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Swiss Literature Feature

Literaturstadt Zürich

In our spring issue we focused on the lively literary scene in Berlin. Now Helen Rutley introduces readers to Zurich and presents just a few of the literary highlights that Switzerland’s largest city has to offer. In Zurich, as in Berlin, a venerable literary tradition is maintained alongside innovative contemporary projects.

Literaturhaus Zürich
Spurred by the spirit of the Enlightenment, the building that houses Zurich’s Lesegesellschaft was constructed in 1834 in order to accommodate the capital’s many scholars. During the war and interwar years the Reading Society provided a safe-haven for a cohort of literary emigrants from Germany and Austria, from which they could monitor the war-time situation and continue to work. Since its transformation into the Literaturhaus Zürich at the turn of the millennium, the facilities on offer have expanded considerably to include the Museumgesellschaft, reading rooms and an expansive public library containing 130,000 books. It also offers a busy calendar of events, from Pro-Helvetiasponsored critics’ workshops and monthly online writing contests for unpublished talent (this year’s theme is ‘family’), to the inspiring series ‘Wahlverwandtschaften – Literatur und Musik’. This June showcased a collaboration between Australian-born composer Catherine Milliken and Berlin author Jenny Erpenbeck (published in English by Portobello).

Museum Strauhof
© 2012 Museum Strauhof Zürich / Peter Hunkeler
A Max Frisch exhibition at Museum Strauhof
Museum Strauhof is another mainstay of Zurich’s literary scene, where old and new are juxtaposed. The building itself was constructed around five centuries ago, and although it has undergone its fair share of cosmetic surgery, what stands today dates back to 1727. Four exhibitions with a literary focus are put on annually and superbly curated to cover a range of themes and historical periods. Two forthcoming exhibitions will celebrate the works of Christoph Martin Wieland and ‘Reading and Collecting’.
. © 2012 Museum Strauhof Zürich
‘Reading and Collecting’ at
Museum Strauhof
A Strauhof exhibition: 'Nonsense – Aspects of a playful literary genre'

Zurich Dada
In the Spring of 1916, pals and newcomers to Zurich, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco opened the radical artistic and literary hub, Cabaret Voltaire (which later came to be known informally as Dada-Haus). The original Cabaret building now contains collections of archived materials in its library and holds exhibitions and events in keeping with the spirit of Dadaism – a recent exhibition took a comparative look at popstar Lady Gaga and Baroness Dada, Elsa von Freytag. Down the road in the Kunsthaus Zürich one can find a vast array of secondary literature donated by Dada collector Hans Bolliger.
© Cabaret Voltaire
A recent exhibition at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire
James Joyce Foundation
Dubliner James Joyce divided his adult life between the cities of Trieste, Zurich and Paris. However, it was during his time in Zurich that he penned several episodes of Ulysses, by far the best-known title in his oeuvre. The Zürcher James Joyce-Stiftung provides a convivial atmosphere for professional and amateur Joyceans alike. Three reading groups meet weekly to pick zealously through Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, guest lectures take place throughout the year, and in addition to a wealth of primary and secondary literature, the Foundation’s library displays a collection of Joyceana, including artwork, artefacts and autographs.
Literary Agencies
Zurich is the city for literary agencies; Liepman, Mohrbooks and Fritz – the most prolific and traditional literary agencies of the German-speaking countries – are all located here. The Liepman Literary Agency was founded in Hamburg in 1949 by the German-Jewish couple Dr. Ruth Liepman-Lilienstein and Heinz Liepman, before moving to Zurich in 1961. Today Eva Koralnik and Ruth Weibel stand at the helm of the agency and currently represent upwards of eighty authors, covering ‘commercial and bestselling fiction, to literary works of Nobel Prize winning writers, to general non-fiction, biography, science and philosophy’, in addition to representing the estates of Anne Frank, Elias Canetti, Norbert Elias and Erich Fromm. One hot name at Liepman right now is Swiss author Peter Stamm. So far the English translation rights to six of his titles have been snapped up by The Other Press (USA) and translated by Michael Hofmann, while Granta (UK) recently brought out his Seven Years to great acclaim.
Publishing Houses
Diogenes and Nagel & Kimche make up the duo at the fore of Zurich’s rambunctious collection of publishing houses. Now in its sixtieth year, Diogenes Verlag is one of Europe’s leading publishers. With a focus on fiction, from classics such as Andersch, Dürrenmatt and Süskind to international bestselling authors like John Irving and children’s authors, they have all bases covered. Notable recent successes have come from twenty-something Benedict Wells (interviewed in issue 31), Bernhard Schlink (The Reader was the first German novel to top the New York Times bestseller list) and distinguished author and translator Urs Widmer. Nagel & Kimche, founded in 1983, specialises in the work of contemporary Swiss authors, such as Charles Lewinsky (the 776 page English translation of Melnitz is out soon) and winner of the first Swiss Book Prize, Rolf Lappert.

Go and see for yourself: the international literary festival ‘Zürich liest’ showcases Zurich’s vibrant literary scene. Now entering its second year, the festival features authors from Switzerland, Germany, Austria and beyond and takes place from 25-28 October 2012.