Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Snapshots from... Zürich

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today, D.B. Miller gives us a tour of Zürich, Switzerland. 
Images by SL Nickerson.

What's so great about Zürich?

Things work. Zürich consistently ranks at or near the top of global surveys that measure quality of life – in case five minutes on the lakeside weren’t convincing enough. It also operates at a lower frequency than the whirling inside my head, or for that matter on the page. While the picturesque alleys, cafés and proximity to nature make for some soothing moments, they are not necessarily an invitation to while away the hours. From what I’ve gathered, any loafing around is the sole responsibility of the loafer.

By SL Nickerson

Admittedly, when I first moved here in 2003, I didn’t know what to make of it. I only embraced Zürich after deciding that work and the so-called economic machine lay at its heart. To feel local is to be productive. For that reason, I think the city is ideal for tackling creative projects as long as you have the discipline. You need to be alert, attuned to what’s subtle and hidden. Every day, the color and texture of the lake change. Depending on the weather, the perceived distance and contours of the Alps shift. If you want to find a story here, you have to earn it.

Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place.

For a city this size, and one surrounded by stretches of green, hills and villages, the cultural offer is rich and getting richer. The first time I approached Zürich from the mountains, with the staggering peaks and turquoise lakes just out of reach, I realized what a miracle it really is. On the literary front, big-name writers often come to town for readings at the Kaufleuten and Literaturhaus. Their presence alone is inspiring, to say nothing of the exchanges I’ve had at the signing table with, for example, Lydia Davis, Amélie Nothomb, Michael Ondaatje and Jonathan Safran Foer. The city hosts a number of festivals, including Openair Literatur and Zürich Liest, while smaller, edgier outfits, such as index and Theater Neumarkt, organize events throughout the year.

By SL Nickerson

Of all the other cultural goings-on, it’s worth mentioning the vibrant live music scene. I enjoy the small, quirky venues, ranging from a velvet-clad dance hall to a stuffy pit near the river. On any given night, someone great, maybe just on the verge of a breakthrough, is probably playing less than 30 minutes from home.

What's hot? What are people reading?

By SL Nickerson
In my experience, “hot” does not seem to register here, but I have noticed a steady, lukewarm affection for a good Krimi (thriller). Because bestsellers cross borders, people in this multi-lingual city tend to read what everyone else does, and maybe not even wait for the German translation. The homegrown literary scene is thriving as well. In any case, it used to be easier to spot public literary tastes. As smart phones and e-readers have mostly replaced dog-eared paperbacks, I can’t easily draw my own conclusions.

Can you recommend any books set in Zürich?

While only some of his books take place in Zürich, I associate most of Martin Suter’s stories with the city’s discreet social constructs and small-scale absurdities. Not all of his work has been translated into English, which has meant some slow going for me, but the invested time and teeth-gnashing are always worth it (Lila, Lila is a favorite, especially because the anti-hero is a writer). I’m looking forward to wrestling with Jens Nielsen’s Flusspferd im Frauenbad, based on a recent performance/reading I was lucky enough to catch. A few friends have also recommended Peter Stamm’s work.

As far as English books go, writers tend to explore the traditions, secrets and wealth linked to the city – some much better than others. I have yet to read a book that does for Zürich what Salman Rushdie and Andrei Bely did for New York and St. Petersburg, respectively: blow it out to an extreme, and a funny one at that. Recommendations are welcome.

By SL Nickerson

Who are the best-known local writers?

I’m not sure who can be considered “local” in a relatively small, internationally minded country with four official languages. If I stick to living German-language writers who were born, have once lived or are now settled in and around Zurich: Lukas Bärfuss, Franz Hohler and Charles Lewinsky come to mind (in addition to Nielsen, Stamm and Suter). Hazel Brugger, better known for her slam poetry and comedy, does not neatly fit into the lit scene, though my neighbor swears by her book. I suppose I have a soft spot for creative rule-breakers since the city thrives on rules and regulations. Then again, Zürich was the birthplace of Dada.

On another historical note, plenty of famous non-Swiss writers have passed through the country and stayed long enough to create. Byron, Fitzgerald, Highsmith, Le Carré, Nabokov, Twain – there are just too many to mention. Closer to home, James Joyce and Thomas Mann are buried in or just outside of Zürich. And Thornton Wilder is rumored to have finished Our Town in my town.

By SL Nickerson

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

Neither: it is a challenge. Whether due to my own priorities, procrastination or something in the alpine water, I’ve found that I need more energy to seek out inspiration and not get distracted by (or complacent in) such a prim, orderly place. At a Colum McCann reading, after the author speculated how incredible Zürich must be for writers, I gently pressed him at the signing table. Did he mean it would be inspiring to start something new (and if so, could I learn from him) or conducive to finishing a work in progress (and if so, could I learn from him)? He had to stop and think about it, and then said he wasn’t sure.

The fact is, I’ve lived in cities bursting with stories and characters. But they’re here, too, popping up now and then to remind me to try harder. Here’s that world-weary balding guy in lady’s dress pumps again. There’s that gentleman with the Hungarian pointer who once, unprompted, told me what he thinks of bankers (scum). And I will never forget my first summer when, lounging at a pristine lakeside beach, I watched as a girl of about 12 waded straight into a submerged corpse. In between the shrieks and Baywatch-grade scene that unfolded, I thought: That’s not supposed to happen here, and it just did. (From the little I could glean from the local papers and tight-lipped lifeguards the next day, the elderly man had expired during a routine swim a few days earlier.)

What are you writing?

I’m working on a batch of short stories and some creative nonfiction, all of which are directly or indirectly inspired by live music. I’m also toying with the idea of picking up an abandoned novel set in Zürich. In retrospect, I found it hard to sustain momentum because I kept trying to describe exactly what I saw. To ramp up the tension, I think I need to experiment with a more surrealistic take on the city – and not quit until I’ve blown it out to the extreme.

By SL Nickerson

Sum up life in Zürich in three words.

Get to work.

D.B. Miller is an American writer who has been living in Europe since 1995. With dark humor and a slight edge, she writes about the themes that move her most: disenchantment, alienation and the obliterating power of live music.

Her essays, short stories and offbeat profiles have appeared in The Weeklings, The Woolf and Split Lip Magazine. She also writes for hire but, as the expression goes, that's another story.


  1. I think it's an inspiring place. As an expat in Zurich, I feel like there's a bit more 'breathing room' here for creativity, coupled with a real appreciation for entrepreneurship, which seems to lend itself nicely to the writer's life/business!

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