By JOHN MARTIN
The Library hosted one of Switzerland's best known writers and thinkers, Hugo Loetscher, on Oct. 29. Mr. Loetscher's lecture, "Realities of a Myth: On Swiss Literature," was part of a series of events celebrating the opening of the new European Reading Room in the Jefferson Building. The event was co-sponsored by the Library and the Embassy of Switzerland, and supported by Pro Helvetia, the Arts Council of Switzerland.
One of Switzerland's most prolific writers, Mr. Loetscher is a novelist, literary critic and journalist. Born and educated in Zurich, he studied political science, sociology, economic history and literature at the University of Zurich and the Sorbonne. His fiction includes Noah: A Novel About an Economic Boom (1967) and Season (1995). As an award-winning editor and essayist, he has covered issues ranging from colonialism in Latin America to Swiss photography.
Director of Scholarly Programs Prosser Gifford praised Mr. Loetscher for his eclectic journalism, and for his work in mapping the relationship between language, thought and identity. "An omnipresent theme for him is the multiplicity of languages through which we perceive and understand," Mr. Gifford said. He thanked Margrit B. Krewson, German/Dutch area specialist in the European Division, for coordinating the event.
"To talk about something that doesn't exist, "said Mr. Loetscher, "is not the privilege of politicians. To talk about Swiss literature is to talk about something that doesn't exist. But it does not exist in its own special way; my country has always liked the special case." In fact, Swiss literature expresses itself on four fronts, corresponding to the four recognized Swiss languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Like the communities they represent, each literature occupies a different place in the Swiss and the larger European cultures.
Romansh, an ancient language spoken by a half-percent of the population of 7.2 million, produces the most insulated Swiss literature. It contains at least three competing idioms, and reached a common agreement for standardization, the Rumansch Grischun, only in 1982. Because it exists largely in isolation, Mr. Loetscher said, "Romansh literature is left entirely to its own devices, which entails the threat of turning [it] into a sort of cultural national park and of [its] becoming a purely folkloric affair." Because most of the Romansh-speaking Swiss are of necessity bilingual, Romansh literature is being changed by Romansh writers who choose to work in one of the larger literary languages, such as German.
"Compared to the ghetto of Romansh literature," said Mr. Loetscher, "the remaining three Swiss literatures differ insofar as they each belong to a larger cultural sphere, each in its own way."
Italian, spoken by about 7 percent of the population, has a literature with distinctly Swiss aspects and a relationship with the larger Italian culture. Concentrated in the southern canton of Ticino, Italian Swiss literature is traditionally written in the lombardo dialect and oriented toward the universities and publishing houses of northern Italy. But with only some 500,000 Italian-speaking Swiss, this literature does not have the critical mass "to achieve the status of a cultural province within the whole of Italian culture." The influence of mass communication in the form of television and radio programs produced in standard Italian and the migration to Switzerland of Italians from other parts of the peninsula have already had linguistic consequences. "In daily life," Mr. Loetscher predicted, "the lombardo dialect will be replaced more and more by standard Italian."
About 20 percent of the Swiss speak French, and Swiss French literature, centered in Geneva, is substantial enough to cultivate its own culture, supporting a number of small publishing houses and literary reviews. The larger French culture, however, "is rigidly centralized, and Paris, as the metropolis of French culture, has traditionally represented an inescapable challenge for French Swiss authors." Achieving success in the larger French culture can create an identity crisis for these authors. The dilemma, explained Mr. Loetscher, is simple, "either one [bases] oneself in Paris, becoming involved in the French literary scene, always at the expense of one's origin, or one retreats to one's origins, pitting regional culture against central culture."
Because two-thirds of the Swiss speak German, German literature holds a central position and competes on equal terms with literature from other centers of German literature, such as Berlin, Munich, Prague and Vienna. This is because, unlike French culture, German culture was never centralized in a single nation. But the French spoken in France does not appreciably differ from the French spoken in Switzerland.
The same is not true for Swiss German literature, which often employs the Schwizertütsch rather than standard, or high, German. Some German Swiss writers even declare that they work in a foreign language when they use standard German. Mr. Loetscher believes instead that German Swiss "are fundamentally bilingual within their own language."
As a German Swiss author, Mr. Loetscher explained, he is oriented most toward Germany and its cultural heritage. "But as a Swiss," he added, "I have a cultural consciousness stamped by the fact that I am a citizen of a country with four languages. ... My cultural identity is inevitably tied to other languages." The same truth forms the central paradox of Swiss literature: "There exists a Swiss literary consciousness without a Swiss national literature."