1 May 2015

Jacques Chessex: L'Ogre | The Tyrant (1973)

Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz is seen as one of the founders of French Swiss literature, so it's perhaps unsurprising that his surname is mentioned in passing in French Swiss writer Jacques Chessex's L'Ogre (translated as The Tyrant). Like Ramuz's Jean-Luc Persécuté (1908), L'Ogre is a tale of jealousy, madness and suicide.
There are some autobiographical similarities between L'Ogre and Chessex's life, although it was Chessex's father who killed himself when his son was twenty-two, whereas Jacques died in 1909 of a heart attack while defending his positive position on Polanski during a talk: in L'Ogre, it's the protagonist Jean Calmet who kills himself as a result of his father Paul's (mainly) psychological abuse of his son.
Dr Paul Calmet is a respected general practitioner who is a tyrant at home, and four of his children soon leave, with the exception of the youngest – in French the benjamin  who is named Jean-Benjamin, to Jean's disgust. Jean becomes a teacher of Latin literature in a lycée in Lausanne, but who even after the death of his father – the eponymous Ogre, of course – is incapable of forgetting the dreadful psychological legacy he's saddled with: in fact it grows much worse and he begins hallucinating, finding it difficult to comprehend that Paul Calmet is in fact dead.
Jean – who is thirty-nine years old – goes to the local Café de l'Evêché every day, and many of his students go there too. It is there that he meets the nineteen-year-old Thérèse Dubois, whom he calls 'la Fille au Chat', and with whom he has a sexual relationship. Although it's not a full sexual relationship because Jean suffers from a kind of impotence because he sees his father watching him and mocking him and so is incapable of performing. He has never had a regular sexual relationship with anyone before, having mainly resorted to masturbation and prostitutes, such as the fifty-five-year-old Pernette Colomb. And his sexual problems most probably stem from when he was a timid nineteen-year-old virgin with a seventeen-year-old girlfriend Liliane, whose virginity was given up to his father, and on one occasion Jean even surprises them at it.
And on another occasion at the Café de l'Evêché Jean suddenly breaks down in full view of many lycée students and la Fille au Chat and collapses on the table, causing some damage to glasses as well as a cut to his chin. This doesn't bother la Fille au Chat, who comforts him in her bed, but head teacher Grappe has received complaints about the behaviour of his otherwise model teacher and subjects him to a gruelling interview. But it's not in Jean's nature to reveal any of his problems to anyone, and anyway Grappe – who could almost, the head believes, be Jean's father – thinks that Jean's father was a wonderful man. How do you overturn local legends? Well, you don't because it's too difficult, especially if you're not given to talking about your problems.
Conclusion? Suicide is of course extreme, but  some choose it.
La Fille au Chat understandably sees herself as a free spirit because she's still in her teens, and it's also understandable that she should want to enjoy a more conventional sexual relationship with Marc, who's virtually her own age. But then, Jean is Marc's teacher and has to see his 'rival' every day. It's not easy, particularly if you can't get it up and can't explain why. So a frustrated and jealous Jean has a few days off school, although he doesn't know that these are his last days.
In fact he doesn't know he's going to die until the moment comes when he wakes up and he slits his wrists at home. And it takes twenty-five minutes for him to die from loss of blood, and the final pages quite graphically describe the death and I can understand that some readers chose to look away, not read anymore. I can also understand why this book – a very powerful scream of the outsider – won the prix Goncourt in 1973.

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