Swiss Literature In The Blink Of An Eye
By Martha Kennedy
Switzerland: A small, land-locked, fantastically scenic, politically neutral, minor European country where the trains run on time and the banks keep secrets. The homeland of fondue, known for its incomparable chocolate, expensive watches and exclusive ski resorts — San Moritz and Zermatt. Some of its mountains mix notoriety with fame — Mt. Blanc, the highest in Europe, the iconic Matterhorn, the deadly Eiger North Face. Among well-known books set in Switzerland are; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Ian Fleming’sGoldfinger, and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
Throughout the middle ages and the early modern period, Swiss cities and families had an enormous impact on world events. The powerful Habsburg family began its ascent to power from the town of Habsburg in Switzerland. Calvinism — the foundation of many major Protestant sects — is named for a Swiss theologian, John Calvin, and is a direct offshoot of the Zürich Reformation led by Huldrych Zwingli. Anabaptist faiths — we now know as Amish and Mennonites — had their origins in the Zürich Reformation.
Some of our best loved books and most cherished ideas came to us from Swiss writers. Generations of seekers have been guided by the works of Hermann Hesse. The ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the “Father of Modern Education,” found their way into schools everywhere. Carl Jung gave the world psychological theories and methods that have helped many people and deepened our understanding of the human psyche. The philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, AND the French Revolution was influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract — and Rousseau was Swiss.
Heidi is certainly the most famous and best-loved Swiss story. An important novel in Swiss literature is The Black Spider, or Die Schwarze Spinne, by Jeremias Gotthelf, published in 1842. The novel is a story within a story, a horror story, involving a pact with the devil. It’s scary and strange, beautifully written, and it offers a window into Swiss village life, which was more than a little xenophobic.
I enjoyed the autobiographical novel, Green Henry by Gottfried Keller, written in the middle of the 19th century. It is considered one of the most important “coming of age” works in the German language. The protagonist, Henry Lee, grows from his “green” youth (he also wears green clothing), idealistic, sensitive, artistic and romantic, to finding his place in the world. He makes a transition from a rather morose and self-indulgent boy into a socially well-adjusted man who is willing to wear the yoke of civil service cheerfully and well. While the novel is serious in its purpose, showing the transition in the zeitgeist of Keller’s time from romanticism to realism, it’s often very funny.
One of the most absurd scenes in Green Henry, in which a half-naked man emerges from a lake, covered with weeds and mud, and asks Henry for directions, happened in my own life. A friend and I had taken a hike in the mountains above the little town of Fluelen on the Lake of the Five Forest Cantons (Lake Lucerne). We were pondering whether to take the train or a ferry, when suddenly, out of the lake, came a man wearing only underwear, covered in mud and weeds. He asked if we could tell him where to find a phone.
One of my favorite Swiss books is also one of the great treasures of literature and art from the High Middle Ages, the Codex Manesse. It was compiled in the fourteenth century by a wealthy Zürich merchant, Rüdiger II Manesse, who wanted to collect and preserve the poetry and song of his time — Minnesangs — German lyric poetry, songs similar to those of the French troubadours. Besides being a compilation of lyrics, the Codex has beautifully painted illustrations, “portraits,” of the writers. Some are dressed in their heraldic or royal garb; some are engaged in a favorite pursuit (falconry, writing, chess, jousting); some of the illustrations make a visual pun on an individual poet’s name. The period of the Minnesangs lasted about two-hundred years, fading away at the end of the High Middle Ages.
Still and all, my favorite book set in the land of clocks, banks, and fondue is Asterix in Switzerland. Our heroes, Asterix, the Gaulish governor, his muscular side-kick, Obelix, and the great Druid healer, Getafix, search for an Alpine herb that is an antidote to poison. They find it, too.
The Brothers Path
by Martha Kennedy
By award winning author, Martha Kennedy.
The world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later without being baptized. Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531. It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.
Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland…
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