The following text appears as part of an extensive portfolio on the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel published in Music & Literature no. 9.
If you want to meet up with Peter Bichsel, you need to have plenty of time on your hands, and you mustn’t expect the interview to go like most interviews. Our meeting begins in the pub, the Kreuz in Bichsel’s hometown of Solothurn, though it hasn’t been “his” pub for a long time, and it ends with yet another glass of wine on the banks of the Aare River in the springtime sun. In between, there’s a long conversation in his study. But the work itself is over: Bichsel is eighty-two and has stopped writing. Over the last fifty years, however, he has published dozens of volumes of stories and over a thousand columns. His work lives on, continually re-published, read, and loved by new generations of readers—just like its author. I’ve yet to hear anyone ever speak badly of Bichsel. Age has perhaps slowed his tempo—though he was always fond of long pauses in which to formulate his thoughts—but the thoughts themselves are as sharp as they ever were.
“As a rule, my routine is very dull. I get up between five and nine o’clock and start cooking. I cook a large meal and eat it, and then as a rule I don’t eat anything else all day, or only a little. I’m a grouch in the morning; it takes a long time before I can talk. Yes, in fact, I’m depressed in the morning. Not in the evening. Cooking is life-affirming; a wonderful way to wake up slowly.”
Writing and not-writing
“I never had a writing ritual. I had to order myself to write. And so I was always happy when someone else ordered me to. I’ve never been a passionate writer. It wasn’t a necessity for me. Now that I’ve finally given it up, I expected to miss it. I don’t miss it. I just go to my study out of habit. I don’t need to anymore, so I can’t say why I do it. It’s a great luxury.”
“Reading was always more important to me than writing. I’ve read a lot and enjoyed it. It’s become taxing for me, though. I had an eye stroke and now eye coordination is difficult, and I don’t read very much anymore, almost exclusively things I’ve already read and want to read again. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. Jean Paul. But even those in small doses now. I’m happy that I’ve already read them and can wander around inside them. If I read one of those books today, I can remember almost sentence by sentence what state I was in when I read that sentence for the first time. Nothing reminds me of myself more than the books I’ve read.”
“You’re never alone when you read. You always have company. Readers need fellow readers. When I read a book, I try to find someone else who’s read it too. We won’t discuss the book at all, we’ll just say: Wonderful! And did you also notice…? Whenever I see two people on the street rushing towards each other to embrace, my first thought is always: they’ve read the same book.”
“Whenever radio psychologists talk about coming to terms with aging, it gives me a bit of a bad conscience. It’s not a subject I care much about. When I was young I wasn’t concerned with youth either. My tribe wasn’t the young, it was human beings, which has nothing to do with age. Sometimes I liked grandfathers better than young people. Grandmothers too. Still do.
“The only thing I’m afraid of is having to live with old people. I’m not afraid of dying, I’m not afraid of death, I’m not afraid of pain, but I’m afraid of nursing homes. I’m afraid of having to get excited about a little children’s choir coming to sing cheerful songs to us. And about Guggen music to serenade us. Or the yodeling club. I like yodeling, but I don’t want to listen to it with old people in a nursing home.
“But that’s my only fear around getting older. It’s very intense. And it has to do with my experience. I’ve read a lot in nursing homes, and I’ve experienced the way old people are disempowered, the racism rampant there. Racism begins whenever a group of people is only ever attributed common characteristics: Jews are highly intelligent; Jews are shrewd businessmen. ‘Young people,’ ‘children’—these are actually racist terms. And ‘old people’: that’s a racist term, too. Old people can only eat soft foods, old people shouldn’t have too much salt, they should go to bed early and drink more water. That’s the beginning of racism.
“I have no intention of belonging to that cohort. I refuse. But I do like being old! You see, it hurts to walk, I need a cane, I have to think about whether I can handle walking this last stretch. I’m getting a new hip joint soon, and if that goes well I’m sure I’ll have a sense that something’s missing. I’ve gotten used to my cane. It’s become dear to me.”
Other old people
“In this city, in fact, I’ve never suffered from my own biography, only from other people’s. Now I see old men on the street whom I knew when they were young. One of them was a crazy fellow with crazy ideas; now he’s the epitome of a bourgeois. A bitter old bourgeois. I can’t bear his biography. To have lived with such people and grown old with them is often a great burden. I’ve met absolutely marvelous people—I’m thinking of one, a marvelous person, I was sure he’d do great things, that the whole world would know his name one day—and he never made anything of himself. That pains me.”
Work and meaning
“It’s much more than I expected. And certainly more than I deserve. I consider myself terribly overrated. Really. A significant part of my fame is B-list fame, like everyone’s. My fame has little to do with what I’ve written. It has to do with my round little glasses or with devil knows what. I don’t flatter myself. No one can accuse me of having exploited my talent—I haven’t. But you could accuse me of having done too little with it. Yes, I could have done more with it. I also regret—I think I stood in the way of some people who were perhaps more important than me.”
“Politically there’s still quite a lot to be said and that perhaps should be said… I once published a little book about Switzerland with Suhrkamp called Total Democrats. It was almost prophetic, because we do indeed have them now, these total democrats. Total democracy is also a totalitarian system. When the SVP says the people can vote on everything, that’s the end of democracy.¹ Democracy doesn’t mean you get to vote on everything. There has to be an common underlying understanding and also a basic law that protects the rights of minorities. Switzerland’s half-hearted constitution leaves everything to chance. Yes, that’s my greatest fear, the fear of total democracy. Fascism isn’t an actionable criticism, obviously, which is why journalists the world over have agreed to refer to these movements as ‘populism.’
“If the Swiss are currently afraid of a victory for Marine Le Pen in France, they fail to see that her party is far to the left of the SVP. Le Pen’s party has social demands—real ones, not just for show. The SVP doesn’t have a single social demand.
“An unbiased society is already on the path to the rule of force. And the people of this world are making a great mistake in only yearning for one thing, democracy. Even most Swiss people lack this yearning for democracy. There’s a little fascist in every human head, and if you want to do something intelligent with your head you have to take on that little fascist.”
“Switzerland believes nothing can happen to it. That strikes me as very dangerous. And I’d like to say this to the Swiss: watch out, something can happen to us, too. We overestimate our popularity. We overestimate our power. We continue to live on the goodwill of others, our prominent little pinprick on the map. How long can this go on? We’ve seen it with bank secrecy: A year ago, people were saying bank secrecy would do them in. Now we only have bank secrecy for Swiss citizens. The Swiss government uses every ounce of its strength to defend its own tax evaders.”
“Sixty-eight was an important date for me, even though I was too old to be a ’68er. Young people then were essentially only trying to create the Switzerland their teachers in school had lied to them about, this wonderful Switzerland with its wonderful democracy and its wonderful social system…”
The wisdom of age
“I don’t know what to tell you. ‘The experience is always a parody of the idea,’ as it says over there on the wall. That’s Goethe, from his notes on his first trip to Switzerland. That’s what those Swiss Bünzlis made him think of.² I don’t believe in the wisdom of age. Never experienced it, either. It’s young people who have experiences, not the old. Experience is something active, something you do, not something you have. We have so many clever young people. Wise young people. And old people who are dumb as bricks. You don’t gain experience by growing old. All those philosophers we know and respect, those writers who died at thirty or forty, would they have been any wiser at eighty? No.”
“I’m afraid of others dying, not of my own death. So many are already gone. And you start to talk to your dead friends in your head. It can even happen that you develop bad relationships with your dead friends, start to rail against them. A kind of self-protection. And a kind of anger because they’ve left you.”
The SVP is the Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People’s Party), a nationalist, right-wing, free-market capitalist party particularly infamous for its 2016 Selbstbestimmungsinitiative (self-determination initiative), which would have allowed the Swiss constitution to override any international human rights agreements or considerations.
Bünzli is a Swiss surname, but also a metonym for the kind of small-minded, ungenerous, conservative bourgeois types and mentalities that Bichsel—and other writers—have found to be so common in their country.
Translated from the German by Madeleine LaRue
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 one of the most important short-prose stylists of his generation.
Martin Ebel is a Swiss journalist. He has been a leading literary editor for the Zurich newspaper Der Tages-Anzeiger since 2002.
Madeleine LaRue is senior editor and director of publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.
Banner image: Peter Bichsel at his desk. Credit: Yvonne Böhler