Société de Lecture wants to offer ‘quality cultural encounters’ for international Geneva

Maxime Canals, curator of collections at the Société de Lecture (Geneva Solutions/Michelle Langrand)

War, AI and banking empires are among the themes covered by this autumn’s programme of conferences as the literary institution seeks to hook Geneva’s international crowd.

An intellectual shelter initially reserved for Geneva’s elite, the Société de Lecture (SdL) has gradually opened its doors to readers of diverse backgrounds over the last two centuries of its existence. First, it was foreign thinkers, revolutionaries and refugees who happened to pass by Calvin’s city, and now the 34,000 civil servants, diplomats and other staff that make up international Geneva.

The fall programme, unveiled on Thursday, features 30 events, including six in English for non-French speakers. Writers, poets, photographers, former diplomats and more will present their latest works, which explore topics ranging from Iran, Ukraine and France to HIV, religion and mourning.

Founded in 1818, a few years after Geneva joined Switzerland, SdL sits at the heart of the old town. Around 200,000 publications are stacked up on shelves running across a labyrinth of musty-smelling rooms and creaky stairs. While mostly in French, the collection includes a sizeable sample of some 8,000 books in English.

“There are people who live in Geneva in their own bubble, speaking only English, and who don't have access to the old Geneva. And there's a great desire not only to discover old institutions like ours but also to have quality cultural encounters,” explained Emmanuel Tagnard, who is in charge of communications and putting together SdL’s English programme.

While the initiative to invite international Geneva’s English speakers was only launched last year, the ties to its community span much further back.

An old edition of Essay on Man by English poet Alexander Pope in French translation next to the original English, kept in the SdL’s old archives room. (Geneva Solutions/Michelle Langrand)
“The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about international Geneva is Robert de Traz, a member of the SdL, writer and author of L'esprit de Genève, a famous work that is still remembered for the spirit of concord that reigns between nations in this city. His bust, donated by the family, sits on the shelves of the Salle Genève,” said Maxime Canals, curator in charge of SdL’s collection.

Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier and General Guillaume Dufour, co-founders of the Red Cross, were also members. Dufour was the first secretary of the SdL Committee.

Lessons from the past we yearn

As war in Ukraine rages on and continues to upend global politics for a second consecutive year, the theme of yearning for the past in an attempt to escape the future is at the heart of two events of the upcoming season.

Bulgarian writer and winner of the 2023 International Booker Prize, Georgi Gospodinov, will open the series of talks on 18 September with a discussion on his last novel Time Shelter, which pushes to the absurd the cliché that things were better before. In a dystopian world where countries can recreate whichever period in time they prefer, the Nordic countries relive the Abba years while France and Spain travel back to the 1980s. And it all begins in Zurich.

“The book is a reflection about the past and how we deal with it in relation to the future,” said Tagnard.

With a set of younger eyes, renowned and exiled Russian poet and journalist Maria Stepanova will talk about her Jewish family and a generation of Russians so frightened of the future that the past is “the only real, safe space we have”.

Humanitarian photography will be the focus of one of the events in November as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum presents its upcoming exhibition, Human.Kind. The exhibit, which opens to the public on 18 October, will display some of the previously unseen photos submitted to the Pictet Prize since the creation of the global photography and sustainability award in 2008.

Because the international Geneva of human rights and humanitarian affairs wouldn’t be the same without its left riverbank of financiers, American journalist and economist Daniel Gross unearths the family archives of late philanthropist Edmund J. Safra to tell the story of a banking empire, with Geneva as one of its strongholds.

And as organisations and regulators are blindsided by the tide of artificial intelligence, Sean Lusk’s fiction tale of clockwork in 18th-century London may provide some historical insight into the imminent challenges at hand.

Other events in French will feature topics close to the heart of international Geneva, including feminism and abortion, Iran and HIV.

Conferences are open to the general public at a price of CHF30 for English events and CHF45 for those in French, with reduced fees for students. More dates and information about how to book tickets can be found on the website.