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Dictionnaire des ecrivains suisses d'expression francaise, 2 vols.

Dictionnaire des ecrivains suisses d'expression francaise. By ALAIN NICOLLIER and HENRI-CHARLES DAHLEM. 2 vols. Geneve: Editions GVA. 1994. 528 pp.; 527 pp.

Why is a dictionary of Swiss authors writing in French needed? The question is not meant to be facetious. Bi(bli)ographical dictionaries of authors abound and this must point to their usefulness. They fulfil two valuable functions: a) they are a convenient first contact with an author when passing from a state of ignorance to minimal knowledge; b) they provide historical and bibliographical information either as a reminder (finding essential dates five minutes before a lecture) or as a first step to further research. However, works for the French market provide at best sketchy and often inaccurate information about any non-French authors. Although commitment to francophonie is loudly proclaimed in France, the nature of the book distribution industry prevents the free circulation of books within the French-speaking world, and only texts selected by Parisian publishers for printing in France are known. This gives the French public a distorted picture of francophone literatures. The solution is obviously for francophone literatures to provide their own reference tools. Canada has a number, of which the multi-volume Dictionnaire des oeuvres litteraires du Quebec is perhaps the best known. French-speaking Switzerland arguably has the second most vibrant and original independent literature outside the metropole after Quebec, and the Dictionnaire des ecrivains suisses d'expression francaise is an important new reference tool for romandistes.

As it is not the only such tool, it might help to compare it to some others. Published just three years ago, the Dictionnaire des litteratures suisses, ed. by Pierre-Olivier Walzer (Lausanne: L'Aire, 1991) seeks (probably in vain) to unite the literatures of Switzerland (it was published to mark the 700th anniversary of the Confederation). It finds space for only about seventy French-language authors (though it includes many excellent thematic articles (Editeurs, Litterature dialectale, Revues, Tournants culturels, to mention but a few). Each author is represented by a longish critique and a shortish quotation. There is little bibliographical information, but a clear indication of which are important authors. Thus Ramuz, 'le plus grand ecrivain romand du XXo siecle' (p. 334), gets three pages to himself. Another volume in some ways comparable, published around the same time, is Christophe Calame's Sept cent ans de litterature romande (Paris: Editions la Difference, 1991) in which each author is represented by a shortish critique and a longish quotation. Here, Nicolas Bouvier gets three times as much space as Ramuz. Although a total of some ninety authors are dealt with, inclusions and exclusions are a kind of mark awarded by the compiler, who has not aimed at any kind of completeness. Bibliography is scant. By way of contrast, the new Dictionnaire des ecrivains suisses d'expression francaise has well over 400 articles. These are factual and descriptive rather than critical, and no attempt has been made to give any kind of rating, either by giving more space (as in Walzer) or excluding (as in Calame). Conversely, full bibliographies (including translations) of each author's works are given, with a substantial indication of sources. (For some purely bibliographical enquiries, other sources may be more detailed, such as Regis de Courten's annual bibliographies when available, or the Bringolf/Verdan Bibliographie de l'oeuvre de C. F. Ramuz, or the Fonds Ramuz catalogue, and it is now possible to consult Swiss library catalogues on-line on the internet.)

The definition of what constitutes a French-Swiss author is wide: either a Swiss national or a foreigner resident in Switzerland. Although a better definition might be attempted for a course in French-Swiss literature, the decision to be inclusive rather than exclusive is wise for a reference work whose readers will have different and unpredictable needs. Although this work lacks the thematic articles of Walzer's Dictionnaire des litteratures suisses, it does include a mammoth bibliography of works on Swiss literature, a list of literary reviews, and details of media that cover literature. Each author's name figures three times: in a chronological list, in an alphabetical list, and in an index that gives every cross-reference in the work. In addition, many literary personalities familiar to romandistes have been consulted. While this new dictionary will not replace all that has gone before, it undoubtedly marks a step forward in terms of coverage, objectivity, and clarity. If, as the authors (and I) hope, it is revised from time to time in the future, it will establish itself as a definitive work of reference in the field.

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Author:Parris, David L.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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