This month my French book group is reading Jacques Chessex’s novel L’Ogre (The Ogre), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1973 (I believe he was the first non-French writer to win the prize). With 22 novels, 27 books of poetry, 4 collections of short stories, and a full range of other writings, Chessex is one of Switzerland’s most famous writers, perhaps only second to Ramuz. He just died this past October, after a long and renowned career.
L’Ogre is the third Chessex novel I’ve read, and probably my favorite. He is known for having a thick, erudite style, and the book stayed true to that aesthetic, but it was also infused with tightly-contained, accessible moments of pathos.
I like short, intense narratives where a relatively brief moment of someone’s life is put under a microscope. In L’Ogre this moment begins the day that Jean Calmet’s father dies. The reader learns immediately, in the scenes detailing the death and the funeral, that Dr. Calmet was a perfect tyrant, that after living with his formidable personality for so long, his wife is nothing but an empty husk, that his children don’t know how to relate to one another and that his youngest son, Jean, is deliriously happy at this death. The book then follows Jean for the next few months as he attempts to construct a life in his new fatherless situation.
L’Ogre reminded me of Anne Bragance’s novel Casus Belli, only this time focusing on the father-son relationship. Both books take up this issue of parental tyranny and how destructive it is for the entire family. Jean has suffered his entire life because of his father, but when his father dies, presumably liberating him from that oppression, instead he is lost, bereft of any points of personal reference. Until this moment, he knew he was “useless, stupid, etc.” but without his father to maintain his identity, he suddenly has no idea who he is.
This is not a happy book, and it does not have a happy ending. But it does grant the reader a certain measure of pleasure. I was greatly involved in the details of each scene, which Chessex renders with great skill – the shadows and sounds of the house where Calmet grew up, the broken conversations between Calmet and his mother, the dreary loneliness of a busy café, the bleak sexual exchanges between Calmet and his much younger girlfriend, the memories of a terminally-ill student.
Finally, the book is set in Lausanne and the village of Lutry. Chessex, who was born and raised here and spent his life working as a teacher in the cantonal high school, does a beautiful job of capturing the stern façade of the canton of Vaud, with its strict Calvinist influences and overall Protestant work ethic.
I don’t expect I will ever become a huge fan of Jacques Chessex. I’ll have to think about this idea more, and read more of his work, but if I compare him to Ramuz (which I can’t help doing) he seems less able to depict his characters, especially the despicable ones, with quite as much love.
A quick note for anyone who is interested – several of his books have been translated into English, including L’Ogre which was given the ironic title, A Father’s Love. I can’t help thinking this is a bit of a shame, the image of the Ogre-Father in the book is absolutely wonderful, fairytale-esque and powerful. A shame not to let the original title stand.