Literature of the Borders 2015

I mentioned this literary prize last year: an opportunity for French-speaking writers in Switzerland to measure themselves against French writers living and working in the Rhone-Alpes region. The shortlist for this year included:

From franceculture.fr
From franceculture.fr

Jacques A. Bertrand: Comment j’ai mangé mon estomac (How I ate my stomach)

The author turns his trademark humour on a very serious topic: his stomach cancer. This is not just an account of the illness, its diagnosis and months of treatment, but also a touching love story, since his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer at about the same time.

How can you not love an author who says his favourite books are Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita?

From payot.ch.
From payot.ch.

Xochitl Borel: L’Alphabet des anges (The Alphabet of Angels)

This Swiss author spent part of her childhood in Nicaragua, toured round the world with her parents when she was 13, and now lives in Lausanne. This is her debut novel, the story of a disabled girl who wants to learn the alphabet before she goes completely blind.

Borel mentions the work of Marina Tsvetaeva and Panait Istrati as influences, so again a reason to want to know more about her.

chavassieuxlettresfrontieresChristian Chavassieux: L’Affaire des vivants (A Matter for the Living)

A historical family saga set in the mid 19th century, about a simple farmer whose family believed he was destined for great things and therefore named him Charlemagne.

Not my cup of tea, even if the author pays tribute to Madame Bovary and Truman Capote.

Slobodan Despot: Le Miel (Honey)

Born of a Serbo-Croat father and a Bosnian mother, the author came to Switzerland as a child. In this novel he revisits the Yugoslav war, seen through the eyes of a mild teacher turned beekeeper and his two sons.

Despot cites Moby Dick and Anna Akhmatova as his inspiration.

Christophe Fourvel: Le Mal que l’on se fait (The Evil We Do to Ourselves)

Born in Marseille, Fourvel has worked as a bookseller and librarian in France and enjoys interdisciplinary writing projects. This novel follows the passage of a mysterious man, with no future and no past, who appears out of nowhere in three different nameless town, on three different continents. Described as both an external and an internal journey and a bit of a puzzle.

Fourvel mentions Marguerite Yourcenar and Les Liaisons dangereuses as his influences.

From babelio.com
From babelio.com

Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal

A little girl drowns in the canal of Yverdon, a spa town in Switzerland. The five witnesses each have their own account of the incident, but their voices form a choir (sometimes a cacophony), and ultimately paint a poetic portrait of life in a small town, where nothing is quite discussed nor ever completely hidden.

With mentions of Milan Kundera and Flaubert as favourite authors, I am sufficiently intrigued by this story to try and seek it out at the library.

From tdg.ch
From tdg.ch

Max Lobe: La Trinité Bantoue (The Bantu trinity)

Born and raised in Cameroon, Lobe came to Switzerland at the age of 18 to study. He now lives and writes in Gevneva but his work is still very much influenced by African folktales and storytelling.This semi-autobiographical novel follows the trials and tribulations of a young African man trying to start a new life in Switzerland.

His literary mentors include: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ramuz and Dany Laferrière. Another one worth investigating further.

Jean-Michel Olivier: L’Ami barbare (My Barbarian Friend)

This is a fictional reimagening of the life of Vladimir Dimitijevic, born in Skopje, passionate about football, reading and writing, who founded the publishing house L’Age d’Homme in Switzerland. The author Olivier is an essayist and fiction writer born in Vaud.

From rtl.fr
From rtl.fr

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Le Collier rouge (The Red Necklace)

Well-known for his humanitarian and diplomatic activities, Rufin is a respected travel writer, essayist and historical novelist and a member of the French Academy. This novel is about the futility of war and its many sacrifices. A veteran of the First World War commits a crime and is imprisoned in a small town in France in 1919. His dog starts howling in despair, driving all the people in the village crazy, but he is also the only one who knows the secret as to why his master is in prison. A military judge becomes curious about this strange person.

Eric Vuillard: Tristesse de la Terre (The Sadness of the Earth)

A novel about Buffalo Bill and the massacre at Wounded Knee for this French writer and film-maker, who frequently draws upon historical events for his inspiration.

Only two women on the shortlist, one black writer, and two other immigrant writers. It’s not just the US/UK publishers and literary prizes who are not that diverse then… And only three that I fancy reading.

The winners were: Xochitl Borel on the Swiss side and Christian Chavassieux on the French side.

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 www.rts.ch
Bettina Steczynski, from http://www.rts.ch

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 lianalevi.fr
Paola Pigani, from her publisher’s website lianalevi.fr

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.

From lettresfrontiere.net
From lettresfrontiere.net

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!