Alexander Xaver Gwerder was born to a Swiss working-class family. After attending primary and secondary school in Wädenswil and Rüschlikon, he trained as a printer’s apprentice. Shortly thereafter, he completed his obligatory military training and active service, which proved to be an extremely traumatic experience. In 1944, he married Gertrud Wälti. In 1947, Alexander and Gertrud moved to Zurich with their two children, Urban and Heidi, where Alexander worked in a print shop.
Gwerder began writing poems when he was sixteen years old. In this early period he was strangely obsessed with Adolf Hitler. In 1949, some of Alexander’s poems were published in the Zurich newspaper Die Tat. His talents were recognized by a handful of Swiss editors.
Gwerder refused to continue his obligatory military service—this culminated, in 1951 in a series of letters with the Head of the Military Department of the Swiss Confederate. In 1952 he was openly criticized as anti-establishment in the Swiss newspapers. This series of incidents sent him into bouts of deep depression, finally culminating in a nervous breakdown.
Frustrated, he left his wife and children for his nineteen year-old mistress, Salomé Dürrenberger. On the trail of the spirit of Vincent van Gogh, Alexander and Salomé set off to Arles, France; their plan: to commit suicide together. Salomé survived the double-suicide attempt; Alexander did not. He was just 29 years old.
Most of Gwerder’s work was published posthumously. He was clearly influenced by Gottfried Benn and Rainer Maria Rilke. Alexander’s poems are highly imagistic, written in a rhythmical language and infused with the Swiss dialect of his childhood towns. Alexander is highly critical of the bourgeoisie and the conservative institutions of Swiss government and the military. During his lifetime he was a complete outsider to the Swiss literary establishment and little acknowledged for his poignant and stirring visions. It was only 45 years after his tragic death that Alexander’s work was re-released in German and he was finally recognized for his extraordinary poetic talent.
In 2014, Coeur Publishing will be releasing Alexander’s first-ever translations into English.
Casting A Spell in Spring, translated by Marc Vincenz, will feature selected poems written by Gwerder, 1949–1952 (weeks, if not days, before his death).
Marc Vincenz bio here.