A Swiss French Great: Jacques Chessex. Profile by François von Hurter

Jacques Chessex (1934-2009) was the first non-French citizen to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. He is considered by many to be the finest Suisse Romande writer since Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz who died in 1947. Ramuz received the highest accolade the Swiss can provide: he featured until recently on the CHF200 bank note. 

To quote from Chessex’s obituary in The Guardian in 2009:

“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.”

The inhabitants of Ropraz in the canton of Vaud were offended by his 2007 novel Le Vampire de Ropraz, published in Britain as The Vampire of Ropraz by Bitter Lemon Press in 2008, which examined a 1903 miscarriage of justice when a local stable boy caught violating animals was convicted of desecrating the buried bodies of young women. In this novel Chessex brought elements of crime fiction into his portrayal of a backward Calvinist society whose only priority was to convict someone, anyone, as quickly as possible. He even managed to introduce Blaise Cendrars, another Swiss-born francophone literary giant, into the plot.

The last novel published before Chessex’s death, Un Juif Pour L’Exemple, investigated the wartime killing of a Jewish cattle merchant by Swiss Nazis, and became a national cause célèbre in a country still struggling with the true character of its neutrality during World War II. Bitter Lemon Press published it as A Jew Must Die and it was made into a highly acclaimed film by Jacob Berger in 2016, featuring Bruno Ganz. It sadly was not shown in the UK. See the trailer here.

Jacques Chessex won the Prix Goncourt in 1973 for his novel L’Ogre, published in English translation as The Tyrant by Bitter Lemon Press in 2012. Detailing a brutal father-son relationship, it drew heavily on his own experience. In 2007 at our very first meeting, convened in Lausanne to discuss the work we were doing on The Vampire of Ropraz, Chessex told us that his own father had most probably murdered a young woman then in his care. His father killed himself in 1956. Chessex eventually found his own peace in the afore-mentioned hamlet of Ropraz in 1975. His royalties from L’Ogre allowed him to buy a small house near the cemetery that features so heavily in the The Vampire. He wrote and painted in that house up until his death. My brother and I had the privilege of joining him there for lunch and a long afternoon of talking about books, painting, women and other shared passions. This was only a short while before he succumbed to a heart attack in Yverdon during a conference in his honour. It felt like we had lost a very close friend.

Profile by François von Hurter
Publisher, Bitter Lemon Press

Born in Geneva in 1946, François von Hurter went to university in Fribourg and did his Swiss military service mostly in Thun. After relentlessly recommending books to friends for thirty years, Laurence Colchester, his brother and him decided to start a small publishing house in 2004. Sixteen years and more than a 100 books later we plod on, having fun and meeting people like Jacques Chessex. A privileged existence.

Photo of Jacques Chessex by Jean Lausanne/Wikimedia Commons

Category: Literally SwissLS AuthorsFrench Book Week

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