by Noah Charney
Writers Inspired by the Julian Alps
Writers Inspired by the Julian Alps
by Noah Charney
“Bohinj is too beautiful for murder,” said Agatha Christie, when interviewed by a national TV journalist during a holiday there in 1967. From room 204 of the Hotel Bellevue, Christie and her husband, a famous archaeologist, could see the expanse of the Julian Alps and the crystalline, wild splendor of the lake mirroring pines and peaks. Christie had honeymooned in Dubrovnik and Split, and had passed through Slovenia on the famous Orient Express, on route to Turkey—she would later write perhaps her most famous novel, Murder on the Orient Express, based on this trip. But in 1967, as a charming, grandmotherly presence, aged 77, she was interviewed about the Julian Alps, as can be seen in this archival footage. When asked how she liked Bohinj, she replied, “Very peaceful, lovely scenery.” Too lovely, it seems, to warrant setting one of her detective stories there. A romance or epic adventure would be perhaps more suitable. This did not stop Slovenian author, Tadej Golob, from setting his best-seller murder mystery, Jezero (Lake), on Lake Bohinj.
Christie is but one of many great authors who have found the Julian Alps region to be a stimulating setting for their books. Dante Alighieri is said to have found inspiration for an aspect of his Divine Comedy in Zadlaška Jama in the Tolmin Gorge, when he was hosted by a patriarch in the region, Pagano della Torre.
Perhaps the most famous of all is Ernest Hemingway, whose A Farewell to Arms was set along the infamous Isonzo Front, one of the bloodiest regions of the First World War. The novel, published in 1929, is loosely based on Hemingway’s own experience as an ambulance driver during the war. His stand-in, American ambulance driver Frederic Henry, working with the Italian Army. The novel unfolds when the wounded Henry falls in love with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley. This was Hemingway’s first best-selling novel, establishing him as the premiere voice of American literature—a role he still retains. It was also dubbed “the premier American war novel from that debacle World War I.”
Hemingway did serve as an ambulance driver during the war and, age 19, was wounded while trying to save his fellow soldiers. He convalesced in an American Red Cross hospital in Milan, where he met a nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky. He had designs on marrying her, but she turned him down after he returned to America, informing him by letter that she’d become engaged to an Italian officer.
We tend to think of authors pouring their genius out onto the page, but Hemingway was refreshingly open about the amount of work he had to put in to get it right. He claimed, in an interview, that he’d written 39 different endings before he chose the one he was happiest with. But scholars found more: a 2012 edition includes 47 alternate endings.
I am one of the writers inspired by this region. When I first visited Slovenia, as a college student traveling through Europe, I was astonished by the picturesque beauty of Lake Bled—often the first stop on any tourist’s itinerary. Bled inspired many an author, including the greatest Slovenian poet, France Prešeren, and greatest prose writer, Ivan Cankar. It is home to arguably the best living novelist in Slovenia, Mojca Kumerdej and regularly inspires its foreign guests, too. Anton Tomaž Linhart, author of the first play in slovenian language, was born in Radovljica, near Bled. But a few kilometers on from Bled is another lake, Bohinj, which equally inspired me. When I returned to Slovenia, before I met my future wife here and decided to remain indefinitely, I lived in Ljubljana for three months in order to write a novel—as yet unpublished—that took place here, with key moments taking place, you guessed it, around Lake Bohinj. The Romantic vistas, which reminded me (as an art historian) of the paintings of the German Romantic artist, Caspar David Friedrich, injected my imagination. This was the landscape in which I imagined the fairytales of my youth taking place, the haunted forests of the Brothers Grimm, the cliff top castles that might house a Sleeping Beauty or a Rapunzel.
The Julian Alps range takes the breath away from foreigners. The most popular of all Slovenian heroes, the shepherd boy, Kekec, who is the protagonist of beloved children’s films, had his stories set in the mountains around Kranjska Gora--you can even visit a Kekec theme park there.
A surprisingly rich list of the greatest Slovenian writers hail from a part of this range, the town of Žirovnica. Fran Saleški Finžgar, a priest, wrote a beloved historical novel, Under the Free Sun (Pod Svobodnim Soncem), about ancient southern Slavic tribes in the 6th century AD in conflict with the Byzantine Empire, as well as children’s literature, including Mister Torrent (Gospod Hudournik). Anton Janša was a preeminent expert on beekeeping, one of Slovenia’s core crafts (the country still has the most beekeepers per capita in the world) and author on the subject.
Janez Jalen was born in the nearby village of Rodine. He authored plays as well as a novel that takes place in prehistoric times, Beavers (Bobri). Matija Čop, a librarian, philologist and literary historian, who sadly drowned at a young age, grew up in the old center of Žirovnica. A dear friend of the unfortunate Čop, Slovenia’s Romantic poet, France Prešeren, was born nearby, in the village of Vrba. Prešeren is more than just a wonderful poet. To Slovenes he symbolizes unification and independence. Part of the identity of Slovenians is tied to the use of their language, even though, for centuries, they were subsumed with the vast Habsburg Empire, where the official language was German. Prešeren’s poetry, in the local vernacular, helped maintain Slovenian identity long before the country of Slovenia became independent.
The Julian Alps is a cradle of inspiration for all who visit, especially writers. What might you be inspired to pen when you spend some time in these mountains? For me, I’d better get back to that novel I started some twenty years back…
Video: Visit Žirovnica