There is a lot of writing going on in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. More than ever before. Jacques Chessex – the only Swiss writer to be awarded a Prix Goncourt – would hardly believe his eyes. Almost ten years after his death an amazing literary landscape is emerging – it’s almost another literary planet, with more and more women, new voices arising from immigration, authors getting rid of their hang-ups in the pursuit of success, and self-published authors donning full writer’s gear in order to become artists.
One can also meet ‘Easy Jet’ writers, fantasising about being Nicolas Bouvier (the famous Swiss travel writer), and the ‘forever-young’ authors, still performing collective work.
In Biel/Bienne, on the border between the French- and German-speaking regions, a literature and creative writing institute hands out degrees, for better or for worse, depending on your point of view. And literary studies and traditional literary criticism have given way to new bloggers and to private book clubs.
In the French part of Switzerland, you can also observe what is now a global phenomenon: the explosion of social media that allows unknown writers to promote their own books, thus playing the roles which were once the province of publishers and literary agents.
Let’s have a look under the surface of all this activity, beyond the publicity, and examine the books themselves, what they might tell us, what they say about the world.
Seek out French-speaking Swiss writers and I think you’ll be surprised by the diversity of styles and subjects they adopt. They might be close to all-powerful France, and the attraction of Paris might be strong, but most of them follow their own paths.
While it is difficult to find a common thread, they do all live and write in a small, over-populated Swiss region, and echoes of dialects or regional expressions appear here and there in all of their work. Generally, however, little distinguishes their writing from that of their fellows in France; and in this French province of Switzerland, which is not one, Paris remains a reference, even if Swiss-French writers won’t admit it.
The challenge, though, is to be read by French readers. Being published in Switzerland doesn’t help to achieve that goal – the Jura mountains represent more than just a physical barrier. To get their books into a French bookshop, a Swiss writer needs a French literary agent or publisher. In fact, the best way is to be a … Swiss-German writer. Then you’ll be considered a real Swiss writer. A translation from German to French is an ‘open sesame’ to Parisian fame. I’m joking, sort of … but it’s not so far from reality.
Another way to access the French market is to write in French in an exotic country, far away from France. Maybe Switzerland is too close?
All this said, I’m actually feeling rather relaxed. Because, thanks to festivals and cultural events, contacts are now easy between readers (and writers) in France, and Swiss-French writers, such as Marius Daniel Popescu, Jean-François Haas, Daniel de Roulet, Anne-Claire Decorvet, Michel Bühler, Amélie Plume, Antoinette Rychner … But this list is unfair, because it’s not exhaustive. Suffice to say that all the writers – all of us – living in the cantons of Jura, Bern, Neuchâtel, Fribourg, Valais, Vaud and Geneva are witness to the fact that literature in French-speaking Switzerland is alive.
By Nicolas Verdan
Nicolas Verdan was born in Vevey of Greek-Swiss parents. He was a prominent journalist before turning to writing fiction full-time. He divides his time between Switzerland and Greece. He has won a number of literary prizes for his previous novels. The Greek Wall is his first work available in English.
Photo of Nicolas Verdan © Louise Anne Bouchard