Solothurn Revisited:

The Swiss Literary Festival and New Swiss Writing, by Donal McLaughlin

Solothurn. Aka Soleure (in French), Soletta (Italian), Soloturn (Rhaeto- Romanic). Location: North-West Switzerland, 35 km north of Berne. Population: 15,000, maybe. German-speaking. On the banks of the Aare, at the foot of the Jura mountains. Of the Weissenstein, to be more precise.
Also known as Switzerland’s most beautiful baroque city.
Solothurn: synonymous, for me, with its annual literary festival – the Literaturtage.
Two years ago, in 2008, the Solothurn Literary Days celebrated their thirtieth anniversary: 30 years of showcasing the literatures of Switzerland, the fiction and poetry written in German, French, Italian & Rhaeto-Romanic, its four official languages.
From 13-16 May this year – Auffahrt, or the ‘Ascension’ (it’s always the holiday weekend) – many of us returned for the latest edition. A surprise upon arrival: there’s a square outside the station now. Dreary underground passageways are a thing of the past. Instead: step out towards the river, anticipating first glimpses of the Cathedral, the Clock Tower, the Old Town, the Landhaus, down by the river, where most of the readings are held.
My hotel room, again, is on this side of the river. Has views of what I’m here for. And a goody bag with the programme and all that surrounds it. Who’s reading when, I’ll get onto in a moment. First, there’s New Swiss Writing 2010, the now annual anthology, edited by Martin Zingg, available every year at the London Book Fair, too. 38 authors this time: 26 of whom write in German; seven French; three Italian; one Rhaeto-Romanic; one, based in Zurich, in Russian!
Other goodies:
  • Franco Supino’s new book Solothurn liegt am Meer (‘Solothurn Is by the Sea’, Knapp Verlag);
  • Die Erde ist rund by Peter Bichsel, also based in Solothurn (‘The Earth is Round’, SJW Verlag)
  • invitations to the opening of exhibitions by Alissa Walser and Alex Sadkowsky (both also reading at the festival)
  • an invitation to the Schiller Prize award ceremony at the Stadttheater
  • material from Pro Helvetia including a leaflet on ‘Moving Words’, the Swiss Translation Programme 2009-2011.
Oh – and I see that Zimmer 202 (‘Room 202’), Eric Bergkraut’s film about Peter Bichsel in Paris, will be showing in the local cinema. And there’s an exhibition, in the Gemeinderatssaal, of literary magazines from all round Europe.
First up, the traditional Authors’ Meal at the Baseltor, to which the ‘cultural mediators’ are also invited. This year, translators, academics, critics, editors and literature officers have been invited from America, Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Slovenia and Tenerife. 44 visitors who, three days later, will return to where they come from, fired with enthusiasm for Swiss writing.
Old faces, new faces, those excited exchanges of information: what we’ve done, are doing, are looking forward to hearing. Writers Raphael Urweider and Pedro Lenz and Swiss specialist Malcolm Pender are my immediate neighbours. Martin Zingg joins us – and I’m introduced to Herbert Meier, who has tales of a tour of British universities to tell. Across the room, I spot A S Byatt – one of the ‘international’ authors invited this year. Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker (soon to win the IMPAC) and David Albahari (Serbian-born, resident in Canada) are among the others.
The tinkling of a glass interrupts. Rudolf Probst, of the Geschäftsleitungs-Team, welcomes us in German and French; explains that his colleagues – Veronika Jaeggi and Hanspeter Rederlechner – have been in charge from the very outset (1979). Rudi calls on the Programmkommission to identify itself, the nine individuals responsible for the programme, who serve for three years each. Some other crucial pointers and food is served. At the coffee stage at the latest, people find ways to mix more. Introductions abound. Swiss writers. Fellow translators. Not for the first time, I wonder: Do equivalent sessions happen like this back home?
Parallel events mean choices have to be made. For me, that means German-language events, normally. And adult, rather than children’s or teenage, fiction. In what follows, therefore, assume that events for younger readers are happening elsewhere. With Jimmy Flitz – the Swiss Mouse, for example. That readings are also happening in French or Italian. And, on the Klosterplatz, shorter readings are offering free tasters to passers-by; in the dark tent, people are listening to recordings; in the cinema, there may be a film; in the theatre, a performed reading. Qual der Wahl (as they say in German). You are spoiled for choice.
10am: Felix Kauf and Michel Mettler present H. stellt sich vor (‘H. introduces himself’, Echtzeit 2010), a beautifully designed book, with illustrations by Andres Lutz. A loose sequence of 87 short stories, set mainly in the noughties. Kauf’s background is in theatre, Mettler’s is more fiction, they’ve been exchanging these stories since 1999. It could be stand-up performed sitting down, I find myself thinking, but the cadences, the craft, are also clear.
Also 10am: others are attending Simon Froehling, also a man of the theatre, now with a first novel, an AIDS novel (Lange Nächte Tag, ‘Long Nights Day’, bilgerverlag 2010). I wouldn’t normally read gay fiction BUT … seems to be the opening gambit of everyone who tells me what I missed. The guy was good, clearly. Very good. Managed to take his audience through the entire novel.
Noon: Linus Reichlin, clearly at ease with the audience. Banter, patter, in what he reads, too – from Die Insel der Fremden (‘The Island of Strangers’, a work in progress, the title taken from the Gaelic Eilean na Gaeil). Reichlin’s first two novels – Die Sehnsucht der Atome (‘The Desire of Atoms’, Eichborn 2008), a thriller laced with physics, and Der Assistent der Sterne (‘The Stars’ Assistant’, Galiani 2009) – were great successes. I’ve watched translators (literally) descend on them!
2pm: Martin Suter fills the Landhaussaal for a reading from Der Koch (‘The Chef’, Diogenes 2010).
5pm: Authors Sandra Künzi (born 1969) and Theres Roth- Hunkeler (born 1953), critic Beatrice von Matt (born 1936) and publisher Doris Stump (born 1950) discuss whether the notion of Frauenliteratur (‘Women’s literature’) is antiquated. The different generations have different perspectives. Sandra, alone, suggests that most prizes and grants go to male colleagues. Look at Berne, she insists. Or the list of major prizewinners published by ProLitteris.
6pm: Meeting of the cultural mediators with the authors in the Landhaus. Pro Helvetia provides the ‘Apéro’. Quick introductions round the room allow all present to identify everyone else. A meal at Restaurant Türk follows – and before we know it, it’s late evening, we’ve missed Ulla Hahn and Alex Sadkowsky, but all kinds of contacts have been made.
On my way home (I think), I spot Arno Camenisch, the author of Sez Ner (Engeler 2009). The story of a summer on an alp. For me, one of the best books of last year. A novel in two languages: Rhaeto-Romanic & German. Arno, interestingly, insists he didn’t ‘translate’, but ‘wrote’ the two versions, playing with details, the different possibilities of the two languages, as he did..
‘There’s the Scottish guy!’ I hear as I’m about to enter the Krone to join Arno. It’s Simon Froehling – whose mother lives in Edinburgh, he now reveals. ‘I missed your reading,’ I have to confess as we shake hands, ‘but heard how good it was! I’ll be there on the Klosterplatz tomorrow – I promise.’ We speak briefly, agree we’ll speak again, and I catch up, finally, with Arno who offers to email me Hinter dem Bahnhof (‘Behind the station’, Engeler again, in July). I can’t wait. The guy has something to say, and a voice to say it in. Rhaeto-Romanic – while this guy’s around – won’t die any time soon.
10am: I’m curious about Angelika Waldis (Einer zu viel, ‘One too many’, Kein & Aber 2010), but opt for Urs Faes (Paarbildung, ‘Pairing’, Suhrkamp 2010). Faes is class: tells the audience about his residency in a hospital: how he was struck by the different types of language used – at meetings, in reports, vis-à-vis patients, in the canteen; and wondered whether the patients can find language for their own situation? In Paarbildung, a man and a woman meet for the first time in 16 years, when she turns up as a patient in his radio-oncological department. Faes, rather than read more, took the time to listen to his audience. I want to read him.
11am: Time to choose again: Alissa Walser or short stories? Short stories! Andreas Neeser doesn’t let me down. Assured, quiet, modest, he reads brilliantly from Unsicherer Grund (‘Precarious Terrain’, Haymon 2010), from a story called ‘So much life’. He also reads poems – written in dialect, or what he calls his ‘Ur-Sprache’. ‘Privatarchiv’ – an archive, as it were, of words and phrases from his childhood – wows the audience (No alles gliich wie morn, Zytglogge 2009).
Noon: a Pro Helvetia event. A panel of translators from south-eastern Europe discuss the consequences in former Yugoslavia for the paths taken by Germanlanguage books to those now separate countries. We’re invited to imagine separate translations of, say, American literature happening in Zurich, Vienna and Berlin. Are invited to imagine translations we cannot afford.
The need to eat – and meet – kicks in, and good things are missed, no doubt. Gerbrand Bakker, same time as Thomas Schenk. Herbert Meier. I dip into the homage to Erika Burkart (1922- 2010) in the Stadttheater. Standing room only, unbearable heat in the gods. Then Eleonore Frey, Muster aus Hans (‘Hans: A Pattern’, Droschl 2009), a book about the author’s son. ‘Hans is different from the others. The others are different, too. It’s his way of being different that’s different.’
4.30pm: Simon Froehling on Klosterplatz – and he is as good as people said. This time, a 20-minute version, the sections he reads not always in the order in which they appear in the book. Well-written. Well-read. Moving. The author not put off by teenagers passing noisily at a poignant moment.
5pm: another event. And this time, I mean: EVENT. Pedro Lenz – who read, in 2005, to a Landhaussaal that was maybe half- to two-thirds full – this time fills the venue like only Suter and Bichsel can. Standing room only, not even standing room, as he reads from his first novel, Der Goalie bin ig (‘The Goalie is Me’, Menschenversand 2010). What he calls a ‘Spoken-Script-Roman’, building on his Spoken Word success, on his reading of Kelman and Leonard.
Reader, the boy done brilliant. The entire room was gutting itself.
6pm: and another tradition. The Autoren-Buffet in the Kreuz, opposite the Landhaus. A last chance to compare notes with those with early flights home tomorrow.
The meal finishes in time for a special celebration for Peter Bichsel, 75 this year. His great friend Jörg Steiner (now 80), Ruth Schweikert, Peter Weber and Killian Ziegler all read in his honour. Poet Raphael Urweider reveals another talent: the piano. Then the man himself speaks, applauding his younger colleagues, the diversity of literature in Switzerland nowadays despite an environment ‘alien to literature’. He evokes Max Frisch at 75, speaking in Solothurn in 1986. Then chases us off to the Kreuz.
11am: Qual der Wahl again. Sunil Mann’s private detective with Indian roots (Fangschuss, ‘Coup de Grâce’, Grafit 2010), or Rapcrew and Hip-Hop performer Andri Perl’s Die fünfte, letzte und wichtigste Reiseregel (‘The Fifth, Final, and Most Important Rule of Travel’, Salis 2010). Or Lothar Deplazes, reading in Rhaeto-Romanic (Termagls dil Temps / Zeitspiele, ‘Time Games’, editionmevinapuorger 2009).
Noon: Isabelle Stamm reads from her second novel, Schonzeit (‘Close Season’, Limmat 2010). 1pm: Jens Petersen, winner of the Bachmann Prize 2009, reads from a book, due in 2011. 2-3.30pm: Lukas Bärfuss (Hundert Tage, ‘A Hundred Days’, Wallstein 2008), Daniel Goetsch (Herz aus Sand, ‘Heart of Sand’, Bilgerverlag 2009) and David Signer (Die nackten Inseln, Salis 2010) read from, and discuss, their novels set in Africa. Alex Capus is quoted as saying that he wouldn’t ‘presume’ to write from the perspective of an African. Bärfuss & Signer dismiss the idea. Bärfuss, highlighting what he calls the ‘Heinrich Böll fear’ (of being a good human being, but a bad writer), embraces ambivalence; welcomes the fact that he himself is not writing from within a ‘coherent system’. Böll, on the other hand, had to reckon with his every word being assessed politically or ideologically.
5pm: Zimmer 202. Peter Bichsel auf Reisen – the local cinema full for a local hero. And the perfect way to round off the festival. (Can the film come to Britain, please?)
Solothurn. Soleure. Soletta. Soloturn – the 11th Canton, historically, to join the Swiss Confederation. The place has a thing about the number 11, it seems: 11 churches & chapels, 11 towers, 11 historical fountains. 11 altars and 11 bells in the cathedral, the steps outside divided into sets of 11.
Eleven thousand visitors attended readings this year (I’m not making this up!). Eleven hundred young readers, the children’s and teenage programme. Record numbers. All this, despite concerns, it has to be said, about less media coverage. Fewer previews, fewer reviews. And the crisis facing the Feuilleton.
The dates for the next eight festivals have already been published. Don’t wait, however, Reader, until 2018. Put 2011 in your diary now (3-5 June) – I have!
Links: (Solothurner Literaturtage) (Swiss Arts Council)
Donal McLaughlin
is a writer and translator. His short story collection, an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories, appeared last autumn to acclaim. He is currently translating Urs Widmer’s Der Geliebte der Mutter.