How would you describe Swiss literature?
Since I started working with the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia in 2012, first on their annual book trade magazine 12 Swiss Books and then on our new Literally Swiss project, I’ve been asked this question many times – and I still don’t know the answer. The question is tough even for Swiss writers and book trade professionals. Ask ten people and you get ten different answers. Our Swiss Riveter magazine will surely help: there are thoughtful essays on this very topic and an impressive range of writing as well as excerpts in all genres and from all languages.
So, how would you describe Swiss literature? When you ask, you are immediately drawn into a discussion about Switzerland itself and issues of Swiss identity, mentality, geography and language. Is it writing about lakes, mountains and skiing? About cuckoo clocks, fondue and chocolate? Is Swiss literature simply embodied by those who write it, such as Jacques Chessex, Giorgio Orelli, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Robert Walser, Johanna Spyri or Max Frisch? Max Frisch himself said that a Swiss writer was a ‘citizen of the world’, cosmopolitan, multicultural and multilingual. These are indeed precious attributes, but equally the Swiss can be seen as insular and private, dependent on the vitality of incomers. It’s clear that geography is destiny when you live in a landlocked, hybrid nation, an island in the centre of Europe, and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful countries in Europe. Surely natural beauty inspires great writing? Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, lived in Switzerland for many years, was a keen mountain climber and wrote several of his great works here. Content is king in Swiss writing. Its writers are informed. They know their villages, mountains, lakes and alps. They know about banking and corruption; about their architecture, design and environment; their unique political system, neutrality and referendums. A Swiss writer may not always live in Switzerland (cf. Alain de Botton) but they know their country and will often be drawn back home.
Swiss writers often maintain that they have more in common with their German, French or Italian neighbours, and may feel they have succeeded only if they are published outside Switzerland. One of my favourite Swiss writers, Peter Stamm, who writes in German, was snapped up by a leading publisher in Germany. This November, Peter won the Swiss Book Prize, which is, however, only awarded to Swiss writers in German. So, does that make him the best Swiss writer or simply the best Swiss-German writer? Decide for yourselves, as we are honoured to publish an exclusive English excerpt from his prizewinning novel, The Gentle Indifference of the World, translated by Michael Hoffman. I’ve read it in German and it’s another Stamm-stunner: a crime novel, love story and psychodrama about the mystery of life.
I’m lucky enough to speak three of the Swiss languages, German, French and Italian, and, like the majority of Swiss, I enjoy hopping about linguistically, enjoying the different cities, regions and cultures of Switzerland. Each region has its own literature prizes and festivals, its own linguistic quirks and literary genres. Meeting Arno Camenisch and Pedro Lenz this year has been an education in the joys of Swiss dialect. You can read their work in this magazine. Live performances by Swiss poets and storytellers Nora Gomringer and Michael Fehr have also blown me away. I can’t wait for you to meet them in the UK. Because that is another, sadder, aspect of Swiss literature: it is not well known outside Switzerland.
Now I’m going to stick my neck out: of all the European literatures I am reading these days, Swiss literature is the most original, varied and exciting. There’s a lively performance and spoken-word culture – especially among dialect writers. Villages, cities and mountains are alive with the sound of literature. In June I attended a Swiss book festival in the mountain resort of Leukerbad where events took place in a spa!
Swiss literature is an exciting mix of youthful innovation and celebrated classics. Being at ease with different languages makes it more inventive. As you’ll read in our magazine, its diversity has been boosted enormously by immigration. Today Swiss writers are not writing only in the four official languages but also in the languages of immigration. Nicolas Verdan is originally Greek; Melinda Nadj Abonji from Yugoslavia. There are not enough translators and definitely not enough being translated into English.
We’re here to help. That’s what Literally Swiss does.
When I was a child, I adored Heidi, the fictional girl who lived in the Swiss Alps. I became aware of Switzerland for the first time, although a night spent on a Swiss mountain in our family car, surrounded by cows with loud bells, is also unforgettable, as was my first taste of Swiss chocolate. This year I made a very rash promise, that there would always be chocolate at my Literally Swiss events. Heidi and chocolate are, of course, things any country could be proud of, but if you’re appalled by my liberal use of clichés so far, fear not, as my mission with Literally Swiss is to smash the stereotypes and introduce you to the Best of Swissness. A year ago, I was asked by Pro Helvetia in Zurich to help them promote Swiss literature and translation in the UK and increase its visibility. Literally Swiss was born at The Tabernacle arts centre in London with a host of outstanding Swiss authors: Alain de Botton, Monique Schwitter, Nicolas Verdan, Pedro Lenz and Peter Stamm. Along with my Literally Swiss colleagues, Amber Massie-Blomfield, Anna Blasiak, Nikki Mander and West Camel, we’re here to help writers, publishers, agents, translators, cultural institutes, arts organisations, media, festival directors and event programmers interested in developing Swiss projects for 2018 and beyond. The Swiss Riveter is a labour of great love for Switzerland. When you’ve read it, do tell me how you would describe Swiss literature!
By Rosie Goldsmith