Literally Swiss

LITERALLY SWISS is an exciting new concept showcasing, quite literally, some of the best writing in English, and featuring some of the best Swiss and British writers with Literary Swiss Links.

LITERALLY SWISS is ELNet’s collaboration with Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council and the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK.


Introduction by ROSIE GOLDSMITH
Creator and host of Literally Swiss
Director of the European Literature Network

LITERALLY SWISS took place in February 2018 at The Tabernacle in London.

It opened with a concert by Swiss performer HEIDI HAPPY and featured readings and discussion with 7 literary superstars from both Switzerland and the UK:

The Concert and the Conversations were filmed by MIHAI ANDREI for London Video Stories. You can view each film in sequence or enjoy them as individual films: just follow the numbers!
As part of our media coverage of LITERALLY SWISS we’d like to share with you a gallery of photos by MAX EASTERMAN and sketches of all the authors by artist and filmmaker IAN LONG.


When I was a child I adored Heidi, the fictional girl who lived in the Swiss Alps. It was probably my first contact with Switzerland, 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. As a child I never dreamed that one day I’d be sharing the same stage as Heidi!

The presence of the Swiss multi-instrumentalist multi-talented Heidi Happy at our inaugural LITERALLY SWISS event and of the seven authors would not have been possible without the funding and support of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. A big bouquet of edelweiss also goes to the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK for the reception and the wonderful Swiss wines. We at the European Literature Network are also grateful for the continued support of Arts Council England and Creative Europe via ELIT European Literature House. Thank you to the artist Nicolas Feldmeyer for our stunning Swiss mountain Tabernacle backcloth and to Lindt for helping me keep my very rash promise of providing chocolate at all my Swiss events. If you attended our event expecting only chocolate then I have to break it to you: Lindt and literature will always go together!

If you’ve been appalled by my liberal use of Swiss cliches so far, fear not: Heidi, chocolate and wine are GOOD things for any country to be proud of but my mission with LITERALLY SWISS is to smash the stereotypes and introduce you to the Best of Swissness through literature and translation.

And who better to help me do that than some of the best writers from Switzerland and the UK? Through our films, photos, blogs and other media we want to discover: What does Switzerland mean to each of them?

Literally Swiss – A Literary Cabaret

By West Camel


Deborah Levy, a leading light of British literary culture, takes to the stage at London’s Tabernacle and declares that she has never visited Switzerland.

Slightly nervous laughter erupts from the audience. This is the official launch of Literally Swiss – a project designed to promote Swiss literature in the UK, and to showcase Swiss writers and British writers with Swiss links. Is Levy going dangerously off script? Rosie Goldsmith, leading the project for its supporters – Pro Helvetia and the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK – and our host for the evening, is unfazed, however. Levy’s writing ranges wide – across many cultures and landscapes – and she is here to read from her work inspired by the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Levy wants to learn about Swiss literature – she is here to represent those of us who are the target of the Literally Swiss efforts, which aim to introduce English-speaking audiences to the wealth of Swiss literary culture, in all its languages. Levy, in characteristic style, expresses her position with a metaphor: ‘I want to swim in your Swiss lakes’, she declares.

In fact it strikes me that experiencing Swiss literature in a physical way is an unconscious theme of the evening. It opens with British author Alain de Botton – who was born and grew up in Switzerland – discussing his trips to and from the UK, where he went to school. Now based in England, and writing extensively about architecture, among other topics, he tells us that his current home, down to its furniture and fittings, could have been built by a Swiss architect in Zurich.

Another non-Swiss writer, Xiaolu Guo, who is a guest professor at the University of Bern, and has taken up writer residencies in Zurich, also discusses her experiences of the country in physical terms. Her reading is a hilarious account of her visit to Maienfeld – the area that inspired Johanna Spyri to write Heidi. High up on the Alp, Chinese-born Guo experiences the awe and wonder the green of the swath and the blue of the sky inspire in any visitor. Then she turns to see a group of flip-flop-shod Chinese tourists disembarking from their coach for the eight minutes allocated for ‘Heidi’ photographs, before, she feels sure, they descend back into the valley to eat noodles in the only Chinese restaurant in the region.

The Swiss writers appearing at the event also discuss their home country in terms of the physical. German-speaking, prize-winning novelist Monique Schwitter is a resident of Hamburg, yet she intimates that her aim is to return home to Switzerland. The north-German city is just too flat for her; the quality of the walking just isn’t the same. Is there a sense here that being at home involves something strenuous but necessary?

Walking takes on a similar symbolism for Peter Stamm. His latest novel, To the Back of Beyond, sees a man walk out of his family home on a whim, perhaps never to return. What could be the reason? A possible explanation is the quote Stamm relates to us from the great Swiss author Robert Walser – which is greeted by giggles of recognition by many in the audience, including my Swiss friends: a Swiss man takes his heart out of his chest, examines it, then puts it back inside and goes on his way. ‘Er nahm sein Herz heraus, schaute es an, verschloss es wieder und wanderte dann weiter.’

Where the heart lies is an issue for another of the night’s Swiss writers: Nicolas Verdan. Of Swiss and Greek parentage, he writes in French, but he tells us that to the French literary establishment his status as a Swiss writer means he is something ‘other’. The variety of these national ‘pulls’ seem to me to say something about the Swiss experience.

The final author of the evening emphasises the physical theme without really mentioning it. Not only is Pedro Lenz, who writes in the Bern dialect of Swiss German, a man of large stature, his performance is corporeal, almost visceral. In English translation his work is often rendered in the Glasgow Scots dialect – which is at the kind of distance from Standard English that Bern German is from Swiss German. After a short reading in the Glaswegian (ably performed by the Brit Max Easterman), Lenz takes to the microphone. Not a German-speaker myself, and certainly not a Bern dialect one, I understand not a word. Thus witnessing Lenz’s huge voice, his rapid, rhythmic phrasing, his massive presence and the gales of laughter from those around me who do understand what he is saying is a purely physical experience – and one I enjoy enormously. It is, to adopt Deborah Levy’s metaphor, like swimming in one of Switzerland’s glacial lakes: literally breath-taking, Literally Swiss. And a perfect end to an event that is an object lesson in how to present the generally passive and cerebral activity of reading in an active, physical and engaging way.

Literally Swiss – an evening with Writers from Switzerland and the UK

by Tina for TripFictionTeam

Literally Swiss – an evening hosted by the erudite and inspired Rosie Goldsmith, who is a great champion of European Literature. It took place on 9 February 2018 at The Tabernacle, London.

Literally Swiss is an exciting new concept showcasing, quite literally, some of the best writing in English and some of the best Swiss and British writers with Swiss links. It was a cabaret of entertaining speakers and authors, set against the backdrop of an artwork by Nicolas Feldmeyer specially commissioned for the event. Musical sets by Heidi Happy made for a convivial evening, with wine from Switzerland (Swiss wine is fabulous, by the way! Pinot Noir and Johannisberg will delight wine lovers beyond the landlocked country – if only the vintners would export, but they don’t, they keep it largely for themselves and their fellow countrymen. It’s one of the many good reasons to visit the country!).

First up was the wonderfully entertaining Alain de Botton. Born in Switzerland he grew up bilingually and can now refer to his country as gloriously boring. Can Zurich, for example, be exotic? Um, possibly not, but all the good solid values of life are still there.

Yes, stereotypes soon popped up, there was even (shock horror!) mention of chocolate, Heidi (the ‘happy’ cowgirl in the eponymous novel by Joanna Spyri), mountains and cuckoo clocks, (which actually originated in Bavaria, although the Swiss, having a good eye for commerce, have now adopted the clock as their own).

But it was Deborah Levy – who has had two novels shortlisted on the Man Booker – who had no links to the country but hoped at some point to perhaps set a novel there. She then went on to talk about Bavaria. This region of Southern Germany has the undulating hills, which eventually rise to small mountains (a bit like Switzerland, I guess). Confusing Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland is a fairly common thing – they all have mountains and snow, after all, and as countries can seem interchangeable to the untutored eye; but I am sure the citizens of each country would rather object to being lumped together as one mountainous, snow covered land mass.

Nicolas Verdan‘s The Greek Wall, his first thriller, did very well in Switzerland and he has used his journalistic experience to good effect. Being of both Swiss and Greek extraction he has called on his heritage to inform his work, focussing on the plight of refugees who have been flooding into the country. Monique Schwitter held her audience as she read to her audience and has turned outdone prize-winning piece of fiction after another. Xiaolu Guo is a gifted Chinese-British novelist and filmmaker, who was born in China and has lived in the German speaking world, including Switzerland. She pondered how avant-garde Switzerland really is, with its “modest pride” and that there are “so many nations coming into Switzerland”, making it a truly cosmopolitan centre.

Ah, and then Peter Stamm arrived on stage and continued where Alain de Botton left off, charismatic, entertaining and engaging. I recently read and reviewed his novel To The Back of Beyond which is the wonderfully laconic story of a man who simply walks out of his everyday life and sets off for the hills.

Stamm in his discourse on stage pondered whether any of his fellow compatriots actually know all the words to the Swiss National Anthem, and shared the fact that a staggering 70% of people in Switzerland work in the service sector and only 4% now in farming (who knew!).

Finally Pedro Lenz chatted amiably and then gave a hugely entertaining reading in Swiss German of his novel that has now been translated into Glaswegian dialect, titled “Naw Much of a Talker”. He too kept his audience riveted.

The event was sponsored by Pro Helvetia (the Swiss Arts Council), supported by the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK and the European Literature Network.

This post was originally published at TripFiction.

Videos from the event by London Video Stories:

Photos from the event by Max Easterman:

More photos on Flickr.

Drawings from the event by Ian Long:

Come to the Cabaret. Poetry and Prose from Switzerland with Michael Fehr and Michelle Steinbeck. 5 December 2018, the British Library

The Literally Swiss video series

On December 5th 2018 at the British Library in London we held a cabaret night of readings and performance by two talented Swiss writers and their translators. The evening was hosted by the journalist and director of the European Literature Network, Rosie Goldsmith. We also launched The Swiss Riveter magazine that evening, also available free as a PDF on our website. The magazine, the event and this video were made possible mainly thanks to support from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. We’d also like to thank Arts Council England and ELIT Literature House Europe.

Michelle Steinbeck and Michael Fehr, two of Switzerland’s leading young poets and prose writers and winners of major national literary awards, read from their sensational works – in both English and German. Michelle and Michael are unforgettable wordsmiths and performers, feted across Switzerland as champions of live performance and outstanding writing – musical, hypnotic, surreal, widely published. They appear at the British Library together for the first time, Michelle to launch her first book in English and Michael to launch his Artistic Residency in London with Landis and Gyr. They are accompanied by their translators Jen Calleja and Shaun Whiteside.

This is a Literally Swiss eventcreated by Rosie Goldsmith in 2018 in collaboration with Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council.  It showcases some of the best Swiss writers and brings them and their writing to the UK.  Switzerland is a country with multiple languages and dialects, prose and performance styles – an array of talent and opportunity, much of which we are bringing to the UK for the first time.  

Michelle Steinbeck has already made a big name for herself in Switzerland as a writer of prose, poetry and drama. She is a scintillating performer and widely published. Her first stunning, surreal novel, short-listed for the Swiss Book Prize, has just been translated into English by Jen Calleja: My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in Water.

Michael Fehr is one of Switzerland’s most original and exciting young poets and performers. He is also a major innovator and champion of live poetry. He calls himself ‘a narrator’ rather than writer, despite having published three outstanding books and won the 2018 Swiss Literature Prize. Michael Fehr was 2018/2019 London artist-in-residence with the Landis & Gyr Foundation.

Jen Calleja (Michelle Steinbeck) and Shaun Whiteside (Michael Fehr) are both translators from German with close links to Swiss writing. Jen Calleja was the first British Library Translator-in-Residence, 2017/2018

Enjoy the film – for which huge thanks to Mihai Andrei of London Video Stories.

Category: News and EventsNewsLiterally Swiss


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