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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tyrant

Jacques Chessex

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To purchase The Tyrant

Title: The Tyrant
Author: Jacques Chessex
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973 (Eng. 1975)
Length: 189 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Tyrant - US
The Tyrant - UK
The Tyrant - Canada
L'Ogre - Canada
The Tyrant - India
L'Ogre - France
Der Kinderfresser - Deutschland
L'orco - Italia
  • French title: L'Ogre
  • Translated by Martin Sokolinsky, and previously published as A Father's Love (1975); re-issued as The Tyrant (2012)
  • Prix Goncourt, 1973

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine, unsettling portrait of an overwhelmed man

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 6/4/2012 Jane Jakeman
The Observer . 12/5/2012 J.S.Tennant
TLS F 8/2/1974 George William Craig
TLS . 19/10/2012 Jacques Testard

  From the Reviews:
  • "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" - Jane Jakeman, The Independent

  • "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" - J.S.Tennant, The Observer

  • "With its clichés, linguistic and social, its dice-loading and its unacceptably insistent tone, L'Ogre is a profoundly distasteful novel. That it should have won the Prix Goncourt almost passes belief." - George William Craig, Times Literary Supplement

  • "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. (...) It is a shame, however, that such a dark and compelling work should have been undermined by its "Americanist" translation." - Jacques Testard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tyrant centers on Jean Calmet, a teacher of classics and literature at the local Gymnase who is in his late thirties, but it is his father that is the dominant figure in the novel. The four-part novel opens as the last arrangements for the just deceased pater familias are being made. Rather than any release coming from his father's death, Jean finds himself haunted by the old bastard: the childhood impressions, of the man he loved and hated so deeply, are so strong that he can't rid himself of them, all the terrible memories still constantly bubbling to the surface and determining Jean's life.
       The old man was a controlling figure, a tyrannical patriarch. He was a doctor, a healer who was looked up to by the community and his patients, but in his family he was entirely a dictator around whom everything had to revolve. He was not really violent, but managed to psychologically crush those under him. Jean's mother was reduced to a near-non-entity by her husband -- the picture of her is also very well-drawn in the book -- but Jean also suffered particularly -- and:

He knows all too well that the most terrible adult has always been his father, even in death.
       Among the traumas of Jean's adolescence was what happened with the first girl he was serious about, a relationship his father ruined in spectacular and memorable fashion. Jean has remained single, and obviously still has some lingering issues with women. A few months after his father's death he meets Thérèse Dubois -- the Cat Girl, as he originally thinks of her. She is only half his age, but a relationship of sorts develops; unfortunately, still haunted by the overpowering memories of his father, Jean is ... limited in how far things go. Since the Cat Girl is closer in age to his students, it's also no surprise that she eventually gets closer with at least one his students .....
       Jean continues to be in crisis; his father remains a weight that he cannot lift off himself. Slowly, it continues to crush him -- until desperation leads him to overreach and turn to what seems the only way out; even here, he can't quite get it right, making for a particularly effective if very disturbing conclusion.
       Jean stands almost apart from so much in these odd times. He is confronted with the politics of extremes, but that too is not the escape he needs, neither that of the colleague who has a picture of "Gudrun Ensslin, the terrible mistress of Baader" (as in the Baader-Meinhof gang) -- and a pastor's daughter, whom the colleague taught for a semester -- in his locker, or that of another former teacher who proudly leads a "tiny Hitlerian group", who assures Jean that the Nazi cause will triumph in the end. Jean's issues are more fundamental -- and yet its symptomatic that he can't be part of the larger issues of the day either. Instead, he teaches his classics -- yes, Petronius and Apuleius, rather than just the Cicero and Virgil his students despise (as "lackeys of power"), but still just ancient literature in a dead language.
       The Tyrant is an impressive psychological study, Chessex's lyrical language appropriate in presenting Jean's frustrated anguish. Chessex is particularly good in the scenes of extremes, from the dying student, Isabelle, in his class, facing (and trying to stage-manage what she can of) her mortality to Jean falling apart in a café one day (and then the principal calling him into his office to discuss the breakdown). Set in the early 1970s, the contrast of the rigidity in which Jean was raised and the far more liberal environment he finds himself in, his students much more willing to challenge authority, is also very effective.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 July 2012

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The Tyrant: Reviews: Other books by Jacques Chessex review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Jacques Chessex was born in 1934 and died in 2009.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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