“What exasperates and amuses me pertains almost exclusively to Switzerland and the Swiss” — A Conversation with Madeleine LaRue

by Andrea Scrima

Andrea Scrima: Madeleine, you translate, write critical essays, and have been editing for Music & Literature for six years. Recently, all these areas of your expertise were called upon in a particularly rigorous way in preparation for a quietly sensational literary event: the publication of a mammoth portfolio of Swiss writer Peter Bichsel’s work in English translation. Can you tell us a bit about Bichsel, and what some of the difficulties were in producing this issue?

Madeleine LaRue: It did turn out to be pretty mammoth! How about I tell you, by way of introduction, about the first time I met Bichsel in person. He’d come to read at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, the center of the grand old West Berlin literary establishment. It was November, it was dark and cold, and when he emerged at the back of the room and started walking up toward the stage, wearing the same black leather vest he’s been wearing for the past forty years, I think we were all a little worried about him. He was eighty-two then, and he looked exhausted. It had been a while since he’d been on such an extensive reading tour outside of Switzerland. He got to the stage and settled into his chair. The moderator welcomed him and asked how it felt to be back in Berlin—a simple question, a nice, easy opener. Bichsel still seemed tired, but as he leaned back and said, very slowly, in his lilting Swiss accent, “Ja, ja, Berlin,” his eyes lit up and he launched into a story about his first time in the city, in the early 1960s, and how he got caught in the middle of a bar fight with some people! Who turned out to be Swiss! And they all got thrown out onto the street together, and he’ll never forget it! And ja, ja, Berlin—and from his very first word, we all became like delighted children at Grandfather’s feet, totally enraptured, utterly unwilling to go to bed until we’d heard just one more story, pleeeease? And he himself became younger, full of life, charming and hilarious and genuine and profound. Read more »