9 of the best Swiss books to read
With a plethora of different languages spoken in Switzerland, there is so much diversity within Swiss literature, perfect for any bookworm trying to improve their language skills. From the complex works of Herman Hesse to the compelling tales of Melinda Nadj Abonj, the realm of Swiss literature has a book for everyone. Here are some of the ones we would recommend.
Dive right into these Swiss novels
While there is a copious amount of Swiss literature out there to enjoy, here are some great recommendations to start off with.
1. Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser tells the story of a 17-year-old runaway who enrols in a school for servants. The Institute is a deeply mysterious and darkly alluring place that is run by the stern Herr Benjamenta and his sweet, ailing sister. Jakob keeps a journal that documents the bizarre nature of the Institute, along with his ever-changing dreams and uncertainties. The story takes the reader on a dreamlike journey through the Institute from the perspective of this young man.
Rober Walser was a German-speaking Swiss author whose work is very similar to the famous authors Kleist and Kafka. His writing is often peculiar and reminiscent of dark fairytales. He spent a significant portion of his life in the Waldau sanatorium where he wrote his novels in microscopic handwriting on scraps of paper that were eventually published.
2. Stiller by Max Frisch
Stiller (I’m not Stiller) by Max Frisch is about a man who is arrested and imprisoned in a small Swiss town. Claiming that his name is Jim White, he believes that he has been jailed under false charges and under the wrong identity. To prove his innocence, he recalls his past travels and encounters in elaborate, adventurous detail. The book tackles the concept of self-deception and the freedom within learning to accept yourself. With the trope of an unreliable narrator and haunting detail, this book will take any reader on a journey.
Max Frisch is a Swiss author from Zurich who was also a journalist and columnist for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), one of the major newspapers in Switzerland. His works often deal with identity and alienation in society with famous works like Stiller, Homo Faber and Wilderness of Mirrors / Gantenbein.
3. Die Schwarze Spinne by Jeremias Gotthelf
Die Schwarze Spinne (The Black Spider) by Jeremias Gotthelf is a Swiss novella that is set on an idyllic farm and is reminiscent of old folklore stories that deal with the notion of good and evil. The tale begins with a christening party and unfolds into a complex, bizarre story filled with conservative Christian symbolism and the unique social dynamics of the village. The macabre novella can be viewed as a complex parable for the evils of the human heart and society.
Jermias Gotthelf was born in a small village in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland. After studying extensively and working as a pastor, he became a prolific writer in the last 18 years of his life. Most of his books are written in German, and his original works can be found in Bern, Switzerland.
4. Nachtzug nach Lissabon by Pascal Mercier
Nachtzug nach Lissabon (Night Train to Lisbon) by Pascal Mercier is a philosophical novel about the travels of Raimund Gregorius as he delves into the life of Amedeu de Prado. A Portuguese doctor, Amedeu de Prado was a thinker during the time of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s right-wing dictatorship in Portugal. Gregorius reads the extensive collection of notes by Amedeu de Prado and reflects on them during his travels, during which he meets many different interesting people.
Pascal Mercier is the pseudonym of Peter Bieri, a Swiss writer and philosopher who studied in London, California, Berlin, and Heidelberg. Peter Bieri has written five novels to date, each one of them taking a sombre tone with heavily embedded themes of philosophy. Aside from being an author, Bieri also spent time working as a professor of philosophy.
5. La chiave nel latte by Alexandre Hmine
La chiave nel latte (The Key in the Milk) details the story of a Moroccan boy growing up in Ticino, where he is left in the care of a Swiss widow by his mother. Throughout the novel, glimpses of the boy’s past are brought to light with memories of his time in Casablanca, hockey matches with childhood friends and festivals. While he feels a sense of belonging in Switzerland, he is forced to question his own identity and his place in this world. The reader goes with the boy on a journey of memories, doubts, and uncertainties.
Alexandre Hmine was born in Lugano, the largest Italian-speaking city in Switzerland. He worked as a national and regional journalist and taught Italian in secondary schools. His works contain gentle prose that has a delightful mixture of French, Italian, Arabic, and Swiss dialects.
6. Fly Away, Pigeon by Melinda Nadj Abonj
Fly Away, Pigeon by Melinda Nadj Abonj is the heartbreaking tale of a family torn apart by immigrating from Yugoslavia to Switzerland to escape the horrors of the Balkan War. The story interweaves two narrative strands detailing the history of the three-generation Kocsis family and their hard-earned assimilation into Swiss society. The story elaborates on the sacrifices successful immigrant families must make in new countries and the discrimination they continue to face.
Melinda Nadj Abonj was born in former Yugoslavia and moved to German-speaking Switzerland at the age of five. She finished her studies at the University of Zurich, and she is a member of the Swiss Author’s Association. She has a plethora of literary works to her name that has earned her many accolades, including the Zürcher Kantonalbank Schiller Prize in 2018.
7. Lila, Lila by Martin Suter
Lila, Lila by Martin Suter depicts a young man named David who is in love with a woman named Marie. His feelings for her are incredibly pure, and he feels even more validated when he finds a love story in a manuscript. To be with her and love her at all costs, he must change everything about himself. The story follows David as he slips into the alternate reality of the person he has created in his head for the love of his life, as the book deals with the themes of identity and the philosophy of self.
Martin Suter is a Swiss author who used to work as a columnist in the Weltwoche newspaper. He has written 14 novels, four stage plays and seven screenplays, all of which he has received various awards for. He previously worked as a copywriter and creative director in advertising before focusing on his literary career.
8. Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse recounts the story of two medieval men who are great friends, but whose characters are blatantly different. Narcissus is a devout monk who is firm in his religious commitment, while Goldmund is a young romantic with a hunger for knowledge and worldly experiences. Their differences lead them both down very different roads. With timeless themes, the novel explores the conflict between the surreal life of a spirit and the selfish needs of the flesh.
Hermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist and painter. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, and his works contemplate the topics of spirituality, authenticity, self-actualisation, philosophy and more. His works were banned in Germany during the Nazi regime due to his anti-fascist views.
9. Die Physiker by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Die Physiker (The Physicists) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is a satiric drama and tragic comedy that was written after the Second World War and questions the significant advances made in science and nuclear technology. The story deals with questions of scientific ethics and the human ability to manage one’s intellectual responsibility. It follows three physicists in a psychiatric ward: one is convinced he is Isaac Newton, one believes he is Albert Einstein, and the third believes he is visited by the biblical King Solomon. Together, they convene in the drawing room.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt was a Swiss author and dramatist who was a proponent of epic theatre with plays that specifically reflected personal experiences of the Second World War. He focused his work on political commentary, macabre satire, avant-garde dramas and philosophical crime novels.
Fall into the world of Swiss literature
With so much variety in Swiss literature, readers have a world of choices to make. Head over to your nearest bookstore and pick up one of these Swiss books today!
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