The Swiss writer Jacques Chessex, 75, died October 9 from an apparent heart attack. He was the first non-French citizen to win France's most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. The precise, sometimes austere beauty of his prose often contrasted with the way he used it to delve into stories of hidden cruelty, crime or passion.
While he was respected within Switzerland as a poet, painter and essayist, as well as a novelist, his penchant for revealing the darkly uncomfortable truths beneath the pristine surface of Swiss society found him more than once at odds with the communities in which he lived. His neighbours in the Swiss village of Ropraz were offended by his 2007 novel Le Vampire de Ropraz, published in Britain as The Vampire of Ropraz by Bitter Lemon Press in 2008 (US April 2009), which examined a 1903 miscarriage of justice when a local stable boy caught violating animals was convicted of a series of brutal murders. Chessex wove elements of genre fiction into his portrayal of a backward and repressed society trying to cope with modern criminal horror. But he made the crimes themselves seem an almost inevitable outgrowth of Swiss rural isolation, Calvinist repression, and intense social jealousy.
His most recent novel, Un Juif Pour L'Exemple, investigated the 1942 killing of a Jewish cattle trader by Swiss Nazis in Chessex's home town of Payerne, and became a national cause celebre in a country still uncomfortable with the true character of its neutrality during the second world war. Bitter Lemon plan to publish it, entitled A Jew Must Die, in February next year (US May 2010).
Chessex won the Goncourt in 1973 for his novel L'Ogre, published in English translation as A Father's Love in 1975. Detailing a brutal father-son relationship, it drew heavily on his own experience. Chessex was born in Payerne, where his father was a secondary school principal and strict disciplinarian. He was also an etymologist, from which may have sprung Chessex's love of precision in his poetry and prose. Chessex attended elementary school with the son of the Nazi at the centre of Un Juif pour L'Exemple, then studied at the Jesuit College St Michel in Fribourg, where, aged 17, he founded a poetry magazine, Pays du Lac (Lake Country). His first book of poetry, Le Jour Proche (The Next Day), was published in Geneva in 1954. At Lausanne University he wrote his dissertation on Francis Ponge, the poet and essayist.
The pivotal moment of Chessex's life was the trauma he felt after his father killed himself in 1956. After three more collections of poetry, his first novel, La Tête Ouverte (The Open Head, 1962) won the Schiller prize; the recognition helped him co-found the literary magazine Ecriture in 1964. Still, he followed in his father's footsteps, and taught French literature at Lausanne's Gymnasium. A
After the success of L'Ogre, which opens with the death of its protagonist, a teacher's father, he settled in Ropraz, and produced more than 80 books, including 31 novels or other fictions, 28 volumes of poetry, including Les Aveugles du Seul Regard, which won the Prix Mallarmé in 1994, and a number of children's books, one of which, Marie et le Chat Sauvage, was published in English as Mary and the Wild Cat in 1980. In his 60s he began painting, receiving a number of major exhibitions in Switzerland. He occupied a central position within the French-speaking Swiss cultural world, active as a critic and essayist, and was awarded the Prix Jean Giorno for his life's work in 2007.
Chessex collapsed during a lecture at the Municipal Library in Yverdon les Bains, discussing a play adapted from his 1967 novel La Confession du Pasteur Burg (The Confession of Pastor Burg), an intense work dealing with the conflict between desire and repressive institutions and laws. He had just been asked to comment on the arrest of the film director Roman Polanski.
Married three times, he is survived by his companion Sandrine Fontaine, and two sons, François and Jean. A new novel, Le Dernier Crâne De M De Sade (The Last Skull of M De Sade), is due to be published early next year.
Jacques Chessex, writer, born 21 March 1934; died 9 October 2009
From the Guardian via Bitter Lemon Press.
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