Jacques Chessex – L'Ogre

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.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

8 thoughts on “Jacques Chessex – L'Ogre”

    1. Probably for silly reasons 🙂 Yes, but all but one was done quite a long time ago (in the 20s and 40s). His most famous is Derborence, translated as When the Mountain Fell. There is also The Young Man from Savoy (which came out two years ago) and Terror on the Mountain. I’ve got a short story placed for next fall, and will tell the world when it comes out 🙂

  1. I guess because I’ve neither read the book, nor exactly speak the language, I shouldn’t be allowed to say this, but I kind of like the irony in “A Father’s Love”. As a title, “The Ogre” makes me think of a whimsical kind of book (and this not taking into account that these days I associate ogres with Shrek…). “A Father’s Love” is so clearly cynical that it almost creeps me out.

    I trust you when you say “The Ogre” fits better, though. English translations often pick strange and random new titles that publishers think will “sell better”. I’m typically disappointed as well.

    1. Well, it makes me happy to hear that the title works for an English speaking reader. It’s so hard to judge, since I have this image from the book and I think The Ogre works really well. It is still cartoonish, though not whimsical at all. You’re right though, that A Father’s Love is so clearly ironic it is creepy.

  2. How interesting – and an author I’ve never heard of. I really must read some more French (where have you heard that before?) In January I read Isabelle Hausser’s La Table des enfants, all about a mother-daughter relationship, retrospectively deconstructed because the book opens with the daughter dying in a car accident and leaving her two children behind to her mother’s care. It was sad but very gripping and so interesting on the mother-daughter bond. The Chessix sounds like it ought to be a good companion novel!

    1. I will definitely have a look for the Hausser book, sounds interesting. The Chessex novel is probably a bit slower, I wouldn’t call it gripping, but it was thoughtful, and poetic, and sad, of course. I’d love to know what you think of it. I think with Chessex, you could start going through his work and never stop, and you’d end up with a thorough portrait of this area of Switzerland.

  3. My university library has Ramuz but not Chessex who turns out to be available at the oublic library. I’ve queued them both up so I will remember to get their books sometime!

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