Delphine de Candolle, the mountaineer who is revolutionizing the Reading Society in Geneva

A heroine at Francoise Sagan. The beating heart of The Chamade. The fleeting spleen of Wonderful Clouds. The undone sheets of a torment quickly dissipated. Respect for codes, to straddle the guardrails unexpectedly. Delphine de Candolle, who has directed the Reading Society in Geneva for twenty-one years, is of this stuff.

From this mansion where the resident of France stayed in the 18th century, she made a literary and intellectual scene which shines in French-speaking Switzerland: often at lunchtime, authors, philosophers, essayists pass a great oral, subjected to the fire of questions from a journalist – the author of these lines, sometimes – in front of a hundred captive figures.

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The yellow salon, the scene of these encounters, is then transformed into a distinguished cauldron. That’s what wanted Delphine de Candolle when she discovers, one day in 2001, the madly romantic maze of her new stronghold. See its contours: a library worthy of rose name, nooks with writing desks in which to commit unreasonable love letters, epic views of the gables of the Old Town and the Alps in the distance, grandmother’s armchairs in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, once a regular at the house, laid its illustrious foundation.

Revolutionary, Delphine de Candolle? Calm down. Reformer, rather. This is what this mother says, under the roofs of the geography room, seated at the end of a large red and black oval table where maps are displayed. Windows look down on the city. At their foot, a telescope scans a constellation, while two armchairs fall in love. On the shelves, atlases poke around and entice you.

European distinction

“When I arrived, I felt the Reading Society was like Sleeping Beauty. His lungs had to fill with oxygen. It is for this reason that I was hired: to make it shine. I hate that people talk about it as a “venerable institution”. It pulsates, it vibrates here.” The young director introduces the concept of the season: 50 to 80 conferences per year. New: since the start of the health crisis, all have been filmed and accessible to members – some 1,500 members – on the house’s website.

But this bouquet is not enough for her: she offers mornings of stories for children, writing workshops and even, last spring, an exhibition of drawings by Sempé projected in giant format on the facades of the city. “The Reading Society was a heritage library. Today it is a cultural center with a library. This influence was recently recognized by the Europa Nostra Prize, awarded by the European Commission.

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We extend a wandering hand towards a row of books and we come across The Snow Leopard of the adventurous writer Peter Matthiessen. Wink. Delphine de Candolle aspires to the sublime, that of the painter Caspar David Friedrich, to the delight of altitude in all things. Summers and winters, it is on the ridges. Seal skins. Ice axes. Whispers from a refuge on the edge of the ledge. About ten years ago, she took up mountaineering. In 2016, she climbed Mont-Blanc. “Nothing exceptional, but it was a dream. An ascent must be done with joy. And that’s what we experienced, despite the wind blowing at 80 kilometers per hour.

punk youth

Winged reader. Its advantages? “My joy of living. I like to put forward people who have strong ideas to convey.” As a teenager, Delphine is rock and punk. She flutters at the Usine in Geneva, dances the pogo, gets wild with the Sex Pistols or the Clash. She dreams of being a singer. She reads little, but when a book takes hold of her, she is permanently shaken by it: Boris Vian and his I’ll go spit on your graves overwhelm her. Françoise Sagan is her guide on the slopes of senseless love.

These illuminations are an education, not a vocation. An aunt sees in her a talent for public relations. She therefore studied at Sciences-po in Geneva. She is hired by Pro Helvetia, where she is in charge, within the Romandie branch of the foundation in Geneva, of theater and dance. The Reading Society approached him. “Things come to you and you take hold of them. I believe that there are signs that you have to know how to read. Since then, she has celebrated intelligence, the former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe recently, among others.

And this surname then? It bears the same name as the famous Geneva botanist Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle who founded with a handful of comrades in 1818 the Reading Society. “He’s my husband’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather.” Romantic souls have this kind of baraka.

The geography room is a dovecote and one soars. The books she gives to loved ones? Kites by Romain Gary and The hands of the miracle by Joseph Kessel, the true story of Felix Kersten, prodigious masseur who obtained from Himmler, his patient, the release of thousands of prisoners. His last great joy? An ice crypt discovered with a guide a few days ago above Les Diablerets. The mountaineer, who spent her summers in Château-d’Oex with her grandparents, gives height to things, without fuss, as a climbing mate, with a candor that is a kind of diplomacy and a promise of romance. Françoise Sagan’s favorite is called The Heartkeeper. It’s a title that suits him well.


1968 Born in Geneva on July 18.

2001 Takes over the management of the Reading Society.

2016 Ascension, in August, of Mont-Blanc.

2021 Exhibition of drawings by Sempé projected in large format on the town’s buildings.

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