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Three main literary developments in the Early and High Middle Ages are worth mentioning: the translations carried out by monks, such as Notker at St. Gall Abbey (approx. 950-1022), which were important for the evolution of the German language; the Middle High German Minnesaenger, including Hartmann von Aue (approx. 1160-1210); and finally, in the Late Middle Ages, religious pageantry (Christmas, Carnival, and Easter Passion Plays, etc.). Humanism, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to the establishment of an extensive and ongoing literary life in German-speaking Switzerland. The works of the physician Paracelsus (Theophrastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541), who spent part of his life in Baste, the memoirs of the shepherd turned academic Thomas Platter (1499-1582), and the writings of the Zurich reformer Huldlych Zwingli (1484-1531) are all of more than regional importance. The seventeenth century saw the emergence of an aristocracy in the small states of the Confederation which led to a kind of paralysis in Swiss cultural life. In the final phase of what became known as the ancient regime, three Swiss writers achieved European status: the versatile scholar from Berne, Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), Salomon Gessner (1730-1788) from Zurich, and Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801), who was a friend of Goethe's. Besides these educated patricians there was the early realist writer Ulrich Braecker (1735-1798), a mercenary soldier, writer and farmer from Toggenburg, who wrote an autobiographical work entitled The Poor Man from Toggenburg. The collapse of the ancient regime in the Helvetic Revolution and the industrialization of rural Switzerland were reflected in the literature of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Particularly worthy of mention are the educationalist and philosopher Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), the Bernese writer and pastor Jeremias Gotthelf (the pen name of Albert Bitzius, 1797-1854), the critical bourgeois realist Gottfried Kelter (1819-1890), and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1898), the historical novelist. The critic Karl Schmid has described the leitmotif of twentieth century German-language Swiss literature as 'the malaise of a small nation.' Again and again, Swiss writers have tackled the problem how one can live in a country often described and experienced as narrow, provincial, mercantile, and egoistic. Leading writers up to the mid twentieth century include Carl Spitteler (1845-1924), the only Swiss to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (apart from Hermann Hesse, who was German but took Swiss nationality), Robert Walser (1878-1956), Jakob Bührer (1882-1975), Meinrad Inglin (1893-1971), Albin Zollinger (1895-1941), Friedrich Glauser (1896-1938), and Ludwig Hohl (1904-1980). The uncontested giants of contemporary Swiss literature are Max Frisch (1911-1991) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). With these two great literary figures in the forefront, an extremely lively and colorful literary scene has emerged.
The start of an independent French literature in French-speaking Switzerland can be dated from the Reformation. Through his writings, the Geneva reformer Jean Calvin (1509-1564) was perhaps the most influential theologian of the Reformation. There is an unbroken tradition of Protestant religious literature in French-speaking Switzerland which is still alive today and whose most prominent representative was Alexandre Vinet (1779-1847). Geneva was the birthplace of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), and Henri Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881), author of an Intimate Diary comprising around 20,000 pages; Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830) came from Lausanne. Today, in the age of the mass media, writers and publishers find themselves confronted more than ever before by the cultural centralism of Paris. Seen from Paris, French-speaking Switzerland is just one of many provinces. In the wake of trends toward regionalization in the 1970s and 1980s, however, western Switzerland has undoubtedly gained a sharper profile against French claims to cultural domination. The outstanding figure in modern French Swiss literature is the Vaudois Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1947). Writers in the same tradition, with its strong regional roots, include Charles-Albert Cingria (1883-1954), the somewhat roughhewn Maurice Chappaz (born 1916) from the canton of Valais, and Jacques Chessex (born 1934). Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) and Yves Velan (born 1925) are more international in outlook. Finally, there are three significant essayists of European standing: Gonzague de Reynold (1880-1970), Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985), and Jean Starebinski (born 1920).
In this small cultural entity literature is very closely connected with that of neighboring Italy. Until 1803 Ticino was a subject territory of German-speaking cantons, and a written literature developed relatively late. The outstanding figure in these early stages is Francesco Chiesa (1871-1973), whose work, which drew consciously on the conditions of life in Ticino, was continued by Piero Bianconi (1899-1984). It was only after the Second World War that new names began to find recognition, especially Giorgio Orelli, Giovanni Orelli, Alice Ceresa, Giovanni Bonalumi, Anna Felder, Plinio Martini, and Alberto Nessi. Works in dialect have assumed growing importance.
The smallest Swiss linguistic community finds itself in an extraordinary situation. Today it comprises only about 50,000 people, divided into five groups, each with its own fully-fledged version of the language; two-fifths of this community is scattered over other parts of Switzerland outside the canton of Graubuenden. Astonishingly, however, a rich literary life developed in the nineteenth century which has survived up to the present day. Well-known Romansh writers include Andrea Bezzola (1840-1897), Peider Lansel (1863-1943), Giachen Caspar Muoth (1844-1906), Maurus Carnot (1846-1935), Giachen Michel Hay (1860-1920), Gian Fontana (1897-1935), Leza Uffer (1912-1982), Armon Planta (1917-1986), Cia Bled (1920-1981), and Andri Peer (1921-1985). Among members of the contemporary Romansh literary scene are writers and poets such as Jon Semadeni, Tista Murk, Gion Deplazes, Toni Halter and Thee Candinas.
Every May writers from all the linguistic regions of Switzerland meet at the Solothurn Literary Workshop for readings and discussions.
There are two national professional associations, the 'Schweizerischer Schriftstellerinnen-und Schriftstellerverband' (Swiss Writers' Association), Kirchgasse 25, CH-8022 Zurich, and the 'Schweizer Autoren Gruppe Olten' (Swiss Authors' Group, Olten), Hauptstrasse 87, CH-8274 Tigerwilen.
Further information can be found in the brochure The Four Literatures of Switzerland, published by Pro Helvetia.
Printed in Switzerland, 1993
The Four Literatures:
In the early sixties and seventies a number of important novels by German-speaking authors considerably younger than Frisch and Dürrenmatt appeared. Typically, these novels contained elements of regionalism, exploration of alienation in the world of work, social criticism, psychological realism, exact description of subjects' feelings, and the individual's quest for a solution, however precarious. Among those young writers were Otto F. Walter, Hugo Loetscher, Paul Nizon, Urs Widmer, Peter Bichsel, Jürg Läderach, Adolf Muschg, and many more. Also, numerous female authors appeared on the scene: Helen Meier, Eveline Hasler, Verena Stefan, and Ilma Rakusa, to name just a few. In the early nineties, and especially after Dürrenmatt's and Frisch's deaths, many feared a crisis in German-Swiss literature, while other critics detected a resurgence of a new generation of young writers. These writers, born in the latter half of the sixties, were alien to the utopias of the '60s generation and the aggressive desperation of the youth movement of the 1980s. They show a more relaxed attitude toward the media, and an unblinkingly realistic view of day-to-day life. Among them are Ruth Schweikert, Zoe Jenny, Peter Weber, and Peter Stamm.
In the wake of trends toward regionalism, during the eighties the French-speaking writers began to differentiate themselves from Paris and its cultural domination of the time. Anne Cuneo, Anne-Lise Grobéty, Claude Delarue, Nicolas Bouvier, Jean-Marc Lovay, and Jean-Luc Benoziglio belong to the younger generation. In the Italian part of Switzerland, Angelo Casé, Alberto Nessi, Antonio Rossi, and Alice Ceresa are venturing in new directions, while in the marginal Rhaeto-Romansh literary scene a new generation is changing the main focus of the former generation from Rhaeto-Romanic reality and its crisis toward broader themes, such as the threats and opportunities facing the individual in the modern world. Clo Duri Bezzola, Tina Nolfi, Flurin Spescha, and Leo Tuo are among those new writers.
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