The following column and editors’ introduction appear as part of a robust portfolio devoted to the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel in Music & Literature no. 9. To view the complete contents of the volume and read extracts from other works, click here.
Introduction to Peter Bichsel’s Columns
Peter Bichsel’s reputation as a master of short prose is owed in no small part to the hundreds of columns he wrote between 1975 and 2014. Originally published in the popular magazine Schweizer Illustrierte (Swiss Illustrated), these columns form the lion’s share of Bichsel’s creative output, and indeed, many of them achieved such artistic independence that they were included in collections of the author’s fiction. In their brevity, wit, and focus on everyday life, the columns also link Bichsel to the Central European tradition of the feuilleton piece, and particularly to its great practitioner, Robert Walser.
Both Bichsel’s very first column, “A Story Told at the Wrong Time,” and his last, “At the End of the Year 2014,” are included in Music & Literature no. 9; those in between offer a glimpse of how the style and tone of his work shifted over the years. The early columns tend to be both more experimental and more overtly political, whereas later pieces often feature charming—if bittersweet—anecdotes about Bichsel’s encounters with friends and strangers. Memory and grief increasingly haunt the columns of the late 2000s and 2010s as Bichsel loses ever more friends to illness and old age; one of the most poignant examples is “My Long Trips to Biel,” an elegy for his close friend and fellow writer Jörg Steiner, who died in 2013.
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The two boys crossing the bridge in front of me are obviously brothers, one of them perhaps ten years old, the other twenty. The small one, very agitated, is talking on and on to the other, and the older one is answering in a deliberate, fatherly way, explaining things. They are speaking Spanish; I don’t understand a word, but their intonation makes them brothers, and their intonation lets you recognize questions and answers. And suddenly they are speaking Swiss German, completely without accents. They switch languages without noticing it themselves at all, and now that they’re speaking Swiss German, they suddenly no longer look like Spaniards. It’s a lovely conversation between the knowledgeable older brother and the questioning younger one. I would have liked to continue listening, but then they speak Spanish again.
Only yesterday, in the pub with drunken construction workers, once again I had to defend the Italians and the Spanish. People were saying they were animals and brainless and knew nothing about anything.
It’s an old theory, that the lowest Swiss in the hierarchy needs someone who is even farther below him to oppress. But maybe the Italians and the Spanish aren’t actually suited to this. They are knowledgeable, they can speak two languages, they know two cultures—they have broader and larger horizons. Maybe they’ve had less schooling than the Swiss, but maybe they were better students. I imagine that only those sorts of people can manage the journey to a foreign country. Or, very simply: They know too much, so people hate them.
At the table where the regulars sit, the little son of the stupid proprietor is showing the guests how he can already read. He holds his schoolbook and begins laboriously to sound out the words. True, I was once a teacher and also once a father, but it has been a long time by now since I heard this, and I listen with fascination: This choppiness, each syllable emphasized and overemphasized like a separate word. The listener must put it together himself, and gets the impression that the boy sounding it out can’t grasp its meaning. But it’s also fascinating how someone is conquering a language here, gaining ground letter by letter, conquering syllable by syllable, and with overemphasis affirming and taking possession.
A drunk at the table, not a very bright person, is also listening. I’m amazed that he’s listening, but the same sort of thing is happening to him and to me. He’s remembering—maybe he’s remembering that he, too, was once someone who learned to read and wanted to grow up to be clever.
The little boy is reading the story of Joseph, the one with the seven lean years and the seven fat years from the Book of Moses. Suddenly the proprietor roars from the kitchen: “Stop that nonsense, it isn’t Christmas!” The little boy understands what his father means, and says: “But this is a completely different Joseph.” And now things really take off, and the customers join in, laughing: “Maybe Joseph’s father or brother—his twin, maybe.” The little boy tries to explain it again, gently and knowledgeably. It’s hopeless, he’s too small, he can’t possibly know. He packs up his things and retreats.
Knowledgeable people have a hard time of it. “And he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow”—even Solomon said so. He meant it just that way, just as the little boy has experienced it: Just as foreign guests often experience it in our country.
Translated from the German by Lydia Davis
Peter Bichsel was born in 1935 in Lucerne, Switzerland. The author of more than thirty-five books and winner of numerous literary prizes, he is considered one of the most important short-prose stylists of his generation.
Lydia Davis’s Essays One will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2019 and a volume of her translations from the Dutch of A.L. Snijders by New Directions in 2020.
Banner: A photograph of Solothurn, Switzerland, Peter Bichsel’s hometown. Credit: Madeleine LaRue