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swiss literature

My Little Farewell to the Great Walser

My Little Farewell to the Great Walser

I knew the word kafkaesque before I ever read Kafka, and without wanting to, I already knew a lot, almost everything, about Kafka.

As a twelve-year-old I wanted The Castle, by Kafka. And so my mother took me to Schreiber’s bookshop in Olten, and explained my wish to the ancient Miss Schreiber. She looked at me and said sternly: “He’s too young.” I refused to accept any other book and grew stubborn. Sunk in my stubbornness, I withstood the great Kafka-wave of the Germanists nearly unharmed, and was quite grown-up by the time I finally started, with great pleasure, to read Kafka. I only read him when hardly anyone was talking about him anymore, and I found him witty, fun, cheeky, joyful. I did not discover the Kafka I’d always vaguely heard about—I found Kafka anything but kafkaesque.

This is now the way I’d like to read Walser, ten or twenty years after the great Walser-wave has crashed. Namely, when the last few readers have been driven away from his books, just as they have from Kafka’s.

With Walser, at least, I had more luck. I found him not in the bookstore or at the library, but at the market in Solothurn, at a shabby used-book stand: two books for one franc—Fritz Kocher’s Essays and The Walk—and after a few sentences I was convinced that this Walser wasn’t just anybody, but someone who belonged to real literature. Only, no one could confirm this for me. My German teacher, a cultured man, knew of no author called Walser. Walser was, in fact, in the library. The grouchy librarian was not happy to give him to me. But I had discovered an author all by myself—a wonderful experience, and an experience one can have only as a youth, far from any literary scene. I searched enthusiastically, and soon despairingly, for fellow readers—it took a few years to find the first one. And then the wave began—first as a niche product for a few kooks, like organic vegetables had once been, a little sworn brotherhood, then the intellectual supermarket. . .

To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.

A Swiss among Swiss

A Swiss among Swiss

The image of Switzerland today is fundamentally connected to the Second World War. Anyone who did not experience the war as an adult will find it hard to take a political stand. Whenever someone is asked his age during a political debate, this is the reason why. 

The war reinforced our sense of ourselves. The fact that we were spared, so to speak, proves everything we wanted to see proved: our army’s might, our probity, the strength of our state, our democracy, the favor God shows to our homeland.

We Swiss are anti-communists. The experience of the war confirmed us in our anti-communism. That the war was fought against the fascists no longer matters.

We are convinced it is to our merit that we were spared—to the merit of General Guisan and to the merit of us all. Both the conduct of our army and the beauty of our country must have deeply impressed God himself.

During the war, Switzerland was a paradise. It was a magic word, a promised land for the persecuted. In the eyes of the suffering, even our landscape took on a divine glow. For them, the Swiss state and the Swiss landscape formed a unity—the same unity we ourselves are convinced of.

Since for us, “beautiful Switzerland—good Switzerland—progressive Switzerland—humane Switzerland” are inseparable, we take any criticism of individual aspects as criticism of the whole. This means that all criticism is obliged to begin with a tedious proclamation of our allegiance to the whole.

Naturally, then, people continue to interpret the general strike, and the socialism at the beginning of the century, not as criticisms of isolated aspects of the state, but as hostility to the state itself. Even now, when the socialist party has expanded and grown docile, no one who thinks “Swiss” will think “socialist.” Not quite housebroken—that is all one can say of the opposition offered by the socialists.

We are a bourgeois country.

We can also say this positively: a country of burghers, that is, citizens. . .

To read this piece in its entirety, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.



There’s a man at my local pub who hates me. He tells me so all the time. He doesn’t hate me personally, he says—he hates me for my politics. I’m a writer, which means I’m a leftist. He’s right-wing and proud of it. He acts like it, too. His favorite word is clobber. He talks to me, though, and when we’re alone he’s even friendly with me. He’s a sales rep, a successful one.

One evening he confesses to me that he used to have a learning disability, that he went to a special school for it. He doesn’t tell me this proudly, but sadly. I’m startled, because I know what a confession like this means for him. Later he may remember that I know and hold it against me, and his hostility could be dangerous.

So why does he open up to me, a man he hates? Maybe he expects me to be gentle because I’m a writer. There’s something contemptible in his eyes. Maybe he’s counting on my sympathy, expecting me to see him in a more romantic light. And of course I am sympathetic and romantic, for good reason. I’ve read Oliver Twist and Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Red Zora by Kurt Held. I’ve been conditioned to see things in a romantic light. 

What surprises me, though, is that a right-wing extremist like him knows this. How would he know that people who read are conditioned in this way? I’m sure he doesn’t read. So where did he get his ideas about reading? Maybe he thinks people who read are weak.

What is a reader, anyway?

People who do crosswords know the answer. If the clue for 24 across is “newspaper buyer,” the solution will be “reader.” Ergo, all you need to be a reader is to buy a newspaper. According to the founders of the Stadtschreiber Prize, one of the things the winner is supposed to do is bring literature to the people—to turn them into people who read. Not that I know how I’m supposed to do that. Go sit in the pub with a stack of newspapers and books at my side?

Something strange keeps happening to me at the pub, though. People show up and bring me books. They want me to read them, so the books pile up on my desk. Jürgen, for example, has been telling me for weeks about this book. It’s very valuable and old, he tells me. It’s about Germans in Brazil. It’s a real book, printed and hardbound, dedicated to the author’s wife, and I simply must read it.

So, finally, he forced it into my hands, and now it’s on my desk: Franz Donat’s Paradise and Hell: The Adventurous Fortunes of a German in Brazil Amongst Backwoodsmen, Diamond Hunters, Indians, Settlers, and Criminals—Dedicated to my Dear Wife Emilie in Gratitude. It has a picture of the author and a map, and the foreword—from 1926—ends with “a loyal German greeting” to his old homeland.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this book fell into Jürgen’s hands by chance. Maybe he inherited it, along with various other odds and ends. Has he even read it himself? Possibly. If so, it was a long time ago. I would guess it’s the only book he owns.

I’ve read it. It’s awful. Not that I told him that. Why would I tell him to read Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther instead and just replace his one book with another? Jürgen just wanted to find a fellow reader to share his book with, because as far as he’s concerned he’s the only person who’s ever read this Donat fellow. So he hears there’s a writer in town, and the very sympathetic idea occurs to him that this Stadtschreiber Prize-winning writer-in-residence might also be a reader, who might then become a fellow reader, a confidant, a co-conspirator. . .

To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.

The Pleasure of Telling Ourselves the World: An Interview

The Pleasure of Telling Ourselves the World: An Interview

Is your predilection for short prose also a matter of the pleasure you take in beginnings? Each of your publications implies a new beginning, and the structure of your texts is marked by restarts.

Beginning is awful. Nobody has an easy time finding a beginning. There are no exceptions. Now, the author of short prose is damned to restart over and over. He knows how to do it. Or rather, he’s used to the pain of it. The novelist, on the other hand, requires a single beginning and then he has to work with it for three years. That seems more comfortable to me.

Is the novelist less rushed?

In sports there are long-distance runners. Ten thousand meters. Marathons. It’s marvelous. If I were a runner, I’d run marathons. But I would always come in last, because I would take too much pleasure in the journey. I’d be too slow. Now, you could say that the novelist is the long-distance runner and the writer of short prose is the sprinter. But that’s not true. The writer of short prose is not a sprinter, he’s a long-distance runner over a short distance. When Johann Peter Hebel starts one of his stories, you have the impression that it’s going to take two hundred pages. You get comfortably settled in and then after twenty lines it’s over. But it began like a great novel. Writing is managing time, it’s a question of patience. Reading, too. Reading is lost on impatient people. . .

To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.

Wit and Wile and Love

Wit and Wile and Love

As a rule, one can classify authors by the way they talk about the weather. Some would describe a meteorological event roughly as follows: “The clouds gathered into dark streaks of heavy, gray, low-hanging masses, and a wind whipped through the treetops, sending the birds to seek shelter with desperate cries before they fell silent in fear, and making people run ducking into their houses, already hit by the first pattering drops, which were rapidly multiplying into a pounding drumbeat, overwhelming the gutters with gurgling streams and flooding the rooftop parapets while the few cars on the road splashed wide sheets of water across the pavement.” Peter Bichsel, on the other hand, would write: “It started to rain.”

And yet Peter Bichsel can write “It started to rain” in such a way that we unwittingly find ourselves recoiling at the feeling of rain running down our collars. Given his druthers, Bichsel would only ever write stories as long as that sentence: “It started to rain.” Perhaps one day he will write a whole book of enchanting stories that make us roar with laughter and move us to tears, yet are no longer than “It started to rain.” The essence of Bichsel’s writing lies in a form of simplicity that expands and deepens and multiplies impudently, before our very eyes.

I spent last night trying to find this author’s primal narrative, his Ur-Story, just as Goethe once searched for the Ur-Plant that contained all other plants. There must exist such a thing, I thought. Every author eventually writes the Ur-Story that contains all his other stories. And just as Goethe hunted through the botanic gardens of Palermo for his Ur-Plant, so did I hunt through Bichsel’s complete works. First, it struck me how much more interesting and entertaining these were than the Palermo gardens, which had seemed a bit disheveled when I visited them a few years ago. Secondly, however, and in contrast to Goethe, I actually found what I was looking for. Bichsel’s Ur-Story is a little longer than “It started to rain,” but not by much. It appears in the middle of his least-known book, a bold little masterpiece, one of the few significant examples of the nouveau roman in German literature. Even today, the book lies in the shadow zone between Bichsel’s two sensational successes, the Frau Blum stories and Children’s Stories. It’s called The Seasons, and its composition, a play between fragments of speech and bits of narrative, has something enchantingly musical to it. It could have been written by John Cage, had Cage been from Solothurn. And there, on page 54 of the first edition, almost out of the blue and without any consequence for the rest of the plot, appears Bichsel’s Ur-Story. Barely a line long, it reads:

A drunkard lifts his head, looks at me, says, I’ll tell you everything, and falls silent.

Now, how wonderful it would be to be able to watch this story take root behind the eyes of its readers, growing ever more multifaceted, revealing the most various meanings as it played with the riddle of its own simultaneity.

To read the piece in its entirety, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.

There Is No America

There Is No America

I heard this story from a man who tells stories. More than once I told him I didn’t believe him.

“You’re lying,” I said. “You’re rambling, you’re telling tales, you’re taking the piss!”

He was unmoved. He went on calmly telling his story, and when I shouted, “You liar, you rambler, you daydreamer, you traitor!” he looked at me for a long while, shook his head, smiled sadly, and then said, in a voice so low I was almost ashamed: “There is no America.”

To make him feel better, I promised I would put his story in writing:


The story begins five hundred years ago in the court of a king, the king of Spain. A palace with velvet and silk everywhere, and gold, silver, beards, crowns, candles, lackeys and servants, courtiers skewering each other at dawn after throwing down their gauntlets the night before. Sentries sounding clarions from the tower. And messengers hopping up into their saddles, messengers jumping down from their horses, friends of the king and his fake friends, too, and beautiful ladies, and dangerous ladies, and wine, and all around the palace people who paid for all of it without question.

But the king himself lived this way, without question, and no matter how you live, in splendor or in poverty, in Madrid or in Barcelona or anywhere else, in the end every day is the same, and you get bored. Which is why people who live somewhere else imagine that Barcelona must be beautiful, and people who live in Barcelona would prefer to leave and go Somewhere Else.

The poor imagine how nice it must be to live like the king, and their tragedy is that the king believes that poverty suits the poor perfectly well. 

The king gets up in the morning, goes to bed in the evening, and all day long he’s bored among his problems, his lackeys, his gold and his silver, his velvet and his silk. He’s bored among his candles. True, his bed is magnificent, but after all what else is a bed good for besides sleeping?

Every morning his lackeys bow to him deeply, every morning as deeply as every other morning, and the king is so used to it that he no longer even looks at them. Someone hands him his fork, someone else hands him his knife, someone else pulls out his chair, and whoever speaks to him says Your Majesty and many other pretty words, but behind them there is nothing. 

Nobody ever says to him: “You idiot, you ass.” They won’t say anything today that they didn’t already say yesterday.

That’s how it is, the life of a king. . .

To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.