I’ve been reading Swiss literature since I was a child. I discovered the comforts of Heidi’s alpine paradise of meadows, Dörfli, Dirndls and dairy products early on, and later, at university, as a student of French and German, I obsessed over Rousseau’s romantics and the innovative narratives of Robert Walser, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch. After learning Italian, reading Giorgio Orelli’s exquisite poetry in the original became an emotional milestone. So, several decades and several hundred Swiss books later, am I any closer to being able to define Swiss literature? Working with Pro Helvetia on 12 Swiss Books and launching Literally Swiss to promote Swiss writing in the UK have certainly helped, but hindered too, as I’m now frustratingly aware just how many languages, dialects and micro-literatures there are.
Swiss literature has never been homogeneous. It has evolved over several centuries and in four national languages: German (spoken today by 63 % of the population), French (23 %), Italian (8 %) and Romansh (0.5 %). Additionally, there are the local dialects and Swiss-German – which is altogether another language (dialect soup to my ears). For a population of 8 . million, languages – and their attendant cultures – are obviously more important than geographical borders in defining Swiss literature.
The question of definition is tough even for the Swiss. Whomever you ask, you are drawn into a discussion about Switzerland and Swiss identity – its famous neutrality, infamous banks, the Gotthard Pass, chalets, cuckoo clocks, fondue, chocolate and its enviable train network: to be considered a Swiss author must you write about these things? Must you be born in Switzerland? Hermann Hesse was born in Germany but moved to Switzerland: is he a ‘Swiss Great’?
Max Frisch described a Swiss writer as a “citizen of the world” – outward-looking, cosmopolitan, multicultural and multilingual. Admirable attributes indeed, but equally, the Swiss are seen as private, guarded and dependent on the vitality of incomers. Its writers are expected to be both local and global. It’s clear that geography is destiny for writers when you live in a landlocked, composite nation with a small population and big brother neighbours; a quasi-island in the centre of Europe. Switzerland is also one of the most breathtakingly beautiful countries in that continent, which has inspired both its own and foreign praise-singers. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher and famous mountainclimber, wrote several major works there. Thomas Mann, Emily Dickinson, the Shelleys, Byron, Dickens and Goethe all succumbed to the charms of this welcoming and generous country.
Swiss authors know they need to invite us in by writing stories for the world beyond their borders. I find modern Swiss writing refreshingly clear; often daring but not overly tricksy – like the novels of Peter Stamm: direct, distinctive and sensitive. They can be funny too: I’ve witnessed large crowds laugh out loud (very un-Swiss) at the linguistic pyrotechnics of writers such as Arno Camenisch and Pedro Lenz, fluently funny in their native Romansh and Bernese. Switzerland is a well-functioning hybrid of local and global, home to many international organisations, its stories set equally comfortably in the Alps or Australia – check out Koala, for example, by novelist Lukas Bärfuss. I’ve also met several expat Swiss writers, like the philosopher Alain de Botton, born in Zürich, living in London, or novelist Monique Schwitter in Hamburg, still talking about the pull of the Heimat. “Switzerland is a great country to be a writer in”, Pedro Lenz told me: “It’s brilliant railway network means you can give five readings a week, sleep in your own bed every night and earn enough to feed your family.” Switzerland treats its writers as professionals. They earn good fees and expenses for readings and festivals; literary events are included in the cultural calendars of the tiniest villages and the largest cities – and because there are so many local councils and cantons in the Swiss Confederation, there are manifold pots of money to draw on.
Outside Switzerland I often hear Swiss writers dismissed as wealthy or privileged. This is ridiculous. It is more a reflection of how tough cultural survival is in the rest of Europe. To earn your living as a writer is a rare position to be in these days but, as a result, Swiss writers can be eloquent and entertaining in explaining and defending Switzerland’s uniqueness, holding forth on its dialects, architecture, art, design, lakes and mountains; its unique political system, referendums, banking secrecy and corruption. Incidentally, all ample material for crime writers and, contrary to belief, Switzerland does have them: Joel Dicker, Nicolas Verdan and Peter Beck, to name but three. But dystopias? Science fiction? No – they don’t need them.
Swiss writers often maintain that they have more in common with their German, French or Italian literary neighbours, and may feel they have succeeded only if they are celebrated outside Switzerland. For publishers that is a challenge. One of my favourite Swiss writers, Peter Stamm, who writes in German, was snapped up by a leading publisher in Germany. In November 2018 he 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 writer writing in German? You decide. Interestingly, when I was in the French-speaking canton of Valais recently, I asked a voracious Swiss French reader if she’d read Peter Stamm. She had never heard of him. “Why would I read German writers” she responded, “when I can read French writers from across the border?” This is quite a common reaction. “I have never read a Swiss-Italian book,” a Swiss German told me this summer, “or Romansh: why would I?” Perhaps that is the secret of Swiss literature: a loose confederation, like the country itself.
I speak three of the Swiss languages – German, French and Italian – and, like the majority of Swiss, I can hop about linguistically enjoying the quirks, genres, festivals and literature prizes of the different regions. In the past few years I’ve made some astonishing personal literary discoveries, such as Michael Fehr, Vanni Bianconi, Nora Gomringer, Julia von Lucadou, Simone Lappert, Pascale Kramer and Elvira Dones (so many women too, making up for the preponderance of Swiss males in times past). However, the truth is, a few years ago I hardly knew their names. Because that is another, sadder, aspect of Swiss literature: it is not well known outside Switzerland and successful writers, like Frisch or Stamm or Jaeggy, are often assumed to be German or French anyway. But now I’d like to stick my neck out and declare that, of all the European literatures I am reading these days, Swiss literature is the most original, diverse and exciting. There’s a lively performance, poetry and spoken word culture. Villages, cities and mountains are alive with the sound of literature – as are social media and online platforms. It is buzzing. Swiss literature today comprises a mix of youthful innovation and celebrated classics. Being at ease with different languages and cultures makes it more inventive – a quality greatly boosted in recent years by immigration. Today a third of the population comes from elsewhere, and migrant Swiss writers are producing some thrilling prose and poetry and linguistic innovations: for example, Nicolas Verdan (Greek); Melinda Nadj Abonji (former Yugoslavia); Dana Grigorcea (Romania) and Elvira Dones (Albania).
Switzerland today offers a treasure trove of sparkling writing and deserves wider readership. So, here’s how I define Swiss literature: it’s world literature and we should all be translating, publishing and reading much, much more of it. My beloved Heidi is a shining example: it’s been translated into 50 languages and sold 50 million copies worldwide.
ROSIE GOLDSMITH is a former BBC journalist, writer, presenter and director of the European Literature Network. She is an award-winning journalist specializing in arts and foreign affairs. In twenty years at the BBC she travelled the world and presented several flagship programmes. Rosie is a linguist and has lived in Europe, Africa and the USA. Today she combines journalism with chairing and curating literary events and festivals for leading cultural organisations. Known as a champion of international literature, translation and language learning, she promotes them whenever she can. She is Founder and Director of the European Literature Network www.eurolitnetwork.com and created The Riveter magazine. From 2018-2020 she was Chair of the Judges of the EBRD Literature Prize, honouring authors and translators equally.