Chronicles of a writer abroad

Fall: a moveable feast


Happy November!

Fall is and always has been my favourite season, so I was eager to see it descend upon my new city. And Zürich has not disappointed me with its autumnal display – the city is, in my opinion, more picture-perfect and lovely now than ever.

To begin with, most days there is wicked fog coming off the lake, fog that engulfs even the North end of the city, where we live. Since living in Vancouver, itself a prolific generator of the misty stuff, I have come to consider heavy fog a necessary ingredient in the atmosphere of fall. Here in Zürich, it lends a romantic feel as it partially shrouds the city’s church steeples and gabled roofs.

View from ETH's Polyterrasse

The trees are looking great as well. As October was ticking along and everything was still green, I became a little concerned that the leaves wouldn’t turn the vibrant colours we’re used to in Canada, and would instead merely just go brown and fall off overnight. As you can see here, my fears were unfounded:

As it turns out, fall is also a great time to be a book lover in Zürich. This past weekend, the city hosted its first-ever book festival. Called Zürich Liest (Zürich reads), most of its events were German-language ones. One major exception to this, though was an English-language reading by South African author J.M. Coetzee given on Friday evening. I’d been looking forward to this ever since I learned about it several weeks before (just in time to snag a couple standing-room-only tickets for Stelian and I).

I was introduced to Coetzee’s book Disgrace when it appeared on the reading list of Stelian’s first-year university English class, years ago. At that time, Coetzee was still a year away from winning his Nobel Prize, and I’d never heard of him. Stelian disliked the book, but I decided to give it a go anyway. I’m glad of that, because in the years since, I’ve re-read it countless times, and I now count it among my favourites. It’s not a happy book, dealing as it does with brutality in post-apartheid South Africa. Each time I read it, it hits me over the head again – the sadness and poignancy of its subject, and particularly its ending, stand up to many a read. I also read it again and again because it is beautifully written – Coetzee’s signature style is sparse and crisp, and each of his words feels very carefully chosen.

Coetzee is also known for his reclusiveness and his dislike of interviews – to me it felt  serendipitous, therefore, that his one European appearance this year should have been in Zürich. Who knows how or why he chose our city – perhaps it was because he speaks at least a modicum of German, as he demonstrated in his greeting to the crowd, which was seated on the ground floor and standing on the second-floor atrium balcony of Zurich’s Stadthaus. Perhaps he has people to visit in the area. Whatever the reason, I felt very lucky.

Because of Coetzee’s preferences, the reading was different from others that I’ve been to. Usually, a portion of the evening is allocated for the author to answer questions and discuss his or her work. Instead, Coetzee treated us to a 45-minute reading of a piece called “The Old Woman and the Cats.” The story centered on a middle-aged man’s visit to his elderly mother who lives in the country and has decided to feed and house an incompetent person from a nearby village, as well as a large number of feral cats. The argument that the son and his mother have about how best to deal with the cats – is taking them all in and feeding them really the right response? – spans several days and touches upon the faces, souls and fates of humans and felines alike. It was a stunning piece made even more stunning by the 71-year-old author’s voice, which was soft and beautifully cadenced. As I said before: a very fortunate experience.

On Saturday, I attended a special event at Zurich’s one English bookstore, Orell Fuessli. The event, timed to coincide with the book festival and Hallowe’en, was called “Welcome to the Night Circus,” the theme inspired by a newly-released book by author Erin Morgenstern. In addition to a gajillion copies of the book, the store had much on offer, including a reading of a spooky Roald Dahl story, a showing of a horror movie, hired contortionists and magicians, fun costumes donned by all of the staff members, and a huge amount of delicious free food. And yet it was not at all mobbed with people, as such an event would have been in Canada. Switzerland continues to perplex me in certain ways…

So, these have been  beautiful days, and I have been savouring them. Pretty soon these pretty leaves will be sodden, rotting piles on the sidewalk, but for now they’re (mostly) hanging on.

For those wondering about Paris, please stay tuned for the next entry!


4 thoughts on “Fall: a moveable feast

  1. speechless in Toronto … your leaves are stunningly better, Coetzee read to you AND you are going to Paris. C’est ça!

  2. Love those gorgeous reds. As you can remember, the golds predominate from our livingroom window – at least they have till today when the rains arrived. I think ours will likely win the fall down and become sodden race!
    What a fortunate opportunity for you to hear Coetzee and to find such a fun bookstore and yes, we are waiting for the report on Paris :).

  3. Pingback: Winter(ish) in Zürich « Milchtoast

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