Across the border in France and Germany, Swiss literature often slips below the cultural radar. Although close geographically, Switzerland remains unfamiliar – linguistically and in its cultural tastes and traditions. How do Swiss writers deal with this situation?
One response has been to emphasise national or regional differences, by constructing a cultural identity in opposition to their larger neighbours. Since the late eighteenth century Swiss literature was held to epitomise rural authenticity rather than metropolitan sophistication. Declarations of Swiss distinctiveness culminated in the ‘spiritual national defence’ mandated by the government in December 1938 in order to counter Hitler’s regime. Such isolationist resistance to foreign powers – whether the Habsburgs, the Burgundians, or, more recently, Brussels – has long been integral to Switzerland’s self-concept. Switzerland’s cultural identity is thus indivisible from geopolitical developments. Prior to 1989, there were four German-speaking literatures: Austrian, East German, German Swiss and West German. Subsequently, Germany’s reunification has reinforced its cultural dominance, against which smaller countries must assert their autonomy. A resurgence of local identity, also in reaction to globalisation, is evident in the proliferation of Swiss dialect in broadcasting, music and social media and in the remarkable upsurge in dialect literature, often in spoken-word performances and poetry slams.
Paradoxically, however, the standard Swiss High German used by most Swiss authors has become less regionally marked than in earlier literary generations. This reflects another strategy of ‘provincial’ writers: adapting or even moving, to the cultural metropolis. Many Swiss authors live in Paris or Berlin and aspire to publication by the leading French and German houses. Acquiring prestige or cultural capital plays a role, as does heightened media visibility, better access to marketing and reviewing networks, and hence greater chances of winning literary prizes. Swiss authors published in France or Germany increase their audience not only in those countries but also in Switzerland; those published in Switzerland have less exposure abroad. This tendency towards linguistic and cultural convergence has sometimes been accompanied by heated controversies about whether living in Switzerland constricts artistic creativity.
Underlying these literary interrelations is a wider debate about the nature of Swissness. As in many European countries, nationalistic groups promulgate an ideology of cultural purity, yearning nostalgically for an agrarian, self-sufficient society rooted in an idealised Heimat. This ignores Switzerland’s pivotal position at the heart of European transit routes and cultural flows, its openness to the world as an innovative export nation, and the fact that almost 37% of its inhabitants have a migrant background. To understand the dynamic changes Switzerland and its literatures are undergoing, one therefore needs to consider all the transnational and intercultural relations that characterise the country today. Many bilingual or trilingual inhabitants speak a language at home other than the nation’s four official languages; some of the most interesting contemporary authors, such as Melinda Nadj Abonji or Dana Grigorcea, migrated to Switzerland. Thus, within what internationally is a minority literature, there is a vibrant interplay of minority voices, which Switzerland’s decentralised society is well placed to foster.
By Alan Robinson
Alan Robinson was a John Doncaster Scholar in German at Magdalen College, Oxford and a Junior Heath Harrison Scholar in German. He has taught at the universities of Oxford, Lancaster, Cologne and at all the German Swiss universities. Since 1990 he has been Professor of English at the University of St Gallen.