Literature of the Borders

I live practically on the border between Switzerland and France – an area characterised by Lake Geneva, two mountain chains (Jura and the Alps) and a common language: French. Not surprisingly, there are a number of joint cultural initiatives in the area, not least of which the annual Lettres frontière prizes. Lettres frontière is an association seeking to promote links and exchange of ideas between authors and publishers from the Rhône-Alpes area of France and French-speaking Switzerland (Suisse romande). Of course, the mission is implicitly to make them better-known throughout the area, but also beyond. Every year, ten authors (five from France, five from Switzerland) are shortlisted out of an initial list of around 200 entries (for more details about their selection criteria – in French- see the website).

Bettina Steczynski, from
Bettina Steczynski, from

It’s tempting to write this off as a quaint little local pat on the back. However, past winners have included Hubert Mingarelli in 2002, Pascal Garnier in 2007 and Metin Arditi in 2012.

This year’s two winners are both women, I’m delighted to say. There is one winner for each country, to avoid political argy-bargy: ‘Sybille, une enfant de Silésie’ (Sybille, A Child from Silesia) by Bettina Stepczynski (Switzerland) and ‘N’entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures’ (Don’t step on my soul with your shoes) by Paola Pigani (France).

Paola Pigani, from her publisher's website
Paola Pigani, from her publisher’s website

Both are about the Second World War or its immediate aftermath. Both are giving voice to populations that have been more or less forgotten or ignored. The first is about the forced displacement of Germans in the Polish region of Silesia after the war; the second is about the internment of gypsies in labour camps during the war.


Other shortlisted authors:

On the French side, a delightful variety of subjects and styles:

Chantal Thomas with a historical novel about an exchange of princesses between France and Spain in the 18th century; Florence Seyvos with a novel about family, friendship and Buster Keaton; Lorette Nobécourt’s biography of medieval mystic Hildegarde de Bingen; Jean-Daniel Baltassat about Stalin’s chaise-longue (or divan).

On the Swiss side, a combination of the predictable and the truly experimental.

Françoise Matthey poetical book inspired by 15th century mystic Nicolas de Flue; Nicolas Couchepin’s novel about an unusual family called Mensch; Roland Buti with a coming-of-age novel about the end of the agricultural era in the 1970s in Switzerland; Antonio Albanese’s playful exploration of 50 words and the concept of free will.


To note: 4 of the 5 shortlisted on the French side were women authors, as were two of the Swiss writers. Not a bad proportion!

29 thoughts on “Literature of the Borders”

  1. This is really interesting, Marina Sofia! I always like to see support for regional writing, as it spotlights some fine talent that might not otherwise be discovered. I’m so glad you’ve written about this particular example since it’s not one I was familiar with before. Fascinating!

    1. They have a ‘local interest’ or ‘Archive Lemanique’ shelf at some of the local libraries, which have enabled me to discover some authors I would otherwise have never heard of. There may be the occasional dud, but on the whole the positive discoveries have outweighed the dull ones.

  2. How nice to live in such a beautiful area, not that far from us actually (South Burgundy). Such links and exchanges are a very good idea.

    ‘N’entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures’ (Don’t step on my soul with your shoes)

    As “Don’t step on… ” is “Ne marche pas sur..”, I would have translated the title as “Don’t step INTO my soul with your shoes (on)” (depending on the context, i. the whole story!)


      1. “On the ‘free’ side” can also be part of the translation process, MarinaSofia. An example in point is “The Spy who came in from the Cold” translated as “L’espion qui venait du froid”: the English phrase (“come in from the cold”) has nothing to do with the cold weather and yet, the French title fits in very well with the story (the cold (East-)European countries and The Cold War).
        In any case, the title ‘N’entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures’ is alluring and intriguing to say the least.
        For me, it brings back memories of the advice I was given before a visit to some Japanese people. “Make sure your take your shoes off before your walk into their home!”

  3. Didn’t know you were from that area! My home town is Besancon!Je ne connais aucun nom des auteurs que tu cites mais je verrai en librairie a noel, il y en a qui semblent tres interessants!

    1. Spent a beautiful holiday in/near Besancon – we stayed in Courbet’s village of Ornans. Moi non plus, je ne connais pas les auteurs – a decouvrir, donc!

  4. Besançon!! Je connais bien. J’étais formateur à l’IUFM, assurais des formations au Rectorat, étais professeur d’anglais à Montbéliard avant de me reconvertir dans la traduction anglais-français.

      1. Le monde est petit !! My wife (she’s English) was “formatrice d’anglais” for the Peugeot execs at the Sochaux site !

  5. Well, I loved A Meal in Winter. Obviously a very high standard of entrants. I’ll look out for future translations of these two. Ah, the joys of the blogosphere – I would never have heard of this prize were it not for you. Thank you!

    1. I thought I’d read your thoughts on Mingarelli at some point…
      Next year I think I might try to take part more actively in this award (they get readers to participate and vote).

  6. I didn’t know about this event, even if I’m in Rhône-Alpes. It sounds interesting.

    I’m a bit sad to see that the French writers don’t sound very tempting. WWII again? Historical fiction and books related to real life characters? I haven’t read any of them but I’m not tempted. I’m tired of WWII books and I was disappointed that N’entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures was set in that period as the title was enticing. I hope the narrator has some spunk.

    PS : Have you heard the radio show on France Inter about literature that is done with bookstore owners from Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland and France? It’s nice. (It’s called La librairie francophone) It’s a pity there’s no one from Africa.

    1. I know what you mean, Emma. The subject matter does seem to be repetitive (although hopefully they were done in a fresh, exciting way). I’ve noticed that with other shortlists as well, not just in France, but in other countries. I think perhaps the jury goes for topics perceived to be ‘worthy’? And the reading groups who then discuss and vote on the final selection feel they cannot criticise such serious subjects?
      Thanks for the tip. I should listen to more French radio. I tend to just read Lire magazine and the literary sections of the newspaper.

  7. I am deeply interested in the history and culture of gypsies. Thanks for telling us of the novel focusing on the treatment of Roma in camps during the war.

      1. Over 500,000 Gypsies died in German camps. Sadly I doubt this book will be deemed commercial enough to translate into English.

  8. I’ve moved to Geneva about 8 months ago and I’m still trying to find out more about the city’s literary scene (so far I’ve only joined a couple of book clubs…). Thanks for flagging this!

    1. Great to meet you virtually, Alex, and perhaps soon in person! There’s the Geneva Writers Group, which is also very friendly, and lots of literary festival (mostly in French but with some English and other language participation).

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.