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:


Jacques A. Bertrand: Comment j’ai mang√© 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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

Friday Fun: It’s Chateau Time Again!

Why, I do believe it’s been quite a while since I posted any pictures of castles and manor houses… High time I remedied that. On this occasion, it’s all chateaux from my region, Rhone Alpes. Just to show you what you can move into, should you choose to become my neighbour! Something for all tastes, from medieval to 19th century, from modest proportions to royal.

Chateau de la Teyssonniere, Ain Tourism website.
Chateau de la Teyssonniere, Ain Tourism website.
Chateau de Grilly,
Chateau de Grilly,
Chateau de Prevessin. This one has been snapped up by a watch manufacturer for use as a workshop.
Chateau de Prevessin. This one has been snapped up by a watch manufacturer for use as a workshop.
Name unknown, from Prestige Property.
Name unknown, from Prestige Property.
Chateau Herbey, From A Vendre A Louer website.
Chateau Herbey, From A Vendre A Louer website.
Name Unknown, near Geneva. Mhmimmobilier website.
Name Unknown, near Geneva. MHM Immobilier website.

Don’t forget to invite me over for a cup of tea when you do move in…

Friday Fun: Writers’ Residences in Rh√īne-Alpes

I am fortunate enough to be living (for the time being) in an extremely beautiful part of France. Although the region Rh√īne-Alpes is a relatively recent administrative invention, the diversity and beauty of its landscapes and its historically autonomous status (parts of it belonged to Savoie rather than France) have been attracting writers for centuries. This Friday I would like to introduce you to some of those and their favourite homes.

Voltaire's chateau in Ferney-Voltaire. From
Voltaire’s chateau in Ferney-Voltaire. From
Rousseau's country retreat at Les Charmettes near Chambery became a pilgrimage site.  From
Rousseau’s country retreat at Les Charmettes near Chambery became a pilgrimage site. From
Antoine de Saint-Exupery's childhood home in Saint Maurice near Lyon. From Terre des Ecrivains website.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s childhood home in Saint Maurice near Lyon. From Terre des Ecrivains website.
Paul Claudel's Chateau de Brangues, in a village that Stendhal wrote about in 'The Red and the Black'.
Paul Claudel’s Chateau de Brangues, in a village that Stendhal wrote about in ‘The Red and the Black’.
Gertrude Stein's refuge from Paris during WW2, Bilignan near Belley. From Tourisme Belley-Bas-Bugey website.
Gertrude Stein’s refuge from Paris during WW2, Bilignin near Belley. From Tourisme Belley-Bas-Bugey website.

Finally, two villas for which I couldn’t find current pictures. The first, the ivy-covered manor house Boringe on the shores of Lake Annecy, completely captivated Hippolyte Taine. For twenty years he spent March to November there and wrote every morning in his study.


The second is on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Evian, where Anna de Noailles spent her childhood summers. It was here that she met Marcel Proust in 1899 and this is the place she returned to time and time again in her writing.

Villa Bassaraba, from Comtesse de Noailles fan blog site.
Villa Bassaraba, from Comtesse de Noailles fan blog site.

The information for this post comes from the beautifully illustrated book ‘Dans le pas des √©crivains en Rh√īne-Alpes’ by Anne Buttin and Nelly Gabriel, published by Gl√©nat. They mention so many other writers who lived, studied or passed through the region (Baudelaire, Camus, Huysmans, Stendhal, Simone Weil and many more).



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 fronti√®re prizes. Lettres fronti√®re¬†is an association seeking to promote links and exchange of ideas between authors and publishers from the Rh√īne-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 Sil√©sie’ (Sybille, A Child from Silesia) by Bettina Stepczynski (Switzerland) and ‘N’entre pas dans mon¬†√Ęme¬†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 Nob√©court’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.

Fran√ßoise 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!