Did you know that the term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in the 17th century to describe a medical condition of melancholy and anxiety present in Swiss mercenary soldiers fighting abroad (that’s why it was also know as the ‘mal de Suisse’ in those days)? Apparently, initially military doctors hypothesized that the malady was due to damage to the victims’ brain cells and ear drums by the constant clanging of cowbells in the pastures of Switzerland. But I didn’t grow up within earshot of the cowbells, only lived for a short while in the beautiful Lake Geneva area and am still irreparably damaged and homesick for that part of the world.
In fact, I enjoyed that part of the world so much that I probably stayed much longer in a marriage than I should have.
On the day when I can finally report that I have achieved some kind of financial settlement and inner peace following divorce, I think back once more on the things I loved about that area and introduce a kind of amnesia about the bad memories. Isn’t that what nostalgia is all about?
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.
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.
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!)
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.
It’s the last Haibun Monday of the year and we have all week to link to dVerse Poets’ prompt of a good night, a preparation for this time of year when it’s dark outside but hopefully we find some comfort, warmth and light inside. It’s hard to stay cheerful when I know so many are bombed out of their homes and find no comfort at all, but I cannot miss the last prompt of the year, especially since our host is the lovely Toni, whose mother is currently very, very ill. So here is my memory of a Swiss celebration, the descent of the cows to the valley in autumn.
This being Switzerland, of course, we stop at midnight on the dot, but before that it’s all song and games. With apple on dapple cows, boys and girls equally handsome and flag-bearing. In the tent they throw up tables, cheerful chatter, out pops another bench. Communal prancing, booted feet, fun triumphs over grace. Stocky white sausages smoke on the grill, and the wine is hot and spicy, the apple juice well mulled. Children toddle freely to try out the Alpenhorn and the bovine flower crowns. Dogs wait under tables, so well-behaved we nearly forget they are there, until we step on their tails.
If you have any interest at all in German literature or in crime fiction, you will enjoy leafing through this erudite and yet still very readable collection of articles. Or, if you are slightly obsessed like myself, you will read it from cover to cover and then start all over again. And I’m not just saying that because I was flattered to receive an electronic proof copy by the University of Wales Press. It is that rarest of creatures: an academic study which is also very enjoyable and could become a bestseller!
What is remarkable about the book is the breadth and depth of topics it covers. In terms of breadth, no stone is left unturned. The editor Katharina Hall (known to many crime fiction fans as Mrs. Peabody from her much-loved blog) and the other contributors cover not just the obvious subject areas (West German, East German, Austrian and Swiss crime fiction), but also lesser-known categories such as women’s crime writing, historical crime fiction, the place of Africa in German crime fiction and even television dramas. Furthermore, the definition of crime fiction itself is deliberately broad, and includes literary authors writing crime-infused experimental or social novels (Hans Fallada, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek) as well as more traditional crime.
In terms of depth, you will find here not only comprehensive overviews of the development of crime fiction in each of the German-speaking countries, as you might expect from an academic tome, but also a focus on specific writers or books. Martin Rosenstock’s analysis of Dürrenmatt, for instance, is beautifully nuanced, pointing out how the Swiss author breaks all the classic formulas of the crime genre, whilst also poking fun at the self-aggrandising Swiss myths of neutrality, wealth and historical heritage.
Each chapter (or article) is followed not only by endnotes and a select bibliography of books (mostly those available in translation), but also recommendations for further secondary reading. Where no English translations are available for a work cited, there is a small extract in English at the end of the chapter as well, just enough to give you a flavour of the original and whet your appetite for more. This is also one of the stated aims of the book: ‘to provide readers with a springboard for further reading, viewing and research’. There is also an excellent table at the front with the chronology of crime fiction in German, including political, criminal and publishing milestones from 800 until the present day.
I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of each topic, but allow me to highlight just a few.
I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of Austrian writers, but I certainly appreciate the article on the odd humour and often extreme experimentation by Austrian authors, written by Marieke Krajenbrink, and have already ordered several books from her list of recommendations.
Thanks to an article Katharina Hall agreed to write for Crime Fiction Lover, I had previously experienced her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction dealing with different aspects or periods in German history (mostly the Nazi period and the reunification of the country after the Cold War). It was a pleasure, however, to read a more thorough analysis of the topic, as well as a detailed discussion of two fantastic (and very different) novels: Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and Simon Urban’s Plan D.
Finally, I cannot forget the fascinating articles which open up an entirely new world to me: Julia Augart’s analysis of the so-called Afrika-Krimi and Faye Stewart’s research on the Frauenkrimi (women crime writers). I had never heard of the first as a subgenre, and never stopped to compare the themes and styles of male and female German crime novelists.
In conclusion, either this book is a great exception to the rule, or else academic books have evolved considerably since my time, because I find it very approachable indeed. It achieves that wonderful balance between ‘speaking to ordinary readers’ without ‘dumbing down’. I’ve learnt something new in every single chapter and yet, try as I might, I can’t find any pretentious or obscure references which so often plague literary criticism. I was hoping for some Lacan or Foucault or at least Wittgenstein to throw my arms up at, but no! It stays admirably grounded throughout.
Congratulations to all the contributors and editors involved in this project. There is nothing quite like it in the English language. I will certainly treasure it and return to it as a work of reference for many years to come.
‘Now, Marina, this time you’ve gone too far with your tenuous links between books which you are reviewing!’ [I can hear you say.] ‘The thread here is so thin it wouldn’t hold a spider! What could a zombie apocalypse, an angry teenager and a staid family man have in common?’ But hear me out, for there is some zany logic at work here: each of these books is about someone coming from ‘outside’ and trying to inveigle themselves into a new world, a new society, yet failing to understand its rules or deliberately subverting them. There is also a common theme of loss and of feeding on anger and sorrow. Not convinced? Let’s go into a little more detail.
Alina Bronsky: Scherbenpark
The first ‘alien’ (which is what Japan was calling those with foreign passports until the early 1990s) is a Russian growing up in Germany. 17 year old Sascha has a clear aim in life: she wants to kill her mother’s violent ex-partner, Vadim, who murdered her a couple of years before the story starts and is now banged up in prison. A Siberian aunt who doesn’t speak a word of German has come to look after Sascha and her younger brother and sister. Meanwhile, Sascha tries to write a book about her mother, to show what she was really like, but ends up spending the summer sulking instead, teasing and annoying people, thinking she knows everything best, raging at anyone who tries to help and getting herself into some really strange situations. She is good at school and speaks German far better than anyone else in her ghetto, so she feels superior to her fellow Russians. Yet at the same time she is disdainful about the Germans in their naive comfortable existence, which she simultaneously yearns for but also ridicules.
I understood Sascha’s anger and bewilderment, but at times she seemed too wise for her years and at other times too childish. There was also no real menace other than Vadim – everyone around her turns out to be far better than they seem at first sight (and, quite frankly, they often behave far better than she deserves). Sascha herself, for all her posturing, is not as cruel and uncaring as she pretends to be, she ends up helping everyone and (with one exception) never puts herself in any real danger. All this sounds a bit like wishful thinking to me. However, as an insight into an adolescent mind and a way of life ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’, I thought it was pretty good.
The breathless, snappy style could get on my nerves after a while, but fits this particular protagonist. Bronsky is no great stylist (at least, judging from this novel), but it was better than Tigermilk– in fact, it felt like the original upon which Tigermilk was based. Surprisingly, Bronsky was not 17 but 30 when she wrote this. I read the book in German but it has been translated by Tim Mohr and published by Europa Editions as ‘Broken Glass Park’.
Marius Daniel Popescu: La Symphonie du loup
The author is a Romanian poet and literary editor, who emigrated to Switzerland in his late twenties and worked as a bus driver in Lausanne. However, he has continued to be very active on the literary scene in both French and Romanian, founding a literary journal in Switzerland and publishing two volumes of poetry. This book is his first novel and was quite a success in France but remains only available in French.
The book has an autobiographical flavour, describing childhood and student days in Romania during Ceausescu’s time, interspersed with scenes from present-day Swiss life and learning to be a father. The author is a few years older than me, but so many of his bittersweet memories sound familiar: living with his grandmother in the countryside; getting onto the crowded trains without a ticket and bribing the ticket-inspector instead; participating in public processions to praise ‘our beloved leader; family gatherings, funerals, hospital visits, overcrowded student halls. Then we have the glimpses of Swiss bureaucracy, little everyday habits and routines, absurd rules which make us smile (or grind our teeth). The protagonist does not exactly feel like a misfit, but somehow remains spreadeagled between countries, not quite belonging to either, trying to explain one to the other.
The structure of the book can be difficult to follow: made up of strips of memories, like paper that has been through the shredder and is now mixed up in all styles and colours. There is no chronology, of course, and we get glimpses of a child, a student, and then a man tending to a toddler and watching the joy on her face as she learns something new. Then back again, in no particular order. The descriptions of life in Romania were evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny, at times shocking, but certainly rich in colour and atmosphere. The explorations of present-day life as a father and family man were not bad either, but the constant jumps from one to the other became irritating and I failed to see the relevance and connection at times. I suppose it was done for the sake of contrast between the luminous instances of love and protection in the ‘now’, and the rather lonely childhood under so-called ‘state protection’.
The author has been praised as a stylist and won prizes for this novel, but I am not fully convinced. At least in French, which is a second language for both of us. It feels a little like we are trying to converse with oven gloves on. The author is a poet, I can see that curiosity and playfulness with language in certain passages. But at times he relies on very detailed description which can be bland and overly long, or even lists and word-for-word rendering of instructions (in 3 languages) or posters at the opticians’, things like that. Perhaps it makes native French speakers become more aware of the inconsistencies of their language, but to me it seemed lazy and not terribly relevant. Finally, I found the author’s over-reliance on the second person to tell the story of childhood (as if a grandfather were reminding his grandson of his past) tiresome in the long run.
Elizabeth Knox: Wake
Knox is a well-known writer in her native New Zealand, but I haven’t come across her before. (My knowledge of authors from that part of the world is atrocious.) So I had no idea what to expect, other than that the author is dismissive of genre distinctions. She most certainly is!
This is horror story, science-fiction, psychological thriller, mystery and disturbing dystopian tale all rolled into one. Despite its gruesome opening scenes, it’s really more about the characters and how they learn to live with each other, take care of each other and deal with loss. No spoilers if I tell you that there are only fourteen survivors living under a force field which has descended upon their town on the Tasman Bay and is isolating them from the outside world. Inside this ‘dome’, there is an invisible monster who feeds on death, grief, anger, fear and other weaknesses and is picking them off one by one. Think ‘And Then There Were None’ with even more inexplicable phenomena.
In this book, we not only find an actual alien, but also people feeling jolted out of their happy, unquestioning existence, a sense of strangeness permeating everything they do, say and think thereafter. No one can be quite sure of themselves or others – is the evil within or without? Readers will be just as confused as the characters.There is a real sense of danger, as any outcome seems possible. One thing is certain: there will be no return to the age of innocence.
A story very much outside my reading comfort zone, but which left me unsettled and very thoughtful. The kind of reading which throws up more questions than it answers, I would compare it with Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Sawin terms of impact.
The last one in my series of aspirational chateau, I promise. At least, for a little while. Normal bookshelf-and-desk service will resume shortly. But first, here are some Swiss chateau which make me dream. Most of them have been converted to hotels or restaurants and can be rented out for weddings.
You could do worse than live in a chateau near Lausanne, like David Bowie did in the 1980s. Apparently, Switzerland was too quiet for his taste after his marriage to Iman, but if you like winter sports and vineyards, and you don’t get invited to celebrity parties anyway, you should be fine.
This was one of my Christmas presents to myself – a reference book of writers who have made Switzerland their home or source of writing inspiration. A combination of biography and personal travel memoir (on the tracks of these writers), it is effortlessly erudite and charming, while also pointing out many shortcomings of Swiss society. There is something for every kind of literature lover in this book. From Rousseau and Voltaire, to Shelley and Byron, from Conan Doyle and Thomas Mann, to cross-dressing Muslim convert Isabelle Eberhardt, James Joyce and Herman Hesse, the Fitzgeralds and even the chalet school stories of Elinor Brent-Dyer. The spy novels of Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Le Carré, and the founder of Swiss thriller Friedrich Glauser.
Nabokov in a hotel in Montreux and Patricia Highsmith living in the most uncomfortable, poky, dark house in the world in Ticino. The self-conscious and self-critical Swiss writers such as Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Peter Stamm.
Switzerland took writers in, sometimes grudgingly, often with good grace. It gave them a room with a view and a place at the table – maybe not the Stammtisch, but you can’t have everything. Service was brisk and efficient, the wine not too bad, the food rough and ready but nourishing… And the writers responded by doing what they do best… They bit the hand that fed them. They pointed out the dry rot. Suggested there’s a smell under the floorboards. Often enough writers just got on with it – up some secluded valley… What would the world be if there were no chalet, no refuge, no little lifeboat?
Ben Okri: The Age of Magic
A strange, hypnotic journey searching for Arcadia in a Swiss mountain village. A film crew stop in a formerly trendy resort on a lake in Switzerland on their way to the real Arcadia in Greece – and each crew member has a profound transformative experience. It’s more of a meditation on life and art, on personal fears and quests, rather than an actual novel. Some beautiful phrases and thoughts worth pondering on, worth rereading. The Bad Sex award seems a bit harsh, especially as there is only one half-explicit sex scene in the whole book. A book which will appeal more to poets rather than readers, difficult to describe, with no real narrative arc as such. Oddly satisfying in parts; not sure I understand it at all in others.
Nell Zink: The Wallcreeper
What is it about Switzerland that drives bored expat wives to take up adultery as a hobby or as extreme cries for attention? This is the second one published in 2015 (after Hausfrau) to deal with the topic. Many readers complained in the case of Hausfrau that the main character was too passive and self-pitying (I thought it described depression pretty well). In this case, it is the voice of a young person, completely self-absorbed, with an utter lack of concern for consequences and a strange disconnect with other people’s feelings.
The story starts off in Berne and then moves on to Berlin and other parts of Europe. The narrator’s husband becomes involved in the ecological movement, they are both birdwatchers and there are some forced analogies and heavy symbolism throughout the book about the harm humans do to wildlife, to the planet, to each other, but it feels largely aimless. An opportunity for the writer to display her wit and erudition, it feels like it’s trying a little too hard: everything I hate about American MFA writing. However, I have to admit: in spite of this overall coldness and lack of empathy which I felt that most of the characters displayed, it was witty, funny, readable in the way you enjoy hearing an acerbic tongue being exercised on other people, although you wouldn’t necessarily want it in your own life.
It may seem insensitive to show pictures of lovely houses when all about us so many have lost theirs to wars, storms and flooding. But this has always been a completely unrealistic flibberty-gibbet of an escapist whimsy, and goodness knows do we need it after all the bad news of 2015. Besides, as the folk song goes:
I am the little New Year, ho, ho!
Here I come tripping it over the snow
Presents I bring for each and all –
Big folks, little folks, short and tall…
Some shall have silver and some shall have gold,
Some shall have new clothes and some shall have old;
Some shall have brass and some shall have tin –
So open your doors and let me in!
2016 is going to be a good year for you, for me, for the world more generally – 6 is my lucky number and I am willing it to be so. (Besides, the world and I are due a good one after the last few grim ones.) This year is also going to be all about literature and writing. So what better way to start than with some villas in the Lake Geneva area with literary or musical or even film associations?
Incidentally, the Hotel Montreux Palace also makes a brief (but important) appearance in my WIP, sans Nabokov of course. His wife Vera continued to live in the hotel until her death in 1991. Given today’s eye-watering room prices, this must have been the highest rental property in the world!
For a little extra, here’s an interesting article about the enduring attraction of the Vera-like supportive figure for all writers, regardless of gender.