One can legitimately ask whether a country with fewer than seven million residents, where about 64% of citizens speak German dialects, 19% French, 8% Italian and 1% Ladin / Romansh, possess a national literature; if there are well-founded reasons for admitting the existence of a Swiss literature or literatures; and if there are reasons why we can consider as belonging to the same cultural world works written in German, French, Italian, in at least two variants of Ladin, and which all deal with themes and problems that are scarcely related to each other. Few now believe in the existence of a Swiss literature characterized, beyond the languages in which it is expressed, by a common inspiration and needs; while there are many who question the existence of a national literature or that claim the pure and simple grouping of works and writers in the context of their respective cultures, German, French and Italian. Without taking a position on a very long and probably insoluble dispute, however, it cannot be denied that there is a common history in the Swiss territory, a collective political tradition, a similar ideal and a similar life practice, a generalized civism, which determine a strong convergence of the three cultures in a specific identity perceived by all as particular and characteristic; just as it is certainly not possible to ignore that all Swiss are animated by a sort of confederal patriotism that makes them feel very different from the French, the Italians or the Germans. It is equally true, however,
As citizens of the Confederation, writers often claim this status with pride, but as poets or novelists they consider themselves by right exponents of the great literatures of their respective languages: which perhaps explains the absence of a convivial literary environment between the three great linguistic traditions of the country and the fact that, despite the existence of excellent local publishing houses, Swiss writers aspire to publish their works in Frankfurt or Paris or Milan.
Despite the efforts of Pro Helvetia, the Swiss foundation for culture, and countless other private institutions aiming to raise awareness of the literary heritages of the four cultures – and this through a policy of subsidies for translations and an excellent cultural promotion activity – it can be said that there are active and constant literary relations between the various regions of the Confederation. It seems absurd that a Romand knows almost all or almost what happens in French cultural life and very little or nothing at all about the equally important Swiss production in German, unless a Parisian publisher publishes the translations and thus makes it known to him.. This is what happened to M. Frisch (1911-1991) and F. Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), to P. Bichsel (b. 1935) and J. Steiner (b. 1930), known and valued more in France than at home; and this also happened to A. Muschg (b. 1934) translated by Ph. Jaccottet (b. 1925), or to H. Meier (b. 1928), K. Guggenheim (1896-1983), R. Walser (1878) -1956), superbly translated into French by W. Weideli (b. 1927) and B. Lortholary.
Hersch spoke of distrust, misunderstanding, excessive attachment to one’s own traditions, a weak feeling of belonging and an excessive awareness of otherness. J. Starobinski (b. 1920) wrote masterly pages on the ambiguous condition of the Swiss intellectual tossed about between belonging and otherness: he thinks and writes in one of the three great languages but is neither Italian, nor French, nor German; he always remains a foreigner or an invited spectator. This would also explain his prudence, his shyness, indeed his formal conservatism, and at the same time his radical rejection of the existing order, his revolutionary violence, his rejection of the policy of neutrality. In this sense it is very true that Frisch and N. Meienberg (b.1940), committed writers and always ready to protest, are among the most emblematic figures. To all this we must add that between the three great cultures there is a profound difference in height determined by the fact that one of them is the strongest, demographically, economically and politically, but that all are strongly segmented, multidimensional, with an indescribable number of subcultures, narrow between very rigid linguistic frontiers. This being the case, writers are faced with a painful dilemma: whether to write for the readers of their region or to become German, French, Italian writers. Swiss polycentrism certainly facilitates local autonomy and development, except that the absence of common literary normative models pushes writers to live in exacerbated individualism, in revolt, Schweigeminute (1988), of very fine stylistic quality, by E. Burkart (b. 1922).
Cultural polycentrism and the absence of common normative models also produce another series of qualifying traits in the works of all Swiss writers of the three languages: realism, pragmatism, a natural inclination to pedagogy and moralism, disguised by a specious keeping at a distance from the world of others, which transcends – sometimes in forms of interiority and egotism – in fear of the immediate, in difficulty in communicating with others, in pedantism, in circumspection, in excessive prudence. Precisely for this reason proclaimed liberalism or progressivism always remain nominal values, while real practice is constantly conservative. Even the most notable writers do not shy away from these stigmas: Dürrenmatt remains in fact Bernese, Frisch from Zurich, Chessex from Vaud, Chappaz from Valais and Haldas from Geneva, each with qualities and defects of the subcultures to which they belong. The last three or four decades have been characterized by the disappearance of Swiss writers known worldwide: Dürrenmatt, Frisch, M. Raymond (1897-1981), HU von Balthassar (1905-1988), J. Piaget (1896-1980) and others. None of the living has yet achieved their notoriety, except perhaps the dissident Catholic writer and theologian H. Küng (b. 1928) and Starobinski.
In the German China the so-called ” new objectivity ” literature, with its pedantic descriptions, with its critical inventories, with its retching and refusal, is predominant. OF Walter (1928-1994), a very busy writer, with a keen taste for unusual formal research, in his novels – from Die ersten Unruhen, 1972; Die verwilderung, 1977; Das Staunen der Schlafandler am Ende der Nacht, 1983; Zeit des Fasan, 1988; Der Stumme, 1990 – and in his more recent works (Wie wird Beton zu Grass and Auf der Suche nach der anderen Schweiz, 1991) describes the dangers of fascism and imperialism, the threats that weigh on democracy, individual freedoms, the environment, as well as denouncing the misdeeds and horrors of Swiss militarism. His novels would like to induce to love life in convivial communities, in self-managed republics, in simple, natural, not corrupt environments. A. Muschg adds to social commitment, to a sarcastic critique of Swiss correctness, an acute sense of the finitude of human things, a rejection of that absolute scandal which is death. Persistent and nagging obsession with death, desperate loves, insoluble cases of conscience are found in all his novels, from Im Sommer des Hausen (1965) to Gegenzauber (1967), from Mitgespielt (1969) to Albisser Grund (1974), to the most recent and successful Das Licht der Schlüssel (1984), Der Turmhahn und andere Liebegeschichten (1987), Empörung durch Landschaften (1988), Texte (1989) and Die Schweiz am Ende, am Ende Schweiz (1991).
The same themes, treated with different sensitivities, are found in lesser-known writers such as M. Beutler (b.1936), who describes characters in a desperate search for lost identities by narrating stories of everyday life in which banality is treated with corrosive humor (Die wortfalle, 1983); like H. Burger (1912-1989), who constructs paradoxical tales and uses sparkling writing; like Ch. Geiser (b. 1949) who conceals images with a strong symbolic content behind his descriptions; such as H. Loetscher (b.1929), G. Meier (b.1917), P. Nizon (b.1929), G. Späth (b.1939) and J. Steiner (b.1930), whose poetic worlds they still remain open and all made of very subtle shades. Among the most promising, M. Werner (b. 1944), author of Zündels Abgang (1984), Froschnacht (1985), Die Kalte Schulter (1989), A bientôt (1994), stands out for the quality of his writing, lyrical and limpid, caustic and melancholy at the same time, for his passionate rejection of the commercial social order, for the values of modernity described as incomprehensible and inhuman. Even the mundane things of everyday life are always charged with tragicomic violence. The cheerfulness and lightness of the style, a lively and harmonious rhythm period, an innate sensitivity for the facets of words, an art of storytelling that always puts feelings and emotions in the foreground, make it possible for Werner to predict a literary career that is not dissimilar, on an international level, from those of Frisch or Dürrenmatt. Among the most prominent playwrights, Th. Hürlimann (b. 1950), also author of a collection of short stories (Das Gartenhaus, 1989), he wrote comedies with an unreal atmosphere, imbued with irony, in which the grayness of everyday life is clothed in the strong colors of joke and satire (Grossvater und Halbbruder, 1981; Stichtag, 1984; Der Letze Gast, 1990; Der Gesandte, 1991). Non-fiction, after the death of JR von Salis and the retirement of H. Luthy to private life, seems to be marking time. With the exception of the interventions in this sector of the writer-poets, the only essays of some importance are K. Schmidt and the elderly publicist F. Bondy.
In the last fifteen years the China Romanda has still seen active J. Mercanton (b.1910), the author of L’eté des sept-dormants (1974) and other dazzling constructions, now collected in the Oeuvres complètes (1980 ff.). A tender, compassionate, ironic writer, but all steeped in decadent and tragic feelings at the same time (Celui qui doit venir, 1985), Mercanton says that everyday life is monotonous and unbearable, that death is horrible and always present, that human destiny is terrible and meaningless. Among the elderly still active, G. Borgeaud (b. 1914) continues to write books – eg. Le soleil sur Aubiac (1987) – with tender and seductive characters, in search of lost innocence, of an absolute unattainable, crushed by the fear of being abandoned by loved ones, persuaded to be condemned to loneliness and inner exile. Everything is expressed with a simple but refined style, the polar opposite of the mystical, passionate, baroque one in the images and evocations of M. Chappaz (b. 1916).
Chessex (b. 1934), obstinate, contemptuous, baroque, obsessed with death, vehement and virulent, continues to write books in which all the characters are attracted to the abyss, are victims of violence and extreme situations. A Calvinist morality experienced as undue coercion, the suicide of a hated and loved father, are the common thread that binds all Chessex novels. Psychological and realistic analysis, the anguish of illness and death, a Calvinist austerity that holds back the emotions, and an apparent and contracted serenity also animate the writings of Ph. Jaccottet, poet, novelist, essayist, highly refined translator of Musil, Hölderlin, by Th. Mann, Rilke, Leopardi, Ungaretti and contemporary Italian and German novelists. His cultured, refined poetry, with a powerful lyricism, original and erudite, it is considered classic and at the same time modern for inspiration and inventions. TO THE. Grobety (b. 1949) continues to write on the ancient and dear theme of the revolt against competition, against conventions, against resignation, on how to transform the individual conscience and change the world. E. Barilier (b. 1947) constructs novels whose protagonists find an escape and salvation in literary creation and in metaphysical research. J.-L. Benoziglio (b.1941), A. Cuneo (b.1936), H. Debluë (b.1950), R. Garzaroli (b.1950) and the older G. Cherpillod (b.1925) and J.-C. Fontanet (b.1925) take up and deepen these themes, smoothly and without ruptures, in their novels and essays.
Among the writers most gifted with creativity and admired above all for the exceptional elegance of their style, we remember N. Bouvier (b.1929), now considered a master of the literature of memory, and Y. Velan (b.1925) always in search of a just and free world, without prejudice, generous and compassionate. G. Haldas (b. 1917) is perhaps the most prolific and prolific Roman author; his writing is slow, meticulous, angular and very close to the local dialects. In Meurtre sous les géraniums (1994) he reconstructs the years of the last post-war period, privileging the events of that period which in some way had some impact on his life. The rejection of the existing order is accompanied by the vision of an ambiguous world and the anguish of death.
Among the most promising young people stands out B. Comment (b. 1960), author of L’ombre de la mémoire (1990), of Allées et venues (1992) and of Florence, retour (1994). Also in this young writer the theme of oblivion, of memory, of the impossible transmission of deep feelings, of life without an ultimate meaning, are typically French and Swiss. V. Godel’s poem (b. 1931) collected in Faits et gestes (1983) constitutes an adventurous and risky experimental research of poetic constructions and rhythmic elaborations. A. Perrier (b. 1922) gave substance, with La voie nomade (1986), to a lyric made of assonance and resonance, of fluidity and roughness.
Nonfiction is worthily represented by J. Rousset (b. 1910), whose writings on the Baroque have become obligatory references; and by J. Starobinski, whose prodigious erudition and acuteness and insight weave books and articles universally known and appreciated.
The Italian China has many writers. Here the dilemma “ to be Ticino writers or Italian writers ” is stronger than for other Confederation literatures. A. Alberti (b. 1936) who traces the history of a family from Locarno; A. Buletti (b. 1946) who sketches absurd and unusual scenes of local life (Thirty short stories, 1984); C. Nembrini (b. 1946) which evokes life in a small Ticino village (The yellow poster and other stories, 1987); E. Pedretti (b. 1930) who sketches portraits of people, landscapes and emotions with supreme grace; A. Nessi (b.1940) writer of marginality and a world that has disappeared forever (Terra matta, 1984; Tutti descend, 1989), are in the eye of this dilemma. G. Orelli (b.1921) is at the crossroads: The year of the avalanche(1965), The feast of thanksgiving (1972) are on the regional side, while Il Gioco del Monopoly (1980) takes it to the other, thanks to merciless and literally well-calibrated descriptions of the banking and capitalist institutions of the modern China Orelli is also an intimate poet, precious, with bitter tones, with a taste for paradox: the Sinopie collection (1977) and Spiracoli (1989) reveal a keen imagination and a polyphonic musical sense. The Italian China counts one of the most original essayists of European breadth, historian and critic of literature, G. Pozzi (b.1923), author among other things of the suggestive and intense essays collected in La rosa in mano al professore (1974)) and The Painted Word (1981).
Alongside these literatures, there is a fourth, Ladin, which the Swiss call Romansh. The discussions on whether it is a regionalist literature or a literature à part entière are always very lively; but whatever the answer, an author leaves the ranks and stands out for the beauty of the world he describes. This is Cla Biert (1920-1981), whose books translated into Italian (L’erede, 1981), into French (La mutation, 1989; Une jeunesse en Engadine, 1981), and into German (Il descendent / Der Nachkomme, Die Wende, 1981), reveal a very fine poet but with feelings and emotions of times lost forever. The original texts, so far not very widespread (such as La müdada, 1963, and Fain manü, 1969) begin to be read with the aid of translations.
The country’s cultural life (cinema, theater, plastic arts, etc.) is characterized by the same problems as literature. The Swiss cultural worlds are separate and distinct and nevertheless the German, French and Italian Swiss want to live together under the protective umbrella of the Swiss Confederation. Political unity is not given by language, but by political institutions that come to translate the will of those who want to live together.