High life

Taki: How I learned to write

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM


 What I miss most up here in the Alps are the literary lunches conducted on the fly with writers like Bill Buckley, Alistair Horne, Natacha Stewart, occasionally Dmitri Nabokov and, yes, movie star and memoirist par excellence David Niven. This was back in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, during the winter months and in between ski runs. Bill would ring early in the morning and suggest a run somewhere, then he’d pick an inn in the vicinity where we’d meet David and Natacha, two non-skiers, and that was that. Buckley always referred to me as Führer — once on the slopes, of course — as I would go down first, followed by him and Alistair Horne, the two not always steady on their skis, and at times more out of than in control. Once we were safely down, the fun began.

Natacha wrote for the New Yorker, in the days when it was a well-written weekly and not the race- and transgender-obsessed leftie vehicle of today. Her main gripe was the editing. She would not permit ‘an iota to be changed’, which made me envy her as if she were Ava Gardner (an obsession of mine back then). I was writing for National Review, Bill’s baby, and I had been told that my stuff was heavily edited — the second most edited copy in the magazine behind that of a German intellectual with a double-barrelled name. Bill suggested I go to school again and learn proper English usage, or try to learn by listening to the sound of good English. I immediately chose the second option.

Alistair Horne preferred to talk about history, as he was a historian, and always went back to the Greek civil war of 1944–51. ‘Taahki, you should try that. You already know so much about it,’ he’d sweetly suggest to me as the first bottle of white wine was opened. Then he’d clam up and look nervous as hell if the word Chile came up. He was due to start his history of the fall of Allende after the skiing, and it made him terribly depressed. The book was a success and I loved the title, Small Earthquake in Chile. Alistair always got that way before starting one of his books, but skiing and wine and the talk about women helped him unwind.

The mysterious Dmitri Nabokov was among the best-looking men ever. He was the only son of the great Vladimir, and a close friend of the Buckleys, as were his parents who lived 45 minutes away in Montreux. Dmitri was an opera singer, a racing driver and a novelist, but one who wrote under a pseudonym that none of us ever discovered. One of the games I played with him was to announce that I had found out his pen name, and blurt out ‘Romain Gary’ or, if drunk, ‘Grace Metalious’, the bestselling female author of Peyton Place. I almost got hit for that one.

David Niven would tell us stories about Hollywood, and so when his great bestselling The Moon’s a Balloon was published, the joke among us was that we should not waste any time even opening it as we had heard every single story — sometimes more than once. When my first book, The Greek Upheaval, was published in the UK by Tom Stacey and in the US by a publisher who went broke almost immediately, the bookstore on Gstaad’s main street — yes, there was a bookstore, long before it became a luxury-goods store attended by high-class hookers — showcased it and my moment of triumph had arrived. In fact, the book with my name on its cover was in the middle, shadowed by one by Bill Buckley and by a bestseller predicting the crash of capitalism by 1979. (Close but no cigar, as communism collapsed in 1989, but what’s ten years where oracles are concerned.)

The lunches were literary, but no one touched upon what I wanted to hear and learn from: things like rhythm and idioms, and pauses and innuendos. Bill wrote a novel each winter based on a CIA operative who had a one-night stand with the Queen of England, Queen Caroline. His novels were based on plot and action, and there wasn’t much dialogue or suspension of real speech to learn from. Never mind, they were the best lunches ever because Buckley was always in a hurry, so we’d down a couple of bottles of wine and then hit a Pflümli or two, the Swiss grappa that supposedly makes hair grow on one’s chest.

Back then we skied better and faster after drinking. Niven would stay behind reminiscing — as articulate as ever while under the influence, looking always the English gent in his tweeds — in a simple wooden hut high up in the Alps. Straight out of Conan Doyle, actually. Natacha would fret about iotas, and Dmitri would head back down to places unknown to us. Alistair Horne was the last to die last year. Bill went eight years ago, and Dmitry about six. Natacha died 15 years ago after losing a son. Niven left us in 1984.

Gstaad has changed and there are no bookstores or writers around. Those charming huts that served simple food and chilled white wine have gone upmarket; you need to show a bank balance to get in. I now lunch at home and occasionally up at the club. Things ain’t what they used to be.

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