of America’s most important novelists and an international literary sensation.”) Her three previous novels also received widespread critical acclaim: Man Walks Into a Room (2002), The History of Love (2005) and Great House (2010). A collection of short fiction, To Be a Man, is hot off the press. 

You certainly don’t need the Ecolintian connection to savour Nicole Krauss’ prose, but a glow of fondness for a fellow alumna doesn’t detract from it either.

 

Alejandro Rodríguez-Giovo
Foundation Archivist

(Please note that this article focuses exclusively on prose fiction; had it encompassed drama, it would have of course have included Alex Buzo, a prominent Australian playwright who graduated from La Grande Boissière in 1962.)


1See, for example, The Skull (2013), by Elizabeth Knight (who had a long and distinguished career as a teacher of English and Drama at La Grande Boissière); The Apple Core Enigma (2016) by David Ryan (at one time co-head of the English Department at La Grande Boissière); A. J. Blake’s Dust on the Nettles (2013), an intricately-plotted novel with an impressive chronological and cultural sweep, which is partly set in the Ecolint of the 1960s; Slipper (2018) by Hester Velmans (who is also a renowned literary translator); and More Quietly No Doubt Than Many (2019) a novel by Burton Melnick (whose scholarly essays on literature and psychoanalysis have been published in a wide range of specialized journals, and who is also the author of  "Nor All Your Impiety Nor Wit," a short story published in 2002 by the literary magazine The Reading Room).

2https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/nicole-krauss-09-21-20

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