Hans Ruesch

Writer and racing driver
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hans Ruesch, writer and racing driver: born Naples, Italy 17 May 1913; married 1949 Marialuisa De La Feld (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Lugano, Switzerland 27 August 2007.

"Anybody can learn to fly. But you go up there and then there's nothing to do. It's boring," remarked Hans Ruesch of a cosmopolitan Thirties life, which, on the ground, included thrilling years as a motor-racing driver renowned throughout Europe and, after three weeks' experience, as part of the Swiss team at the 1937 Bobsleigh World Championship. Adept in several languages, he moved to America the following year and found the leisure to produce numerous war, adventure and humorous stories. By 1946, these evolved into an engrossing, bestselling novel of Eskimo life Top of the World, later filmed with Anthony Quinn, thereby inspiring Bob Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)".

He was born in Naples in 1913, his mother Italian, and his father, Arnold, Swiss, a textile industrialist with poetic, philosophical and archaeological leanings. Hans Ruesch wrote in Italian from an early age, but one day, "endowed with a keener sense of criticism than in later years... I made a big pile of all my manuscripts, soaked them thoroughly with gasoline and set the torch to them, not only destroying the evidence of my early literary endeavours but very nearly destroying our house."

He wrote in German for newspapers and magazines while at the University of Zürich, which he described later in The Game (1961) as full of "stodgy plodding burghers, from whom centuries of wealth and cultured living had scarcely effaced the traits of the original mountain and peasant breeds". He, however, bought a little racing car and began to take part in a burgeoning Thirties sport which brought intense rivalry between Italian and German manufacturers, the latter spurred by Hitler's reward of half a million Reichmarks for a supreme engine. Ruesch took part in 100 events, and won 27 – either as an independent or for Italian manufacturers.

Among these particularly remembered in England is a so-called Mountain Championship at Brooklands in 1936 when he (for Alfa Romeo) and the Siamese sculptor Prince Birabongse (driving a Maserati) vied for second place while Raymond Mays was out front in an English ERA.

In 1938, after an accident, he moved to Paris and began writing in French, but found that, unless one "had a long white beard" writers were not taken seriously; he then moved to America after publishing a racing novel Gladiatoren (1939) in Berne. "Once you know a few languages, you pick up others pretty easily," he remarked.

Although his Eskimo novel, Top of the World, was written simply by recourse to a library, Thomas Mann said it was "a gripping work which enables the reader to gain insight into an entirely new world". At its heart is the notion that "bears are man's biggest prize. Man is bear's biggest prize". With tales of eating afterbirth or making "windows of seal and caribou bladders", all is set against the predations of canners and missionaries appalled by a society in which it is bad form not to avail oneself, at regular intervals, of another man's wife. It was filmed worthily by Nicholas Ray as The Savage Innocents (1961). This was better than Kirk Douglas in The Racers (1955), from Ruesch's The Racer (1953, adapted from Gladiatoren). The novel itself is a brisk account of rivalries on the track and in the bedroom seen through the eyes of a man who "had always had a feeling for his body that bordered on conceit, though he liked to believe he thought of it only as the instrument of his trade".

Ruesch had by now married and, with three children, returned to Europe, living mainly in Switzerland, and briefly at Ferrari. Novels followed steadily and diversely: South of the Heart (1957) concerns belligerent rivalry among Arab oil states ("corpses became ramparts"), while The Game (1961) is a seething account of Liberia, where a game-hunting tycoon and his wife encounter one of her old flames, with a long flashback to pre-war Zurich: the effect is of Peyton Place circled by a panther. After The Stealers (1962), which chronicled a GI's infatuation in post-war Naples, a decade went by, and Ruesch returned to Eskimo life for Back to the Top of the World (1973) which starts as it means to go on: "It was the first time he had seen her laugh since the last spring, when he had killed their little girl."

Soon afterwards, Ruesch found a kitten which had narrowly escaped vivisection, and his life changed. He vowed not to write any more fiction and gave himself over to animal rights, publishing Slaughter of the Innocent (1978) and Naked Empress (1982).

Christopher Hawtree

Comments