Is Peter von Matt not only the greatest literary scholar, but also the greatest writer in Switzerland? The Germanist waves his hand: “Superlatives are always suspicious.” Instead, he protects the whole world: Martin Suter, the Germans, the Swiss Federal Council.
Mr. von Matt, you come from Stans, Nidwalden, and you can still hear it very clearly, even though you’ve been living in Dübendorf for a long time. How is it that you have retained your dialect so well?
I never wanted to get rid of the language I grew up in. But I didn’t want to show them either. Depending on the level of familiarity with the other person, I have adapted a little. As soon as you pay attention how I said something instead What I said I was becoming more urban. But I was interested in all dialects. I could never celebrate individuals and despise others, as strangely happens in Switzerland.
Where does the dialect pride and dialect contempt in Switzerland come from?
When you say it so pointedly, a problem does indeed emerge. On the one hand there is a harmless laughing at the neighboring languages, even from village to village, on the other hand one finds incredibly eager, over-perfect dialect changes in order to adapt. Is it shame or submission?
You came to Zurich as a student and were a Catholic in the diaspora. Did you feel that?
no Such things were largely over at the university. The people from Lucerne attacked the central Swiss the most. The people of Lucerne have a great deal of respect for themselves.
Can you relate to the term “home”? Where is your home?
For me, home is places where I once lived with all my might. Be it as a child or as an old man. The summers in a cottage on the Brünig were pure magic. But I also know a café in Paris that I never miss, love the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, the National Gallery in London, Goya in the Prado, Stanford University. . . There are many things that one day will stay next to you like a piece of yourself.
You had a close relationship with the Zurich Schauspielhaus. And you had good relationships with playwrights like Dürrenmatt and Frisch. Why, for example, are prose works by Dürrenmatt being staged today, but hardly any of his classical pieces?
Years ago there was a joke that was often laughed at. It was said that theater posters had been put up in the Schwyz town of Muotathal with the advert: “Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller, improved by Josef Gwerder”. It was similar in Zurich. Dürrenmatt’s “Visit of the Old Lady” was advertised, but promised that it would be done very differently from the old man. Indeed. Instead of the uncanny speed of the finale, there was a funny sequence of numbers.
Many Zurich residents who used to like going to the theater have turned their backs on this playhouse. Is a theatrical culture being lost there?
That’ll happen again.
Are you more of an optimist or a pessimist?
Whoever plays the prophet today is a fool.
Of all the Swiss writers, Frisch was perhaps your closest. The legendary correspondence with Ingeborg Bachmann appears in November. Do you know the letters? The two had a complicated love affair, with some even accusing Frisch of being complicit in her death.
Everyone has their beliefs on the matter. I know a lot, but not everything. We have to wait until the documents that exist are finally on the table, in black and white. Then the false claims stop.
You accompanied Max Frisch in his literary work. Did he consult you?
Frisch never played the jack of all trades. He suffered from inadequacy, grateful for any hint he might need. He almost worked himself to death on the “Holocene” book. Started again and again. Those close to him advised him against it. He remained dogged. He wanted to call the book “Climate”. The publisher asked for a long title. Fresh obeyed. It would have been the word of the times.
Do you think that you have influenced contemporary literary work? Would Swiss literature look different without you?
Determined writers with a passion cannot be guided and educated. This was never my job. My profession was the research and precise visualization of important literary works and their time, was the directing of their survival among keen-eyed young people. You should win works from the present, but also from old and ancient times with your own thinking, immersion and exploration.
As a Germanist, you were a star at the University of Zurich. They studied here because of you. Did that encourage envy among colleagues?
I didn’t experience it like that. I never knew exactly what the others were doing. I wrote down my lectures down to the comma. It was only at the moment of public speaking that I suddenly felt free, able to extemporize and felt that someone was listening.
At some point, the university was no longer enough for you. They began to write books that were not aimed at other Germanists but at a larger audience.
I liked to write and I wanted to be read whenever possible. Incidentally, that was a tradition in Zurich. The Germanists at the university appeared in the newspapers from time to time and held lectures with discussions. One must not forget: The subject of literary German studies are novels, poems, short stories and dramas for all people. The scientific work should and can attract the attention of a wide variety of interested parties.
You were successful as a university teacher and with your books. Marcel Reich-Ranicki once described you as the currently best Swiss writer. Did that annoy you or flatter you?
When I read that, I thought: Now he’s making some people angry. I’ll get even. It happened like this.
You have been involved with literature all your life. Why have you never written any literature yourself?
That’s a whole different type of writing. It requires other concentrations, other freedoms as well. It’s like the difference between a rider and a diver.
Why can’t you be both, alternately?
That is possible. It would have hindered my main work.
How do you actually feel about trivial literature? Have you read Martin Suter?
Martin Suter is not a trivial author. He can do a lot and is washed with many waters. I once held an exciting seminar on trivial novels. It said: «The successful Swiss authors J. Spyri, J.C. Heer, E. Zahn, J. Knittel. A review”. Johanna Spyri was the most interesting because she combines laborious conventionality with amazing uniqueness.
You have a great passion for English literature. Virginia Woolf plays an important role there, as does the romantic Edgar Allan Poe, but Shakespeare towered above all. What did you find in this work?
I studied English and American literature as a minor, so I went to England and was invited to Stanford University in California for six months. I immersed myself in Shakespeare’s complete works with all my might. He remained a life companion to this day. Almost unbelievable in humor and melancholy. I have often dealt with Joyce. In the “Kronenhalle” I always have to quickly glance at his table.
You became a sought-after speaker, and your articles and essays appeared in magazines and daily newspapers. Sometimes political and social issues came up. Were you now also the best committed writer in Switzerland?
You can save yourself the question. Superlatives are always suspect.
You didn’t rub off on Switzerland as much as some authors. Rather, you were amazed at this strange structure. What is so wondrous about Switzerland?
The tedious. Everything always goes long and around all sorts of corners and has to be considered again at the end. But at some point the cow is jumped on and the calf is finally as young as the neighbor’s.
scientist and book author
rbl. · Peter von Matt was born in 1937 and grew up in Stans. He studied German and English in Zurich, did his doctorate under Emil Staiger and in 1976 became the successor to his chair, which he held until his retirement in 2002. In 1995, he became known as an author beyond the academic realm with his book “Verkomme Sohne, aberrant Daughters”. In 2012 he received the Swiss Book Prize for the volume “Das Kalb vor der Gotthardpost”. Peter von Matt has received numerous other awards, including the Goethe Prize from the City of Frankfurt in 2014.
The Swiss government has given up its policy of neutrality in view of the war in Ukraine, while at the same time naïvely emphasizing that neutrality still applies.
It seems to us that you like this Swiss policy of muddling through. Is Swiss self-deception a Swiss quality?
I was a little kid during World War II. I faintly remember Hitler’s voice on the radio and clearly my mother’s voice: “Peter, de Chrieg is us.” A large military airfield was located next to the canton’s capital with its church, town hall and monument to heroes. If war had broken out, everything would have been bombed together on the first day, including little Peter. It prevented what you call the Swiss policy of muddling through. That bothers me from time to time.
Does something about Swiss government policy annoy you, or are you willing to forgive everything to the Bundesrat, that odd collective body where no one has any robust power?
The odd collective body actually bothers me from time to time because it’s been in existence for more than 170 years and still, as you say, has no robust power. Couldn’t there be something to this tedious thing?
Thomas Hürlimann recently criticized in the NZZ that Switzerland is becoming more and more “infected by German idealism”. Do you also see this danger, or is that nonsense?
When I’m in Switzerland, I sometimes think: “The Germans are completely different.” When I’m in Germany, for example at the German Academy for Language and Poetry, I think: “Good conversations are the same everywhere.”