The Poetry of Night Buses

A disquisition on place: Bellevue Square, Zurichby Stefan Zweifel

View of Rämistrasse to Bellevue, 1939. Courtesy Baugeschichtliches Archiv Zurich

  • Jun 10, 2019

On the occasion of the relocation of Hauser & Wirth Publishers to—and the opening of its new bookstore in—the historic Zurich building at Rämistrasse 5, former home of the venerated Oprecht & Helbling bookshop and the publisher Europa Verlag, Swiss essayist Stefan Zweifel offers a tribute to a neighborhood, in the spirit of its insurgents.

– Under the influence of wine and mescal, the Situationists once explored Paris in order to identify ‘psychogeographic hubs,’ those places where, according to founding member Guy Debord, the ego plunges into new situations and reinvents both itself and the city. Zurich’s Bellevue Square is one of these liminal hubs, a place where the present is lapped continually by the waters of the past. At Rämistrasse 5, the square is presided over by an enlightening spirit, the building that once housed the Oprecht & Helbling bookstore, founded in 1925 by Emil Oprecht, and the renowned publishing house, Europa Verlag, that grew from it—one of the most important havens for exiled intellectuals during World War II. (‘Every opponent of Hitler that landed in Zurich sooner or later ended up at Oprecht’s door,’ wrote an essayist about the house, in 1963.) Bellevue is, and has been, a topography of order and rebellion. In 1917, the Dadaists Tristan Tzara and Walter Serner stood contemplating aesthetic revolution in the middle of Rämistrasse, the same spot where, decades later, during the summer of 1980, a new generation of bohemians gathered to demand a stake in their city’s culture, protesting a lack of public funding for arts spaces; the young people trying to outrun the clouds of tear gas escaped, as many escapees had before, into the Oprecht bookstore. Now, in lieu of demonstrations, obliviously well-heeled crowds flood the square in spring to banish the winter by burning a snowman called the ‘Böögg,’ culminating the Sechseläuten celebration, whose roots stretch back to the city’s medieval guilds.

Oprecht bookstore, 1968 © Candid Lang/Fotostiftung Schweiz. Photo: Candid Lang. Courtesy Zentralbibliothek Zurich, Ms. Oprecht

Emmie Oprecht, circa 1920s. Courtesy Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Ms. Oprecht

Bellevue is also a field of unfettered potential, crisscrossed by the poetry of night buses and 11th-hour despair. Always in the background is the sight of the lake, stirring longing for the expanses of the distant Alps. Artist Martin Disler, in the catalogue for Bice Curiger’s 1980 exhibition ‘Saus und Braus’ (‘Good and Bad’) described this sense of longing: We will guzzle you up from Bellevue Spit you out bit by bit over the buildings wolf down all your 5 million ships leave our piss, while swimming, On top of you you’re the biggest square in town blue superb cool perfect for nocturnal drowning ‘Saus und Braus’ is the exhibition, it should be noted, where Swiss duo Fischli/Weiss first showed their work. In a photo from around that time, taken at a party at the storied Kronenhalle restaurant, David Weiss and Peter Fischli can be seen seated right behind the designers Max Bill (stringent Zurich constructivist) and Hans Erni (utopian Marxist), who seem to have drifted in from another era—an image of the meeting and overlapping of layers of the city’s history, which snake through it like its tram tracks. Order and rebellion, rebellion and order: In 1965, Swiss conservatism prevailed when the local council in Zurich, disdaining Alberto Giacometti’s imagery of existential isolation, refused to acquire his works; the Giacometti Society was founded as a result. A year later, at the award ceremony for the Zurich Art Prize, German professor Emil Staiger attacked modernism: Its scribes, he sneered, wallowed in filth and sewage rather than aspiring to the celestial realms of Goethe. Novelists Max Frisch and Hugo Loetscher, who had just published Abwässer, his tale about the Zurich sewer system, were quick to protest. And, in 1967, the great dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, speaking in honor of Swiss painter Varlin, joined in mocking the hermetic Staiger, whom he described as oblivious to the fact that the writing coming out of Bellevue was already on its way to becoming world literature. There is a photo of the colossal intellects Frisch and Dürrenmatt, again at Kronenhalle, sitting opposite one another, oblivious to the fact that one day, in that very same place, they would have a falling out that would last the rest of their lives, after Dürrenmatt affectionately called Frisch his ‘sidekick.’ But let us turn back many more years in the annals. In 1925, Oprecht opened his bookstore, across the street from another operated by Henri Wengér, the Librairie Française. In 1933, Oprecht assembled a symbolic funeral pyre of books in his shop window to protest a decision by German authorities to ban his publications in Germany and its occupied areas. That same year, he started Europa Verlag, which published works by exiled authors such as Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, Max Hermann-Neisse, Ignazio Silone, Walter Mehring, Alfred Polgar, Else Lasker-Schüler and Thomas Mann. Oprecht’s courage must be understood against the backdrop of developments in Switzerland at the time—the bankers quietly helping to bankroll the Nazi war effort; the authorities plainly proclaiming to Jewish refugees fleeing Germany that the ‘lifeboat is full.’ Oprecht and his wife, Emmie, regularly received exiled artists and intellectuals at their apartment on Hirschengraben 20, just across from the German consulate. They also did what they could to help refugees relocate or hide from the police. ‘All conceivable imagination and energy and all available material means were mustered to help the persecuted persevere,’ Emmie later wrote of that time. ‘Every fate weighed heavily, every life counted.’

(From left) Erika Mann, Emil Oprecht, Thomas Mann with his grandsons Frido and Toni, and Emmie Oprecht upon the Manns’ trip to Europe from the U.S. after the war, 1947. Photo: Margrit Schmidhauser. Courtesy Zentralbibliothek Zurich, Ms. Oprecht

Emmie and Emil Oprecht’s dog, Asso, in front of Oprecht & Helbling, circa 1930s. Courtesy Zentralbibliothek Zurich, Ms. Oprecht

When Oprecht was expelled from the German Publishers and Booksellers Association in 1937, the Swiss Federal Council also threatened to ban the polemical books he published, including Gespräche mit Hitler (Conversations With Hitler), which sold 32,000 copies. After the war broke out, the Book Section of the Military Department of Press and Radio kept close track of Oprecht’s publications, even as Emmie was at work meticulously correcting the galleys of the books the authorities vilified.

When the war ended and the tide turned, Oprecht at last received official recognition, to his great amusement. ‘That’s odd: we’re suddenly in such demand!’

When the war ended and the tide turned, Oprecht at last received official recognition, to his great amusement. ‘That’s odd: we’re suddenly in such demand!’ he said in 1945 to the historian Jean Rodolf von Salis, when the two were invited to the Bundeshaus, Switzerland’s seat of government, for consultations on reorganizing cultural exchange in Europe. ‘After having been suspect and outcast for years, harassed in every conceivable way and tormented with censorship, we are politely received and asked for advice and collaboration.’ Though Zurich’s gestures of appreciation toward Oprecht have not been overwhelming (a few years after the bookstore closed in 2003, the City Council named a square and a small street after him), his legacy is preserved in the form of his expansive publishing archives, kept at the Zentralbibliothek, the city’s main library. Upon Emil’s death in 1952, Thomas Mann touched upon the special role his friend played in literary history: ‘He was a dreamer and writer, attuned to loneliness. He was born a man among men in business, rigorously working, advising, administering and presiding. But it was this knowledge of worldly ways beyond convictions that made his proficiency so endearing; always mindful of carving a path for the good, the true, the beautiful, thus making the man of deeds a friend to us dreamers. My most beautiful memory of him is that of an hour in one of his offices on New Year’s Eve in 1936, when I read out loud to him the letter I had just written to Bonn, a polemic against the corrupters of Germany, which—thanks to his initiative—became world news. Never will I forget the expression of this man, often perceived as cool and matter-of-fact, upon taking my hand in silence and pressing it. I think there were tears in his eyes.’ Emmie took over the bookstore in Emil’s absence and became a legendary figure in her own right (for instance, sharing her knowledge and books with Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti). When she died in 1990, Barbara Siedler, who had been working at the bookstore since 1968, took over. The operation thrived for years: books mobbed the shelves, floor to ceiling. On the first floor, a homme de lettres like Loetscher could discover fabulous finds in the archives of the publishing house. The cave of literature that Emmie Oprecht and Barbara Siedler cultivated proved a perfect complement to that companion Zurich cultural hub presided over by another woman, just across the street—Hulda Zumsteg’s Kronenhalle, where Joyce, Picasso, Giacometti, Brecht and Fellini held court. Dürrenmatt once wrote: ‘I am at home in few places / In the house over the lake / On the other side of the moon / On the stage of the theater surrounded by side scenes / And in the Kronenhalle / In Mother Zumsteg’s empire / The liver-dumpling soup steams.’ (Sometimes one can afford to dine at the Kronenhalle; other times one has to make do with a hot dog from the Vorderen Sternen, while staring in the Kronenhalle’s elegantly steamed windows.)

Emil Oprecht, circa late 1930s. Photo: Bettina Jenny. Courtesy Zentralbibliothek Zurich, Ms. Oprecht

Drawing of Emil Oprecht by Max ‘Mopp’ Oppenheimer, circa 1938. Courtesy Zentralbibliothek Zurich, Ms. Oprecht

Buchhandlung Oprecht was among the wave of local bookstores that shuttered, sadly, in the early 2000s. The reclamation and renovation of Rämistrasse 5 is a poetic palingenesis for the love of ideas and of books—this time art books—and yet another strata of impulsive psychic topography layered atop the sober Biedermeier landscape.

Literary bohemia wasn’t, of course, the only cultural strain running counter to straight-laced Zurich society. In the late ’60s and ’70s, a new subculture claimed Bellevue, with Café Odeon and the building’s first floor the central locale for all manner of vice. Performance artist and musician Dieter Meier recalled the seductive lure of the area: ‘Almost daily, [I] would steal around the Odeon block several times to catch a glimpse of the naked dancers in their itsy-bitsy panties and tiny silver stars on their breasts,’ he wrote, ‘fascinated that right here on the first floor women were taking their clothes off night after night.’

In the late 1970s, Club Hey, formerly a gay disco, burgeoned into the first punk club in Zurich. Meier played there before founding the pioneering electro-pop band Yello with Boris Blank and catapulting to international fame in the ’80s. In 1977, Pietro Mattioli took a series of black-and-white portraits of the club’s young patrons, among them Peter Fischli. They belonged to a generation that refused to remain underground, celebrating defiantly what made them different; their patron saint, the performer, muse and prostitute known as Lady Shiva, received them into her circle of admirers, which included occasional Zurich visitors like Warhol, Bowie and Jagger.

Recently, Frank Castorf premiered his stage version of Dürrenmatt’s novel Justiz (The Execution of Justice) at the Schauspielhaus. When the curtain opened, a circular stage appeared, divided into a Corbusier building, a porn theater on Langstrasse and the glazed pavilion of Bellevue, fitted with a chandelier like Kronenhalle’s. The audience immediately felt so at home they burst into spontaneous applause.

In my years in Zurich, I’ve experienced Bellevue not as a museum but as a breeding ground of ideas. It was here that filmmaker Daniel Schmid kissed my feet in the Odeon one evening after reading my book Shades of Sade, whose galleys Michael Pfister and I had left with Barbara Siedler at Buchhandlung Oprecht. It was here that I first saw the artist Urs Fischer, dancing in an illegal club, though I was busy trying to catch the eye of a woman in optimistic anticipation of waking in her room the following morning, to the sound of a screeching No. 11 tram. It was here, in 1991, that Henrik Kaestlin, the owner of the Odeon, canceled a reading whose participants were pushing for the restoration of the restaurant to its former glory. So all of us simply changed course that night, and by dawn the next morning, at Galerie Koller, the great actor Bruno Ganz was reading aloud pieces from a past that embodied our hopes for the future.

Readers will note this essay’s topsy-turvy timeline and associations. I submit them earnestly as a retort to Zurich’s bourgeois morality and a reflection of the city’s countervailing forces: the Oprechts’ resistance to the Nazis; the anarchists’ protests; the drug den behind the Café Odeon; Paul Éluard reading at the Librairie Française; the creations and destructions born at the tables of the Kronenhalle; Lady Shiva’s outrageous glamour; Giacometti’s plaster figures, once rejected, now given pride of place in the expanded Kunsthaus. The battles waged by these revolutionaries, the marginal and the momentous, make Zurich the living, breathing city it is today and Bellevue the locus of its soul.

Hauser & Wirth Publishers new headquarters are now open Monday – Saturday in Zurich on Rämistrasse 5.