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English Department Zurich in Anglophone Literatures


It is impossible – and also somewhat pointless – to include all English-language texts that contain some sort of reference to Zurich. Accordingly, this platform presents a selection of texts, albeit an extensive one, based on the criteria outlined below.

While the project is aimed at the general public, it does have a basis in literary critical debate and academic research. For those interested, a short sketch of this academic basis is included below.

Selection Criteria: What Is Included?

There are different selection criteria for prose fiction and drama on the one hand, and for poetry on the other. Accordingly, these are outlined separately here. However, there is one general principle shared across these categories, namely that self-published works are not included on the Zurich in Anglophone Literatures platform.

Prose Fiction and Drama

In the case of prose fiction and drama, only those texts are included that

  • feature at least one significant scene set in Zurich;
  • contain a description of Zurich that is particularly evocative and/or interesting.

The following constitutes an example of a relatively brief but nevertheless 'interesting' reference – interesting because it is rather unusually enthusiastic:

  • "'[W]e have seen places [...] that I should put a long way before Rome. [...] There's Zürich,' she observed; 'I think Zürich is lovely; and we hadn't heard half so much about it." (Henry James. Daisy Miller. 1878. Eds. Geoffrey Moore and Patricia Crick. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 1986. 83.)

If one were to attempt to include all references to Zurich, the number of texts on the platform would simply become far too high. There are, for example, countless spy novels and thrillers that feature one or two references to a 'Zurich bank account,' or to a 'bank in Zurich.' As nothing much is gained by including dozens or even hundreds of such passing references to Zurich as a financial center, these are not usually included in the List of Texts, nor on the Interactive Map.

Similarly, passing references to Zurich as a place with little or no 'narrative weight' (like the following from two novels by very famous authors) are not usually included:

  • "They came to Zürich, then, before very long, ran under the mountains, that were deep in snow." [The characters immediately move on to Innsbruck, and they never return to Zurich.] (D. H. Lawrence. Women in Love. 1920. London: Martin Secker, 1921. 418.)
  • "After that he was in a department store in Zürich. Their losses from shoplifting were rather above the average while he was with them." [No further reference is made to this episode, which appears in a list of past offenses perpetrated by one of the characters.] (Agatha Christie. A Murder Is Announced. 1950. New York: Pocket Books, 1951. 99.)


In contrast to prose fiction and drama, poems tend to be included even if they only contain the briefest of references to Zurich – mainly because poems are an unusually dense type of text in which even minor elements tend to be highly significant.

The exception to this rule are longer narrative poems, where passing references are treated in much the same way as outlined above).

Academic Basis: Literary Geography & Distant Reading

What is to be gained from compiling a vast corpus of text connected by a single, rather random feature, e.g. that they are all (partly) set in, or at least reference, Zurich?

One reason why such a project is interesting from an academic point of view is that, too often, literary history is written on the basis of a very small corpus of texts that were selected because of their supposed literary merit. The Italian literary critic Franco Moretti has long criticized the absurdity of this position:

[I]f everyone behaved like literary critics who only study what they 'like,' doctors might restrict themselves to studying only healthy bodies and economists the standard of living of the well-off. (Signs Taken for Wonders 14)

A literary geographical approach is one way of avoiding 'preemptive' value judgements. Instead, the corpus of texts is compiled on the basis of a – relatively – objective criterion (in this case, its link to Zurich). This allows us to study not just the masterpieces, but also the flawed, the average, the ridiculous, etc.: in some ways, a much more representative sample of literary history.

Once these texts have been compiled, one can start searching for patterns: What kind of geographical 'hotspots' do we find? What thematic or other clusters become apparent? And what are the significant and/or surprising absences? Most of us are used to reading individual texts; as Franco Moretti has put it, in his essay "The Novel: History and Theory,"

texts are designed to 'speak' to us, and so, provided that we know how to listen, will always end up telling us something; but archives are not meant to address us, and so they say absolutely nothing until one asks the right question. (in: Distant Reading 165)

Literary geography is, arguably, one way of finding the right type of questions for reading an archive, rather than individual texts.

Finally, literary geography focuses our attention on the importance of space in literature as well as beyond. As Richard T. Tally, Jr. suggests:

Literary geography implies a form of reading that focuses attention on space and spatiality in the texts under consideration. But it also means paying attention to the changing spatial or geographical formations that affect literary and cultural productions. (Spatiality 80)

If space is a crucial nexus of social power, then analyzing the construction of fictional spaces (including their relation to real-life locations) may contribute to a broader understanding of power relations: how they shape literature and culture, but also how they may in turn be shaped by literary and cultural imaginaries – especially, perhaps, in an era of global 'modernities' shaped by "modern cartography, global interconnectedness, capitalism, colonial exploitation, the so-called 'Westphalian' state system and nationalism" (Riquet, "Framing the Debate" 8).




Weiterführende Informationen

Zurich in Anglophone Literatures

Zurich in Anglophone Literatures

Project Editor

Martin Mühlheim

UZH English Department, Plattenstrasse 47, CH-8032 Zürich, Switzerland