Rosie Goldsmith is considered a champion of European literature (and languages).
She cares passionately about helping writers, translators, publishers, booksellers, the media, festival directors, teachers and arts organizations to promote this literature. Hence founding the European Literature Network, for everyone who cares about promoting good writing from Lithuania to Albania, Austria to Romania and Russia to Turkey.
One recent venture, in collaboration with ProHelvetia and the Swiss Embassy in London, was Literally Swiss, a literary cabaret of writing from and about Switzerland, which took place on February 9 at The Tabernacle in London. J.J. Marsh investigates.
You’ve assembled an extraordinary group of guests for this first ‘Literally Swiss’ event. When choosing who to invite, what were your criteria?
I’m always ambitious when I stage events in London. Firstly, I really want to meet and interview these specific writers—they all intrigue me both personally and professionally—but I also like to make a splash with my events. Definitely not as a vanity project to boost my own career (not possible when you work in translated literature in the UK!), but to boost the recognition and readership of foreign writers in English. I actually get angry that we are missing out on so much international literature because of how little we read in translation. These are great writers and—also important for events in our busy city, where there are so many events going on every day—they are all fluent in English and great readers and performers of their own work. When you start off trying to promote, for example, Swiss literature, you have to go for the best to show everyone Look! Listen! This is Swiss literature and it’s great!
You describe the event as ‘a literary cabaret of writing from and about Switzerland’. How would you describe the aim of the evening?
My background as a BBC journalist was in foreign affairs and the arts; I’m also a musician, a linguist and love fashion, food and wine. This is my ideal event, and I have to love it to make it work and to sustain two hours on stage with eight performers. A literary cabaret is a perfect format and a really exciting way to showcase great writing—through conversation and with a glass or two of wine. My aim is to make Swiss writing popular with a broad readership—not just a tiny insider elite—and to combine it with other art forms, as I do in my own life.
Switzerland does indeed punch above its weight when it comes to literature. Yet many of its historical icons were passers-through: Rousseau, Nabokov, Shelley, Byron, Twain and le Carré, to name but a few. Would you agree there are many more Swiss writers—past and present—equally deserving of attention?
I’ve been reading Swiss writers professionally for a number of years—I help edit and translate Pro Helvetia’s annual trade magazine 12 Swiss Books—and yes, I do think there are several Swiss writers deserving of more attention, but I think that is equally true of other lesser-known European literature. The Swiss have so far been quite quiet and modest about pushing themselves to the foreground—and frankly, an Italian-, French- or German-Swiss author is often presumed to to come from Italy, France or Germany.
Few countries can claim such diversity of cultures in such a small space. I can see some common features between Robert Walser, Erhard von Büren and Martin Suter, for example, but their commonality seems to be a particular Swiss-German outlook. Can we come anywhere near identifying a ‘typically Swiss’ writer?
This diversity is what I treasure about Switzerland. That is probably in itself ‘typically Swiss’, although I’d add that the landscape and descriptions of it, and impact of the environment, are major features of any Swiss writing. Swiss writers seem to experiment more than we do in the UK and be more navel-gazing and introverted. Language also looms large in Swiss writing, but I am still surprised by how little Swiss languages actually cross over—on the whole, the French-Swiss speak French and the Germans, German and so on. Only a few of my Swiss colleagues are genuinely multi-lingual.
In your view, why is Switzerland such fertile ground for storytellers? Is it the inspiring geography, the blend of languages, a sense of security which frees the imagination, that particular feeling of being similar-but-not-the-same as its neighbours, or even that tolerance of ‘urchig’ or eccentric individualism?
I think—with respect—you have answered your own excellent question! (And I love the word ‘urchig’!)
One association with this country (far lower than chocolate, clocks and mountains on the tourist scale) is that of health and sickness. It is a sanctuary for those who need to recover in a sanatorium, or a haven for those wish to die in a clinic. Would you characterise your Literally Swiss guests as having a clear-eyed view of mortality?
Interesting question and definitely not one you would ever pose to a British writer! We are afraid of dying in the UK and generally afraid of writing about it—except in our ubiquitous crime novels. Switzerland does have that reputation for us and I think writes more perceptively and openly about death.
Assuming death were no object, who would be your ideal guests for the next Literally Swiss?
Well, I’ve already got Michael Fehr and Michelle Steinbeck lined up for the Autumn! Shall we talk again then?
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