The Swiss Book Prize

Alexandra Kedves sizes up the first year of the Swiss Book Prize, awarded to Zurich author Rolf Lappert at the book fair in Basel.

‘It’s true I didn’t want to lose the prize, but I didn’t want to win it either.’ This was Adolf Muschg’s response upon being asked why he publicly took his name off the shortlist for the Swiss Book Prize in November last year, shortly after reading from his new novel Kinderhochzeit. As many people will recall, Reich-Ranicki, the high priest of German language literature, recently turned down a TV award at a televised ceremony, thus beaming the spotlight directly onto the very source of his grievances. Could Muschg just have been trying to to take a leaf out of Reich-Ranicki’s book? Well, yes and no. Adolf Muschg regards the media circus of cultural awards and prize giving with similar disapproval. He criticises the price inflation and feels that the selection process, with its long-listing and short-listing, has been made into a marketing tool more appropriate to a Big Brother contest or stock market floatation. ‘My book was not created for this kind of reception and neither does it have any need for it,’ he went on to say.
Peter Stamm’s Wir fliegen
Doubts like these show not only a writer’s mistrust of book publishing as a business, but also the Helvetic fear of elitist culture (and its consequences), and Muschg isn’t the only one to air them. Even the winner himself – Rolf Lappert, who was born in Zurich in 1958, and on 15 November received a prize pot totalling 50,000 Swiss francs – stressed during his acceptance speech at the packed-out book forum that: ‘this is not the kind of victory that can be judged like a marathon. It leaves you with conflicting emotions.’ He then invited the other finalists to join him on the stage, just as Uwe Tellkamp, the winner of the 2008 German Book Prize, did last October. Of course, Muschg was no longer one of them. As he explained: ‘I struggled for a long while over the decision to reject the nomination and didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I now realise it was a mistake to wait until Saturday. I could have spared myself and others considerable trouble if I had expressed my misgivings immediately after the nominations for the shortlist, and I apologise for that.’
Disregarding for a moment his rather bad timing, which effectively prevented another title from entering the running in Kinderhochzeit’s place, has Muschg touched on a painful subject here? Does literature really have anything to gain from the creation of yet another prize, at a time when it is already teeming with new awards and the rising and falling stars of those who win them? Some publishers view the newly-founded ‘younger brother of the German Book Prize’ – as it has been called by Marianne Sax, the president of Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association (SBVV) – with mixed feelings.
This ‘thumbs-up-thumbs-down mentality’, whereby a book is either applauded or quickly forgotten, is in any case already very pronounced. The glamour of the prize only really focuses attention upon the winning title and those on the shortlist. Finding an audience for an unknown book is not really possible anymore. ‘A cultural prize is always rather unjust’, says Sax. ‘But, on the other hand, that’s what gives it that extra something’.
But is there enough material to choose from? Another question now being asked by informed lookers-on is whether the relatively small literary landscape of German-speaking Switzerland can produce a prize-worthy work each year. The jury members are on record as saying that ‘2008 was a very good year. Three of the five candidates were absolutely outstanding.’ The readings at the prize ceremony from each of the finalists’ works confirmed this, with extracts from Anja Jardine’s volume Als der Mond vom Himmel fiel (‘When the Moon Fell Down From the Sky’), Lukas Bärfuss’s novel Hundert Tage (‘One Hundred Days’), Peter Stamm’s Wir fliegen (‘We’re Flying’) and, of course, Rolf Lappert’s winning novel Nach Hause schwimmen (‘Swimming Home’). But one doesn’t dare to dream that this will always be the case. According to the prize’s terms, the shortlist need only consist of three titles if needs must.
Anja Jardine’s Als der Mond vom
Himmel fiel
Lukas Bärfuss’s Hundert Tage
The Zurich publisher Egon Ammann, spiritual father of the prize, pushes doubts like these aside. ‘This long overdue prize, he argues, is a motivating force: A motivation to every author and a selling point for the bookseller, who is then able to bring more challenging titles to the general public’s attention than he otherwise could. It’s a practical way of encouraging people to read, by guiding them towards such titles.’ However, it’s no great secret that Ammann had pushed for there to be more candidates and an even stricter selection process, and subsequently therefore, even more glamour. If it had been up to him, every German-language work of the year would have been considered, as is the case with the German Book Prize. The Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association – who finance the prize along with the Basel Literature Festival Association and other sponsors – fought against this, claiming that it would have presented difficulties for the jury. Also, according to Sax, Swiss authors often fall behind in the race for major Germanlanguage literature prizes. At any rate, the prize is very different from common Helvetic sponsorships, which are often awarded to the author before the book has even been written. The jurors had to make their selection from a total of eighty-four works, which had been submitted by fifty publishing houses. The top four receive 2,500 Swiss francs each, and only one main prize can be awarded. The list of regional submissions discussed locally by the various cantons is significantly more extensive, as is the list of titles still awaiting completion.The principle of distributing awards widely and indiscriminately – which, after all, has its uses – often conflicts with a commitment to quality. This is why a high-class and wellrewarded national prize is greatly to be preferred.
Cover to German edition of the prizewinning novel, Nach Hause schwimmen (‘Swimming Home’),
also shortlisted for the 2008
German Book Prize.
The only equivalent to the Swiss Book Prize is the Schiller Prize, accompanied by a purse of 30,000 Swiss francs, and sponsored by the Schiller Foundation. But this is only awarded every four to six years and is essentially a recognition of a lifetime’s achievement in literature. All four linguistic regions are entitled to compete for it, virtually in turn. The fact that some authors from French- or Italianspeaking Switzerland are keen to be considered for the Swiss Book Prize is understandable, but would not be manageable on this scale. There would need to be independent sources of finance and separate juries. The SBVV confirmed that ‘French-speaking West Switzerland and the Italianspeaking canton of Tessin have been invited to participate.’ The German-language Swiss Book Prize (which, incidentally, can also be awarded to foreigners who have been resident in the country for over two years) is financially secure for the next three years, so all that is needed now is a blossoming in production on the part of the writers themselves. A refreshingly non-contemporary call to creative arms!
It’s a positive that the prize has been created and that its guidelines are based upon the principle of achievement – even if ‘achievement’ in the context of the arts is not a measurable quality. ‘Whether the Swiss Book Prize will create much of a response from the German media, well, we’ll have to wait and see,’ says Lappert. ‘But one doesn’t write for prizes, but for literature’s sake, and not for the sake of “Swiss Literature” either. There is no such thing. The only task which remains is to write an even better book next time.’
By no means an easy task. But Lappert, who nowadays resides in Ireland, ‘swims home’ as an award-winner, and rightfully so.
Translated by Jamie Searle.
This article was first published in German in the Tagesanzeiger on 17 November 2008.
Alexandra Kedves
is a journalist with Tagesanzeiger, a major Zurich-based newspaper.