In Switzerland, at the close of 2015 an old book has been released in a new format: Rosa Laui by Kurt Marti appears as an audio CD recorded by Guy Krneta and others. The new edition is of regional significance and no multi-lingual edition will be published. Germany’s Luchterhand Verlag originally published Kurt Marti’s poetry edition in 1967. Back then its pioneering novelty was that Marti presented poems in local dialect. This had already happened in Austria in 1958 with H.C. Artmann’s legendary edition Med ana schwoazzn dint (“With Black Ink”). In the Bavarian Wikipedia there is an entry about this in Viennese dialect: Es haundelt sich dabei um experimentölles, expressionistisches Weak (It’s about an experimental, expressionist work.)
Local dialect and world literature to a certain degree define two mutually repellent entities. While the former is aimed at the regional context, the latter is disseminated globally. In this case, regional literature possibly has an easier job of retaining its unique qualities, while global literature fizzles out under the influence of free market trends. The Nordic crime thriller, a fascinating speciality in the 1960s from writers like Maj Wahlöö and Per Sjöwall, has long since become a boring, off-the-peg product.
Back to Kurt Marti. In Switzerland in 1967 his poetry edition (unlike Artmann in Austria) started a movement that has a continuing influence today on literature in the Germanspeaking part of Switzerland. Dialect has emerged from being immersed in the traditional sphere. What we understand by “spoken word” is heavily influenced by local dialect. This is sometimes experimental and sometimes ultra popular, but far from conservative language cultivation. With his novel De Goalie bin ig (English title, “I Am the Keeper”) Pedro Lenz has landed a socially critical bestseller. Beat Sterchi experiments with the Bernese dialect in all its variations, and Michael Fehr fathoms out the musical rhythmic potential from dialect to standard language (Simeliberg).
What does all this tell us?
When we discuss literary trends we should definitely multiply our viewpoint. The big trends in the world generally precede micro trends that develop nationally or regionally. Both aspects belong together. The shift to dialect might well remain a specifically Swiss factor, which is also historically justified, for example, in the turn away from overpowering standard language that became the epitome of political superiority from 1933 to 1945. However, something similar probably exists in most countries in Europe. We should be cautious about being too quick to assert literary trends on a transcultural basis because this tends to level out idiosyncrasies – until finally the only thing we have left is the ‘great American novel’, which merely serves as a model for film versions in the home culture. All too often, however, it gives the impression that in a host of different countries all critics encounter the same international discoveries, which they have pressed upon them by large publishing houses because they have to bring in their high number of licensed editions.
How we pose the question whenever we look for trends addresses the specific and regional factors, perhaps even the national dimension because like any good vegetable, literature also grows from the bottom up. If you think of it in this way, it’s often not the juiciest bulbs that reveal the exciting trend, but the inconspicuous stems, which first have to be nurtured in order to flower. In Swiss regional dialect currently one can sense an experimental furore that is absent in other sectors. This furore will calm down again; it will become normal and make way for something else. That’s precisely what we have to devote our attention to. This need not contradict in any way the fact that transnational movements must play an important role in this. The scenario of ‘trends no trends’ is crystallized in the dialectic of nation and transnation. Globalization only plays a marginal role here.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright