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How to be inspired

June 2, 2011

The ceiling of the UN Human Rights Council Chamber - inspiration or procrastination?

As an embarrassingly wannabe writer living in Geneva, I do my best to blame my lack of any genuinely inspired substance (including on this blog) on the lack of any genuine inspiration in this city of ours. Seeing as I’ve just about run out of things to complain about (although I’m not above repeating myself) I’ve discovered that my muse of fire is nowhere to be found in Geneva, not even at La SIP (what a surprise!). And I’m left, once again, wondering whether this indeed is just a soulless city that sucks the creativity and curiosity right out of you and replaces it with a taste for for expensive, sickening fondue.

Alas, a New York Times travel piece this week made me realise that the problem might not actually be with Geneva, but – bizarrely – might lie, in part, with me. For, as the article details, Geneva and its surrounds was once home to some of history’s most celebrated writers, the location for the composition of their most famous works.  Henry James. Vladimir Nabokov. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in a house in Cologny. Lord Byron composed an array of poems, including The Prisoner of Chillon, inspired by the Chateau Chillon near Montreaux. John Polidori – Byron’s personal physician – wrote a short story called The Vampyre, which would later influence Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

How can this be possible? How could they have been so inspired here? Was Geneva so different in 1816? I guess the food was probably better, and the G&Ts cheaper. There were probably more people out on a Friday night back then, and I’m sure that accommodation was more plentiful and more affordable. But could these things alone have been enough to propel them to churn out great literary masterpieces while the best I can do is wax lyrical about cheese?

Rather than conclude that the problem must just be that I’m not a very good writer, I have instead turned my attention to the history of Byron, Shelly et. al, and identified three factors in their Geneva experience which most probably contributed to their abundance of genius and which adequately explain my lack thereof.

1.       They were taking crazy hallucinogenic drugs.

Their indulgence of choice was laudanum, a form of liquefied opium, which caused them to see freaky shit like Mary’s breasts turning into demonic eyes. Apparently old Mary was dosed up on the stuff when she passed out one night and dreamt of a scientist who creates a man from stolen body parts and gives him life; voila, Frankenstein!

2.       They were all shagging each other.

Byron took as his lover Claire Claremont (cool name), the stepsister of Mary Wollstonecraft who would later become Mary Shelley when she married Percy Bysshe Shelley. Byron and his physician, Dr. Polidori, lived next door to Mary, Percy and Claire, and Dr. Polidori may or may not have been shagging Mary. British newspapers labelled their enclave a sordid “league of incest.” When Claire got knocked up, Byron wondered “Is the brat mine?” A recipe for fruitful inspiration, no?

3.       They did ridiculous things like travel with a peacock and a monkey in a replica of Napolean’s coach.


I, for one, would like to see all of these activities returned to the realm of the “norm” in Geneva; I am certain that my writing would be better for it. Also, can we please adopt, as Byron did, the phrase “staring boobies” to describe all the annoying tourists who linger along the lake taking photos of the Jet d’Eau and obstructing my bicycle path?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. DapperDan permalink
    June 2, 2011 6:26 pm

    The thing is, Geneva has a healthy vein of artistic talent, but it’s gone underground, it’s not on show. There are artist havens everywhere – the big factory-cum-commune out at junction, the factory-cum-atelier workspace adjoined to the modern art gallery near plainpalais, what looks like a squat but is actually an old manor full of bohemian types next to the cimetieire des rois (a cemetery that hosts the grave of Borges, an artist of the verbal variety), not to mention a host of live music events in little cafes and large festivals throughout the summer.

    So it’s all there, but you have to be here come the weekend, and root around, and probably know someone, to lock in to it. No doubt hallucinogens would make the search more interesting (and could even spawn your own line of gonzo reportage. Or Gen-zo journalism? Sorry).

    I get the sense that art, as well as intellect, flourishes here precisely because there isn’t a thrill a minute – boredom driving the imagination. But like Genevois table service, don’t assume the art will come to you…

    Nice post by the way, as ever.

    • June 5, 2011 8:19 pm

      Is this just to prove you actually did read my blog? Or to have a dig at me for going away on the weekend? 🙂

  2. Frank permalink
    September 5, 2011 8:25 pm


    As concerns the nightlife, you are spot on. But inspiration can be born from the seemingly mundane as well:

    “My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” John Updike

    Geneva may not be middle class, but it certainly is where extremes clash. Keep looking for inspiration here, and remember the devil is in the details.


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