Most Famous Swiss Writers & Their Best-Known Works

most famous swiss writers

As a country of at least four national languages, geopolitical neutrality, and a safe haven for refugees, Switzerland has given the world many great minds and famous people as well as accepting intellectuals of other nationalities. It goes without saying that the sheer beauty of the alpine nation’s remarkable landscape has been and will continue to be an inspiration for writers and other creatives.

This listicle will introduce you to some of the most famous Swiss writers past and present including native-born and transplants.

Johann David Wyss

Johann David Wyss
Johann David Wyss – © Wikipedia

Swiss native Johann David Wyss was born in 1743 in Bern and died in his hometown in 1818. He is best known for the classic novel The Swiss Family Robinson. First published in German in 1812, it was translated and published in English in 1814. It tells the adventures of a Swiss family of immigrants traveling to Australia whose ship goes off course and is shipwrecked in the East Indies. The story was written into a screenplay by Lowell S. Hawley for an American adventure film in 1960.

According to historical accounts, Wyss was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He wanted his story to be more relatable to his own children with a father that taught them important lessons. The book was edited later by his son Johann Rudolf Wyss, a scholar who wrote the Swiss national anthem. Another son, Johann Emmanuel Wyss, illustrated the story.

It is said that Jules Verne loved the story so much it inspired him to write The Castaways of the Flag in 1900.

Robert Walser

Robert Walser
Robert Walser © Wikipedia

Sometimes writers are more successful posthumously than during their lifetime. That is the case for Robert Walser who was born in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland in 1878 and died in Herisau, Switzerland on Christmas day in 1956.

Before writing, Walser worked various jobs including a bank clerk, inventor’s assistant, and a butler in a castle. From 1899 until a questionable diagnosis of schizophrenia forced his hospitalization in 1933, Walser wrote prolifically, producing over a thousand short stories and seven novels.

Although he didn’t experience a lot of success during his lifetime, his work was admired by several of his contemporaries including Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, and Walter Benjamin. His work became the subject of essays written by William Gass, Susan Sontag, W.G. Sebald, and J.M. Coetzee.

Interest in Walser’s work was revived in the late 20th century and early 2000s through micro scripts that became known as the Pencil Zone. Walser wrote the texts while in a sanatorium. They were written on tiny pieces of paper in an effort to accommodate his paralyzing writer’s cramp. The writings were found among Walser’s belongings and published.

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Johanna Spyri

Johanna Spyri
Johanna Spyri © Wikipedia

The awe-inspiring Swiss countryside and traditional rural life provide the backdrop of Johanna Spyri’s famous novel Heidi and other notable children’s stories. Spyri, nee Johanna Louise Heusser in 1827 in Hirzel spent summers as a child near Chur in Graubünden, an area known for its dramatic scenery. The area would later serve as the setting for Heidi which is known today as the Heidi Village.

Johanna married Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer in 1852. Living in the city of Zurich, she began writing stories about life in the country. Her first book, A Leaf on Vrony’s Grave about a woman’s life of domestic violence was published in 1880. Encouraged by her success, she went on to write stories for both adults and children. Her novel Heidi, about an orphan who lives with her grandfather in the Alps became an American musical drama in 1937. At least two remakes followed in later years.

Celebrated long after her death, Spyri’s portrait appeared on a postage stamp in 1951 and a commemorative Swiss coin in 2009.

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse
Hermann Hesse – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Hermann Hesse was born in Calw, Germany in 1877 and moved to Montagnola near Lake Lugano in 1919 where he later received Swiss citizenship. Growing up, he aspired to be a poet while apprenticing in a Calw tower clock factory and later in a book store in Tübingen.

At age 22, Hesse published his first book, a collection of poetry. He continued working in a bookstore until writing his first novel, Peter Camenzind, a story about a failed writer in 1904.

During World War I, Hesse, while living in neutral Switzerland, wrote on the topics of militarism and nationalism and editing a journal for German war prisoners.

Hesse’s work was themed on identity and spirituality and included Gertrud (1910), Rosshalde (1914), and Siddhartha (1922), a poetic novel about India. His best-known work is The Glass Bead Game which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.

Hesse died in 1962 in Montagnola, Collina d’Oro, Switzerland.

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Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Friedrich Dürrenmatt – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Native Swiss Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born in Konofingen, a municipality in the canton of Bern in 1921. His father, a Protestant pastor, moved the family to Bern in 1935. Friedrich had begun his studies in German literature and philosophy at the University of Zurich and transferred to the University of Bern. He dropped his academic career in 1943 to become a writer.

Dürrenmatt was a dramatist as well as an author. He was politically active and a member of a group of left-wing writers called the Gruppe Olten. He wrote avant-garde plays with themes on World War II, philosophical crime novels, and macabre satire.

Painting was also a fond means of expression for Dürrenmatt, and his works were exhibited in Neuchâtel in 1976 and 1985, and in Zurich in 1978. His literary works have been on display in the Swiss National Library since 2000.

Dürrenmatt died from heart failure in 1990.

Joel Dicker

Joel Dicker
Joel Dicker – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Swiss novelist Joel Dicker was born in Geneva in 1985. He attended Geneva schools and enrolled at the Cours Florent in Paris at age 19. He studied for one year before returning to Geneva to attend law school at the University of Geneva. He received a Master of Law degree in 2010.

Dicker’s very successful career includes the Geneva Writers’ prize for unpublished manuscripts. His work was subsequently published by Parisian editor Bernard de Fallois.

One of Dicker’s most successful novels is La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert (The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair), the story of an American novelist who investigated a murder his university professor is accused of. Other titles by the still-active Dicker include:

La Vérité (2012), Le Livre des Baltimore (2015), and Le Livre des Baltimore (2018).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The French-speaking writer and world-renowned philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. It is said that his writings on politics, education, and economics inspired the French Revolution. Rousseau was also a composer, and his works were admired by composers such as Mozart.

But it was Rousseau’s philosophy and writings that were the most influential. His most important works include Social Contract in which he wrote “Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains,” Emile, or On Education, a treatise on the nature of education, and the play Narcissus which he claims to have written when he was 18. The play was performed for King Louis XV in 1752.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau died in Ermenonville, France in 1178. He was honored by the Swiss by naming an island in Geneva’s city center after him.

Melinda Nadj Abonji

Melinda Nadj Abonji
Melinda Nadj Abonji – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Hungarian-Swiss writer Melinda Nadj Abonji was born in 1968 in the Hungarian region of Yugoslavia which is present-day Serbia. At the age of five, she joined her refugee parents in Switzerland. Today, she is also an active musician and performance artist.

Upon finishing her studies at the University of Zurich, Melinda wrote a debut novel titled Fly Away, Pigeon. It’s an emotionally powerful story that follows three generations of a family fleeing Yugoslavia and trying to integrate into Switzerland. The story is based on Melinda’s refugee experience.

Fly Away, Pigeon won the German Book Prize and the Swiss Book Prize in 2010. It was published in English by Seagull Books. Her second novel, Tortoise Soldier was published in 2017.

Melinda Nadj Abonji resides in Zurich where she is a writer and musician.

Germaine de Staël

Germaine de Staël
Germaine de Staël – Image courtesy of Grégory Lejeune

Most commonly known as Madame de Staël, Germaine de Staël was born in Paris in 1766 to a prominent Swiss banker and statesman and a Swiss governance owner of one the most popular salons in Paris. During political turmoil, her family took up residence in 1784 at Château Coppet, an estate on Lake Geneva.

Germaine’s parents wanted her educated according to Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s principles. Her mother took her to the salon regularly where she was stimulated and enlightened by patrons. Her parents’ social life left Germaine somewhat neglected, and she often acted out of control.

Germaine became an author of plays, history, fiction, and political theory. She lived in exile from Paris after strongly opposing Napoleon. Her novels, polemics, travel literature, and political theory were very influential on European thought.

Germaine de Staël died in Paris in 1817.

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Born in 1875 in Lübeck, Germany, Thomas man was a novelist, essayist, social critic, and philanthropist. A member of the Hanseatic Mann family dynasty, he wrote about his family’s social class in his first novel, Buddenbrooks. His brother was the radical writer Heinrich Mann. Three more of his siblings also became German writers.

Thomas Mann fled to Switzerland in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came into power in Germany. During World War II, he moved to the United States. He became an American citizen in 1940. He returned to Switzerland in 1952 and became well-known for Exilliteratur, German literature written in Exile by opponents of Hitler’s regime.

Works by Mann in his later years include Lotte in Weimar (The Beloved Returns), Joseph und seine Brüder (Joseph and His Brothers), and Dr. Faustus, a story about self-destruction and fate that echoes the Third Reich.

Thomas Mann died in 1955 in Zurich.

Written by Ashley Faulkes
As a twenty-year resident of Switzerland, I am passionate about exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, I spend my days deep in the great Swiss outdoors, and love to share these experiences and insights with fellow travel enthusiasts.

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