s
Press & Reviews
  • Reviews for The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex
  • Jacques Chessex |  Review |  The Tyrant
Reviews for The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex
'The Calmet patriarchal tyrant Paul is dead. None of his five adult children feel grief as their father was an abusive martinet. The youngest of Paul's offspring, Swiss schoolteacher Jean actually feels nothing until he sees the urn of his dad's ashes; then he thinks he is at last free.
However though the schoolteacher is nearly forty, he will soon learn he has not been liberated by Paul's death. His father's activities still haunt Jean who has never moved passed the love of his life tuning to his greater than life virile father rather than him. So instead of flying free like a released butterfly, he depressingly continues what he has done for years hide from his odious sire at the Gymnasium of Lausanne where his students cherish his teaching subjects like Latin.
'The Tyrant' is a fascinating psychological study of the child is the adult as even in death Paul still torments his youngest child as he did for almost four decades. Character driven, the well written storyline keeps readers wondering when will Jean hit rock bottom and will he survive the spiral downward into numbing depression. This is not an easy read as the dead tyrannical patriarch still sucks the life out of his son.'
- Mystery Gazette
‘The Calmet patriarchal Tyrant Paul is dead. None of his five adult children feel grief as their father was an abusive martinet. The youngest of Paul's offspring, Swiss schoolteacher Jean actually feels nothing until he sees the urn of his dad's ashes; then he thinks he is at last free. However though the schoolteacher is nearly forty, he will soon learn he has not been liberated by Paul's death. His father's activities still haunt Jean who has never moved passed the love of his life tuning to his greater than life virile father rather than him. So instead of flying free like a released butterfly, he depressingly continues what he has done for years hide from his odious sire at the Gymnasium of Lausanne where his students cherish his teaching subjects like Latin. “The Tyrant” is a fascinating psychological study of the child is the adult as even in death Paul still torments his youngest child as he did for almost four decades. Character driven, the well written storyline keeps readers wondering when will Jean hit rock bottom and will he survive the spiral downward into numbing depression. This is not an easy read as the dead tyrannical patriarch still sucks the life out of his son.' - MBR Bookwatch
'Jean Calmet, teacher of Latin in a lycee of the 1960s in Switzerland, is confronting his father's death. He can hardly be said to be coming to terms with it, for Calmet pere was and remains a crushing force in Jean's life, and although the death would in many similar novels be a release, here his father's cremation serves to batter Jean into a beaten state. His relations with his work, his lover, his students are all suffused with not a sense of loss but a sense of continuing and growing dominance by the ghost of his father. The authoritian presence seems to grow as a spectre rather than diminish through his death.
Through sparse and tight introspection Calmet reflects upon his past, replays incidents from his childhood and adolescence, and blunders into his present, seemingly unable to break free from the isolation and lack of genuine social contact to which his childhood relations have condemned him. In spite of repeated (and somewhat unbelievable) seduction by a young student, he cannot seize his moment and fails to either develop this relationship or enjoy it for what it is, casual. And inexorably Calmet moves from failure to failure, drifting towards a shocking finale.
But this novel in many ways reflects the concerns of the late 60s and early 70s, the period of the Marcusian questions about how ordinary man is controlled and dominated by capitalist society, the period when Milgram contrives experiments featuring authority figures, men in white coats, guards with sunglasses, pushed experimental subjects to see just how far they could be controlled. Chessex's study is in many senses a reflection of these concerns, of the plight of the 'subjugated', both in work, relationships and in life - the images of Nazism, of the authority of the education system if reflected at a time when the young are rebelling, where they are challenging the sexual and cultural mores which contrasts with Jean Calmet's self-inflicted adherence to them proves so self-destructive. He drifts numbly to his fate, with now dawning realisation, no moment of truth.
In many ways, 'The Tyrant' echoes the classic French literature of the modernists, of Sartre, Camus and Gide, in the way it explores the interior psyche, the struggle to find meaning which these writers do. In that sense it is so much a French novel that it seems little wonder that it won the Prix Goncourt. But the immediacy of these times has passed - while it is not inconceivable to imagine many forms of powerless in current society, the tone of ennui, of inevitable subjugation, makes this feel like a novel from a different era. Calmet represents the dilemma of his generation in transition from the authoritarian clarity of the 50s to the freedom of the 60s, and he fails to cope.
A novel which deals with a similar historical period, but from a much more populist but also contemporary perspective is Red Army Faction Blues by Ada Wilson. While the depth of individual character and introspection is much less here, 'Red Army Faction Blues' displays a more dynamic sense of involvement and engagement from the protagonists. Where Calmet drifts with the inevitability of a an existential protagonist towards his fate, Wilson's characters are actively trying to engage and change. But of course, they were mostly of that pre1968 generation.'
- Bookbag

'First published in France in 1973, this unbearably sad novel from Swiss author Chessex (1934-2009), the first non-French writer to win the Prix Goncourt, charts a man's slow but steady path toward tragedy. Schoolteacher Jean Calmet finds no closure when he returns home to the Swiss municipality of Lutry for his father's funeral. As an adolescent, Jean both loved and feared his father, the domineering Dr. Paul Calmet. Jean's two brothers and two sisters likewise feel ambivalent, unchanged by their father's death, sharing "the same tense expressions, the same irritating and almost fearful gestures. " Chessex (A Jew Must Die) perfectly captures the juxtaposition of the profound and the banal in a surreal scene where a mortuary representative hawks different models of urns to hold cremated remains. Jean's burden of guilt only grows heavier with time, and the denouement will strike many as pathetically inevitable.'

- Publishers Weekly
'An author revered as much for the controlled lyricism of his prose as for his uncompromising characterizations, Swiss author Jacques Chessex (1934 - 2009) was the first foreign citizen to win the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award. In this dramatic novel, he tells the story of Jean Calmet, a thirty-eight-year-old schoolteacher, whose physician father has just died and with whom he has had a fraught relationship. The youngest of five children, Jean both loved and feared his father, with good reason, and he is glad that his father has been cremated, rather than buried. "The doctor would be reduced to ashes. He could not be allowed any chance of keeping his exasperating, scandalous vigour in the fertile earth, " Jean thinks. "Make a little heap of ashes of him, ashes at the bottom of an urn. Like sand. Anonymous, mute dust. "
As the family gathers to choose an urn, Jean meditates on his father's relationships with the whole family. His meek mother has lived for fifty years "under the weight of the doctor's shouts, orders….bent under the tyrant, broken, destroyed. " His brothers and sisters have gone on to lives of their own and do not return home often, while he, "the Benjamin, " the Biblical youngest and best-loved son, is unmarried and lonely, though no longer living at home. His job as a teacher provides him with a "refuge from the authority of that father who is bearing down with all his weight on the rest of the world, " but he has few friends, and though he mentors his students, he is emotionally much like them, still in the thrall of a domineering parent. He recognizes that "At all costs he must avoid having his father's urn remain at Les Peuples (at the family home). It had to be locked up far from here, imprisoned behind a solid iron gate, one that was permanent. "
Death soon becomes Jean's constant companion. One of his students, Isabelle, is dying of cancer but refuses to give in, insisting on living every minute of her remaining life, sketching, writing poems, and visiting with friends. By contrast, Jean is obsessing about death, seeing ghosts of his father, and even seeing a porcupine as a symbol of a "wild, happy freedom " which he cannot feel. He thinks about the fire in the crematorium as a "beautiful purifier, " even as he is dwelling on moments in which his father has yelled at him for being a "cringing, muddleheaded weakling. " He thinks of the monument to Sire Francois at the Jacquemart Chapel, 1362, one that is covered with snakes and toads. Thoughts of sex get confused with death, as he remembers seeing his father in a relationship which he should never have seen, and he is unsuccessful in his own relationships. With no emotional resources to sustain him, even by the age of thirty-eight, he is a completely lost soul, someone ready to become a victim of others, if not himself.
When student demonstrations take place at Jean's school, there is an element of excitement and camaraderie, a shared commitment which gives purpose to the lives of some of his students in ways that Jean himself has never known, and when he takes a group of them on a school trip to Bern, his observations are quite different from theirs. The "Ogre Fountain " and the Bear Pits, regarded as sightseeing destinations for the students, take on ominous symbolic meanings for Jean. The symbols of a cat, a rat, and a coin add to the heavy sense of his own oppression.
In an age in which TV, the internet, and social networking are ubiquitous, it is difficult to identify fully with someone who feels as isolated - and, more importantly, as helpless - as Jean Calmet. I found myself becoming a bit impatient with this thirty-eight-year-old man who has more in common with his students than with the adult world, and as he becomes more and more obsessed with his own problems and less connected with the outside world (if that is possible, considering his record of inaction), I had a hard time identifying with him in the way that his readers from 1973 must have done. And when he makes the statement with which I begin this review, "My God, what have I done that You take everything from me? I'm wrapped up in myself, separated from the others, deprived, guilty, because of Your Law, " it is easy to see that whether he is blaming God or his father, whom he often sees as the same, he is accepting no responsibility for choices he has made on his own. Though his father is clumsy and crude, he has tried to reach out in his own way to the son he cannot begin to understand, and Jean's four siblings have managed to escape his father's complete domination. One has to wonder how much the author expects us to identify with Jean, who rationalizes that "he had remained in his father's power, and he had been murdered. "
The glories of nature, lyrically described, add to the depth of this novel, and one would think they would be comforting to Jean, whose aesthetic sensibilities are finely honed. Unfortunately, any beauty Jean sees seems to vanish as he contemplates death as a destroyer. His personal neediness overwhelms any sense of perspective that he may have, as his meeting with George Mollendruz shows near the end of the book. When, late in the novel, he sees a dead animal, he observes that "One is not safe being independent in our part of the world. Not safe staying wild and uncompromising in the city, " offering yet another observation about his own inaction (though he himself could hardly be considered "wild and uncompromising "). Ultimately, I found this novel a fascinating set piece about life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now, forty years after this novel was written, it would be much more difficult to feel as isolated, lonely, and hopeless as Jean Calmet does, and readers now may have more trouble identifying with the main character of this intense psychological novel.' - Seeing the World through Books

Daddy Dearest
'Until his death in 2009, Jacques Chessex was a controversial giant of Swiss literature. Esteemed as a poet, painter and novelist, his work has been compared to Camus in its relentless explorations of the psyche, punctuated by heady surrealistic sunbursts. The Tyrant was published in 1973 as L'Ogre and made its author the first non-national winner of France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
The tyrant of this novel is a doctor, husband and father, Paul Calmet. A force of nature, successful in business and perversely loved by his patients for his lack of bedside manner, he is also a mass of contradictions, angry, jocular, mocking, ebulliently selfish. Yet by the time we first encounter him, in the novel's opening chapter, he is dead, freshly cremated. His family, a detached and characterless group, barely mourns, but the novel's attention fixes on the youngest and most damaged son, Jean, a bachelor schoolteacher approaching middle-age. At first, in contemplating his father's death, Jean feels free, but it quickly becomes obvious that, even reduced to an urn of dust, the doctor's spirit lives on, to domineer, judge, and intimidate.
The claim of tyranny is difficult to deny. We witness through recollection the taunting, the remarks designed to sting and humiliate, the infidelities, even the plundering of Jean's first potential girlfriend, a crude, buxom 17-year-old taken on as a medical assistant and quickly stripped of her virginity. The doctor is a monstrous man. Yet, perhaps because this is so meticulously established, the moments that shine most brightly are the brief suggestions of humanity and love, the playful night-time shaves, the father-and-son trips to attend a patient, the dinner-time jousts that stray inevitably beyond the pale, though only ever through good intent. What emerges might be an image less of a tyrant than of a man too ferocious, flawed and vital for the limitations of domestic bliss.
Chessex revels in detail. His prose, even in translation, is rich and dense, never less than beautiful. But it is his understanding of emotion that lends his sentences such weight. Like all great writers, he manipulates us with small, subtle jabs that reveal their damage only as a cumulative effect. Essentially, The Tyrant is a consideration of a weak and fragile son’s struggle to escape the overbearing shadow of his father. But such simplification is just the bare skin of a complex, psychological study, one which shines a light on masculinity and the nature of men, the need for freedom and for absolution through the apportioning of blame, and the skewed perspective that time and death can offer. ' - Irish Examiner
'Martin Sokolinsky's translation of an award-winning Swiss classic tale of monomania does justice to the author's poetic prose.
The Tyrant was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1973, and Jacques Chessex remains the only Swiss author to have won the prize. It is set firmly in the canton of Vaud on the north shore of Lake Geneva (the story opens with the main character eating a plate of perches frites), in the tradition of the great CF Ramuz. Jean Calmet, in his late 30s, is a classics teacher in Lausanne. To those who know him - one or two friends and students - all seems well; he is respected, liked and good at his job. But on the inside he is falling apart. Calmet's problem - his monomania - is his recently deceased father: the browbeating tyrant of the title. Initially, seeming to escape his past once his father is reduced to ashes, he begins a relationship with an art student but can't shake the feeling of being a fraud. He becomes irrational and isolated from a conformist and patriarchal world, culminating in the harrowing final scene. He suffers persecution complexes compounded by paralysing inaction and impotence, "separated from the others, deprived, guilty… like a humiliated child". All his life he lived in fear of the cruel patriarch but even in death the malign influence will not let up. Chessex was a poet, and this comes to the fore in wonderful descriptive passages calling up daily routines, the vineyards, rolling hills, wildlife and the azure skies above the lake and mountains. Martin Sokolinsky's fine rendition is equal to the task (even if he does mistranslate "hedgehog" as "porcupine" throughout).’ - Observer
'This extraordinary work is a lean, modern narrative that recalls Samuel Butler's Victorian study of parental tyranny, The Way of All Flesh. It scrutinises the irredeemable effects of a monstrous father on an emotional child and becomes a study of the damaged adult. But it is far from being a clinical analysis: an intense sequence of evocations creates the terrifying figure of the late Doctor Calmet, an imposing figure in a small Swiss town.
Calmet is not a chilly rod-wielding puritan like Butler's Theodore Pontifex, but a man of immense energy and will-power. His huge presence dominates his family, crushes his wife and ultimately alienates or destroys his children, including his youngest, Jacques, whose story this is.
The book begins after the tyrant's death when his family have to make a decision without him: how to dispose of his mortal remains. Cremation gives Jacques a sense of deliverance. Yet he is still haunted by that all-powerful figure, and racked by ambivalent feelings towards his mother who has allowed her children to be tortured by her "lord and master".
Episodes of infantile powerlessness overcome Jacques in his adult career as a schoolteacher and in his love affair with the mercurial and unfaithful Therese. Recollections of childhood "games", such as his father holding a knife to the little boy's throat, of his father's rages and his sexual potency, intervene in Jacques's attempts to engage with the world outside. The Director of the school where he teaches is a terrifying father-figure, and one of his pupils a rival whose traces he discovers in his lover's room.
Outside is the liberated world of the 1960s, while within Jacques's mind is a tormented sequence of fears and fantasies. He has conversations with animals, and finds their world less destructive than humans', observing the natural relationships between parent and offspring among cats or bears.
Conscious though Jacques is of the rich natural world - and the Jura landscape is lovingly and lyrically described - it is not enough to save him from the consequences of victimhood. He spirals into despair, losing Therese, and takes up with a neo-Nazi whom he loathes while somehow under the spell cast by the imagery of the Waffen SS. When he reaches the point where he insults a Jewish acquaintance, he is overcome by self-disgust.
Published in French in 1973, the book in its richness of language and intensity of feeling won Chessex the Prix Goncourt. Those qualities are powerfully apparent in Martin Sokolinsky's translation. The Tyrant can certainly stand beside Butler's classic.’ - Independent
'In Jacques Chessex’s Goncourt prize-winning novel, "L’Ogre ", Jean Calmet is a middle-aged Latin teacher at the well-to-do Gymnase de la Cité in Lausanne. A seemingly balanced individual, Jean nevertheless struggles to overcome the death of an overbearing father-the title’s tyrant, or ogre-whose existence completely overshadowed his own.
The Oedipal complex lies at the heart of this novel in which Calmet is psychologically annihilated by the dominant paternalism of hi native region. The book opens with his doctor father’s cremation-death and the futility of existence occupy a central place in the book. Unable to free himself from the tyranny of the father figure, Calmet is pushed to the brink by his inadequacies-sexual, social and professional-all of which remind him of his father’s superiority. Thus, failing to perform sexually with the teenage Cat girl, who has seduced him, Jean attempts to find solace in the arms of Pernette, an ageing prostitute-but seems more at ease in the barber shop, aroused by the experience of having his beard shaved.
Chessex, who died in 2009, was also a poet and a painter. This shows in the lyricism of the frequent descriptive passages, imbued with symbolism and classical references. He was also a biting social critic, prefiguring the violence of Michel Houellebecq "s pronouncements three decades later. For example, at the Reposoir, a café next to the crematorium where his father was incinerated, Jean Calmet observes "the families of the poor wretches who had just been shoved into a hole or roasted at a thousand degrees in a cast-steel machine ". The death drive, another Freudian theme, is present throughout the novel: during a moment of folly, a cat asks the protagonist "Have you thought about your own death, Jean Calmet? "
"L’Ogre", the first work by a non-French writer to win the Goncourt (Chessex was Swiss), is a brutal psychological novel that echoes the work of Hamsun, Kafka and the Sartre of "La Nausée" in its preoccupations with existentialism and the irrationality of the mind. ' - Times Literary Supplement
  • Zebedee Administrator
  • Jacques ChessexReviewThe Tyrant