Swiss in October: Pascale Kramer

Pascale Kramer was born in Geneva and bred in Lausanne, worked in Zurich, but has also spent long stints abroad, in LA and Paris, and this shows in her writing. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of her, unless you are very passionate about Swiss authors, but she has written 14 novels, is a prize winner in her home country and has had three books translated into English and published by Bellevue Literary Press: The Living, The Child, and Autopsy of a Father. The latter has been reviewed by the EuroLitNetwork.

The novel I picked up on my last visit to Geneva L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Unbearable Brutality of Waking) has not been translated yet, and it seems less ambitious in scope than some of her other works. She has a reputation for observing minute reactions and behaviours, and for exploring tricky family dynamics. She certainly does so here, but the wider social aspect which appears in Autopsy of a Father is missing.

I bought this one under the mistaken assumption that it was about expat life, but in fact Alissa and Richard seem to be Americans living in LA. They have only recently moved into their own condo and have a five week old daughter. Alissa seems to be struggling with post-natal depression and feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. Her parents live nearby and have supported her all her life, but now they are trying to get her to cut the apron-strings, and she feels somewhat neglected. Then her mother drops the bombshell that she has fallen in love with somebody else and left the parental home.

Alissa’s little world seems to split wide open at this news. She feels no desire for her husband, struggles to connect with her baby, finds it a pain to keep in touch with her girlfriends, makes silly mistakes and is far too attracted to their male neighbour whom she sees swimming and embracing a woman one day.

This is familiar ground, one that has been treated in a much more emotionally wrenching way by Ariana Harwicz in Die, My Love. Alissa seems spoilt and whiny in a way that Harwicz’ narrator (who is far closer to a violent breakdown) does not. The close observation of Alissa’s daily routine is stifling, but a trifle predictable and not all that interesting, while the flights of poetry and the peaks and troughs of an unstable state of mind in the Harwics novel are exhilarating (if depressing). Could that be a cultural difference between an Argentinian and a Swiss writer, both of them now settled in France?

It also had me wondering why Swiss writers are quite often keen to set their novels abroad, particularly in the United States. I’m thinking of Joel Dicker, of course, with his Harry Quebert Affair and its sequel. But if I just glance at the Swiss books I’ve piled up on my bedside table, such a large proportion of them are set elsewhere: Tunisia (Jonas Lüscher), Norway (Peter Stamm), Italy (Pascal Mercier), East Africa (Alex Capus). Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers have to stick to their homeland, but perhaps the Swiss feel more confined than most by their very small country and its many, many rules?

So, overall a rather disappointing read, although I might explore other books by this author at some other point. By way of contrast, I turn next towards an author who describes village life in Switzerland in disconcertingly perfect detail: Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.

Weekly Wrap-Up 11th Feb 2018 (Part 1 – All Swiss)

The weekly wrap-up is a fortnightly wrap-up this time, because  didn’t do that much the previous week. I have more than made up for it this week, however, so brace yourselves, it’s going to be a long one! [In the end, I divided it up into 2 parts, as it was really long and also because I have lost some of my pictures.]

London is the city that keeps on giving in terms of cultural events and certainly reconciles me with the lack of winter sports and beauteous landscapes. I know it’s limiting to speak only of cultural events in the capital, but I can only speak of my own experience. Just like I mentioned Lyon. Morges and Montreux when I was living near Geneva, I can only give my very partial and biased view of events now that I am living just outside London.

Rosie Goldsmith welcoming Alain de Botton at Literally Swiss event.

I will start with the most recent event: a Swiss literary cabaret at a rather unusual venue that I had previously never heard of: The Tabernacle in Notting Hill. This converted church hall was the perfect backdrop for an evening that was actually a series of Q&As and readings featuring 7 authors with links to Switzerland, and hearkened back to the famous days of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich of the Dadaists. Absurdity was far from the agenda, however, although one of the big names invited, Deborah Levy (who did mention the Dadaists and Tristan Tzara), read out a story about a girl who believed she had swallowed a glass piano. Levy’s link to Switzerland was perhaps the most tenuous, as she has never visited the country but has set some of her stories there.

The others had fascinating things to say about Switzerland (yes, they all loved the landscape – can you blame them?), the Swiss, Europe in general, the rest of the world and literature. Pedro Lenz, whom I had met in Morges, writes in the Swiss German dialect, which has been rendered into Glaswegian for English-speaking audiences. I understand virtually nothing of either of the two readings (he performed the original and made it sound like anything but German, while someone else read the translation). Fascinating, because he had to make up his own rules, as Swiss German has only recently started to exist as a written language.

Peter Stamm was my main reason for going there. He was there with his two unimpressed teenage sons, and got a bit miffed when asked what makes him a Swiss writer. He pointed out that he considers his writing to be literature rather than particularly Swiss literature. He also got a big laugh when he read an essay about football nationalism and how the Swiss embrace the European ideals and project to a certain extent. He then paused and said: ‘I know this is a tricky subject here.’

Monique Schwitter was another outstanding performer of a passage about a writer having to give a 7 minute reading, as she is both an actress and a writer. She has been living in Hamburg for many years now, couldn’t wait to leave boring little Switzerland when she was younger, but is now thinking of going back, because she misses walking uphill and downhill. She had the best quote of the evening, from Robert Walser about the Swiss mentality: ‘He takes his heart out of the pocket, examines it, tucks it away again and walks on.’

Nicolas Verdan was the only author from the French-speaking part of Switzerland – I was familiar with his journalistic work, but didn’t know that he was partly Greek and that his crime novel is set in Greece and tackles the refugee crisis there. He made a very pertinent point: how much harder it is for Swiss French writers to get published in the ‘big city’ (i.e. Paris) and be taken seriously, than for Swiss German writers to get published in Germany.

Rather unflattering picture of Alain de Botton. It was dark and my phone is a bit rubbish, what can I say?

I only recently discovered that Alain de Botton is of Swiss origin. Despite sounding quintessentially English, he grew up as a French speaker in Zurich. Obviously from a privileged background, with well educated, very cerebral parents, who sent him off aged 8 to attend a boarding school in England. He spoke very movingly about how he misses Switzerland very much like an eight-year-old might miss a place: the food, tastes, smells (which explains perhaps my over-fondness for Viennese cuisine). He also spoke of his beloved nanny, whom he still visits every year in her remote valley, and how he has always tried to write philosophy that would be accessible to her as well.

The biggest surprise in this utterly delightful evening (with free-flowing snacks and Swiss wine, courtesy of the Swiss Embassy) was Xiaolu Guo , a Chinese-British filmmaker and writer who has had writers’ residences in Switzerland and is now teaching at the University of Berne. She talked so candidly about the differences between the UK and Switzerland – ‘I’m not allowed to say that Switzerland is boring, I’ve learnt to say it is peaceful’ and how she was welcomed as a guest in Switzerland (a visiting author), while in the UK she was a poor migrant. She described how she only encountered the fictional Heidi a couple of years ago and didn’t believe in nostalgia and fairy-tales, because she was raised with good old tradition-shaking Communist values and Soviet-style stories of children vanquishing dragons. I was there with a Russian friend and the three of us had a little chat while she signed my book. Russian, Romanian and Chinese women all have so much in common because of our history and we talked about bringing up children of a different culture, who will never understand the totalitarian world and clash of ideologies that we grew up in. (Thank goodness for that!)

Heidi Happy performing at Paleo Festival in Nyon.

The perfectly named Heidi Happy was performing music at the start of the evening, although she wasn’t getting as much attention as she deserved. I happened to sit next to and make friends with a fun-loving and charming Anglo-Australian couple, Jayne and Jim, with whom I hope to keep in touch. I saw several blogger/publishing friends, although sadly I didn’t get to see the translators I was eager to speak to, such as Jamie Bulloch. I think translators deserve to be feted as superstars just as much as the authors!

Of course I had to buy Xiaolu’s memoir of growing up in China and then moving west Once Upon a Time in the East, Peter Stamm’s Ungefähre Landschaft  (a novel not yet translated into English and set in Norway rather than Switzerland) and Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love and get them signed. I probably would have bought Monique Schwitter and Verdan as well, except that they were only available in English translation and I prefer reading them in the original if I can. (Which may seem to be contradicting the sentiment in the previous paragraph, but not at all. I just love practising my German and French.) Last, but not least, there was also a generous gift of an advance copy of one of the Swiss authors who was not there, Martin Suter’s Elefant, translated by the afore-mentioned Jamie Bulloch, due to come out in May.

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.