If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Zürich as you feel/see it?
Zürich is a city built at human scale. Everything a person needs to be happy lies within reach. This harbors huge internal tensions: if you aren’t happy, that’s entirely on you.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
An old neighbor of ours—over ninety—came to bid me farewell in case she didn’t survive her upcoming surgery. She was so cheerful, it seemed like she was just going away on vacation. A bit later I bought a big bouquet of flowers and rang her doorbell, but she was already gone. I put the flowers in a vase in our living room. They happened to be phlox, which made my husband break out in hives, so then I put them on the balcony and only saw them through the window. After a while, our old neighbor came back—she hadn’t died under the knife after all. Every summer I see her in the bathhouse by the lake, with a big hat and bright-red fingernails; and at the end of every summer, when the bathhouse closes, she comes to me and says, “That’s it—this might well have been my last summer. But it was glorious, wasn’t it?”
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
There are a lot of roof terraces here that are veritable gardens. Sometimes it seems people prefer such terraces over any of the city’s many green spaces. At rooftop terrace parties, swallows have swooped by so close I’ve nearly leapt after them, swept up in the moment.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
There are so many remarkable Swiss writers, but for whatever reason, so few are translated into English. Of those who are, I always like to recommend the works of Max Frisch.
Is there a place here you return to often?
I’m always by the lake. No matter where I walk—through the city, through its many nearby forests, wherever—at some point I always come to a place with a view of the lake. I look at the water, and can breathe more deeply.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
A guidebook would send you to the Café Odeon, which is where writers fleeing Germany and Austria met up during World War II. Today’s refugees wouldn’t go there, though, as it’s lost all cultural flair. Café Karl der Große, on the other hand, is quite lively. It’s named after Charlemagne, and it also happens to be the main stage of Zürich liest, the annual citywide literary festival.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Absolutely—the Zürich Opera House. I’m an opera fan and am pretty sure I know everyone there: the musicians, who come from all over the world; the dancers in the corps de ballet; the singers; the checkroom attendants; the makeup artists; the extras, who even have their own club; the people at reception . . . . It’s a world unto itself, perpetually taking on new configurations and providing its own crazy tales. I used to write a column for the opera house magazine, and I never ran out of stories.
Where does passion live here?
Everywhere, in the most surprising places: at the bathhouses, on the well-marked hiking trails, standing in line for an apartment viewing. In Switzerland people tend to be reticent, but reticence is—from both literary and theoretical perspectives—the best starting point for sudden passion.
What is the title of one of your works about Zürich, and what inspired it exactly?
Die Dame mit dem maghrebinischen Hündchen, which could be translated as “The Lady with the Little Berber Dog.” It’s a novella set in Zürich, about a ballet dancer who thinks she has performed every possible romantic gesture in her onstage career—until she meets a Kurdish gardener. It was inspired by a scene I witnessed at the opera, from the stage set. I can hardly describe it, which is why it took me an entire book to do so. But I’ll try to sum it up: During a drop scene, as the set upstage was being changed, the two soloists quickly dashed up to the apron stage and practiced their romantic dance. But each was rehearsing on their own, so in a way they danced together, but with their backs to each other, and both danced with the imagined figure of the other.
Then I began wondering what it takes to make a love story aesthetic, and whether artists—since they approach everything through a practiced aesthetic lens—experience passion more deeply than everyone else. In short: what is art for, and what does love enable us to do?
The story is also about the scene’s setting—in this case, the city of Zürich. What atmosphere does a certain setting create, what expectations does it arouse in the audience, and what liberties does it grant the main characters?
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Zürich, does an outside exist?”
Yes, that’s the special thing about Swiss cities, which are small yet at the same time so stunningly cosmopolitan: there’s always an outside, even if you’re deep inside. I could even say that Zürich helps you get very close to the wider world, and I’ll explain how: here, people are used to having a say in everything—from the introduction of a new streetcar to the construction of a new sports area, businesses’ opening hours on certain holidays, and so on. When you approach life that way, you feel very grounded, like the head of a household, or a host with concrete responsibilities—and you carry that feeling out into the world with you. The place shapes you in this way, then fades into an ever-changing backdrop, whereas you yourself will always carry this perhaps lofty feeling inside: you are a host, and you can be a host anywhere you find yourself.
Tell us about your journey with your translator.
I met Alta Price when the translation of my novel about Bucharest, Das primäre Gefühl der Schuldlosigkeit, came out from Seagull Books as An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence. The translation is excellent, down to the smallest, most comic details. The English book has the same narrative rhythm, the same pacing within each sentence—I was thrilled to discover that such an accurate translation was even possible. So, at times, because of my great respect for Alta’s art, I kept forgetting that she is not an old lady, that we’re actually the same age.
We did a book tour with readings across the United States, from San Francisco to Seattle, Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York. It felt like a vacation, and I wouldn’t have minded it being twice as long. We had planned to continue the tour together, with readings in India, but for various reasons I ended up presenting alone. And at every reading—in Varanasi, New Delhi, and Calcutta—I thought of Alta, and in my mind I said, “See, Alta, they got it! This is cause for celebration . . . .”
Swiss-Romanian writer Dana Grigorcea was born in 1979 in Bucharest and has been living in the German-speaking world for several decades. She writes in German and has been praised worldwide for her novels and story collections, which have been translated into ten languages to date. She was a recipient of the 2011 Swiss Literature Pearl for her debut novel Baba Rada and won the 2015 Austrian 3sat Prize for Das primäre Gefühl der Schuldlosigkeit (translated by Alta L. Price as An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence), for which she was also shortlisted for the Swiss Book Prize and the Literature Prize of the German Business Association. She was nominated for the Madame Figaro prize in 2020 with the French edition of her novella Die Dame mit dem maghrebinischen Hündchen (translated by Dominique Autrand as La Dame au petit chien arabe). In 2021 she was longlisted for the German Book Prize and received the Swiss Literature Prize for her vampire novel Die nicht sterben (“Dracula Park”). She has also written several children’s books.