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Jacques Chessex

Jacques Chessex: Calvinism and the Text

Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 204
  • Book Info
    Jacques Chessex
    Book Description:

    David J. Bond provides the first comprehensive study of Jacque Chessex's work in any language-a study that reveals Chessex's deep ambivalence towards his Calvinist heritage and his efforts to resolve this dilemma through his texts.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-3221-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. 1 Introduction: Some Preliminary Considerations
    (pp. 3-17)

    Since Jacques Chessex is scarcely known outside of Switzerland and France, it is as well to begin with some biographical facts. He was born in 1934, in Payerne, a town in the region of French-speaking Switzerland known as the Vaud. His father, Pierre Chessex, was a teacher, a writer of historical fiction, a keen amateur historian, and an etymologist, who was deeply attached to the Vaud, its history, and its people. Although Jacques Chessex seems not to have had an especially religious upbringing, he grew up, like all Vaudois of his generation, amid the all-pervasive influence of the Calvinist Church....

  5. 2 The Calvinist Heritage
    (pp. 18-24)

    Throughout Chessex’s texts, from the earliest poems to the most recent verse, from his firstrécitsto the longer novels, in short stories, essays, and critical commentary, one may discern the same preoccupation with certain problems. The basic themes of Chessex’s works are remarkably consistent through what has been a fairly long and productive literary career. ‘Chacun des livres de l’auteur ne laisse pas de revenir aux mêmes interrogations, aux mêmes angoisses,’ remarks Jérôme Garcin,¹ and the same critic says to Chessex in his book of interviews: ‘J’ai l’impression que chacun de tes livres pose toujours les mêmes questions, interroge...

  6. 3 The Nature of Calvinism
    (pp. 25-39)

    The critic must tread warily when writing of Calvinism in Chessex’s texts, for it is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Beyond these texts, in the realm of theological debate, and within the practice of the Calvinist Church, it becomes even more complicated. It is important, therefore, to make certain distinctions at this point, before continuing the discussion of Calvinism as Chessex describes it.

    First, it must be made clear that there are often differences between what Calvin actually wrote, and the interpretations put on his writings by the Church. It is, of course, inevitable that this should happen when the...

  7. 4 The Ambiguities of a Calvinist
    (pp. 40-49)

    Chessex paints a dark and despairing picture of Calvinism and its effects on the psyche. It is shown as a cruel, life-destroying force that concentrates exclusively on man as a sinner. It is also a force that, once it has been felt, leaves its mark. Characters like Alexandre Dumur, Jean Calmet, Benoît Rouvre, and Jonas Carex spend their lives attempting unsuccessfully to run from it. From Chessex’s own comments on Calvinism, from the way it pervades his texts, and from the way he depicts men and women struggling against it, one has evidence to assume that he himself has never...

  8. 5 The Valley of the Shadow
    (pp. 50-64)

    Death plays a privileged and determining role in Chessex’s texts. A glance at the titles of some of his fiction reveals just how important a role this is:Le Séjour des moits, Où vont mourir les oiseaux,‘La Mamelle des morts’ (, 117–20), ‘La Fosse’ (, 227–35). Many of his poems also refer to death in their titles, poems such as Plainte du mort,’ ‘L’Air des morts,’ Passé l’ombre’ (Comme l’os); ‘Histoire d’une mort,’ Cimetière de Ropraz,’ Mort de Gustave Roud,’ and ‘J’ai trouvé un crâne de renard’ (Le Calviniste). Other works, likeUne Voix la nuitand...

  9. 6 Les Justes
    (pp. 65-77)

    Like the Romantics, Chessex produces texts that constitute both metaphysical and social revolt. In fact, he claims that all his works have a social dimension in that each one is a condemnation of attitudes that he considers prevalent in his country (Garcin, 39). As one might expect, it is a particular kind of Calvinism that he sees as the force behind these attitudes.

    Chessex levels his attack mainly against the leaders of society in the Vaud, against those respectable bourgeois who are the very pillars of that society, and whom he calls ‘les justes.’ He uses this term to refer...

  10. 7 The Affirmation of Life
    (pp. 78-96)

    Although Chessex’s texts are often dominated by the presence of a stifling religion, the shadow of death, and the fear of evil, it would be wrong to represent them as reflecting nothing but these influences. As well as conveying the importance of such forces, his work is also a reaction against them. His essays and his poetry openly reject the oppressive weight of Calvinism and its vision of life, even as they reflect upon it. The characters of his fiction also make a conscious effort to live free of this religion. Jean Calmet attempts to escape the memory of a...

  11. 8 The Flight from Calvinism
    (pp. 97-103)

    Chessex’s texts are the chronicle of an attempt to escape a certain experience of Calvinism. They depict characters who spend most of their lives fighting against its influence, and they frequently affirm all the values that are the direct opposite of those preached by this religion: freedom, love, sexual enjoyment, pleasure, and, above all, love of life. They represent, at times when these anti-Calvinist values triumph, a defeat of Calvinism and the fear of death that it inspires. However, this triumph is only temporary, and the shadow of Calvinism always falls over these texts at some time.

    The difficulty of...

  12. 9 Division and Unity
    (pp. 104-115)

    Chessex’s texts are far from being straightforward statements of unequivocal attitudes. They are, in fact, full of complex and apparently contradictory beliefs. His is a work that is based on paradox and on what may often seem to be irreconcilable opposites. It has been said that ‘Chessex’s work is ... marked by contradictions,’ and that various conflicting beliefs ‘dialoguent, s’alternent, se disputent l’âme qui en est leur centre,’¹ These are clearly texts that strike the reader as divided against themselves, and there is no point in looking for clear-cut and unambiguous stances in them.

    This does not mean, however, that...

  13. 10 The Text as Unity
    (pp. 116-132)

    Chessex’s writings are full of paradox. They are divided by apparently hostile forces that confront one another, turning the text into what sometimes seems to be a battleground. On the textual level too, however, these forces actually fall into pairs of opposites. Chessex’s work is based on a whole series of apparent dichotomies, of opposing pairs of forces or influences. These forces are brought together in the text, which becomes the place in which they meet and in which they are finally reconciled. The text is used as a principle of unity, a means of joining two conflicting visions.


  14. 11 The Text, the World, and Others
    (pp. 133-146)

    Jacques Chessex is a writer for whom the outside world exists in no uncertain manner. He is intensely aware of the physical presence of objects, details of everyday life, scenery and weather, and he tries to capture and convey this presence in his texts. He frequently displays for the reader the various features of the physical reality that surrounds his characters or that is the background of his poems and essays. His is what has been described as ‘cette écriture au ras des choses, au niveau des phénomènes,’ and this produces texts in which ‘les choses jaillissent constamment sous ses...

  15. 12 Death, Memory, and the Text
    (pp. 147-163)

    A recurring theme in Chessex’s fiction, poetry, and critical writing is the importance of the past and of memories of earlier times. The main characters in his fiction, for example, spend much of their time reliving their past. Jean Calmet remembers his childhood and the role of his father during that childhood. Indeed, his life as an adult is still governed by the influence of his father’s actions at that time. Alexandre Dumur thinks constantly of his dead parents and of his childhood, and Jean Burg remembers those elements of his earlier years that led him to become a Calvinist...

  16. 13 Conclusion: Religion and the Text
    (pp. 164-176)

    Jacques Chessex is a literary critic of some distinction who has written extensively about both contemporary writers and masters of the past. His articles have appeared in such highly regarded journals as theNouvelle Revue Fiançaise, and several have been collected and published in the volume calledLes Saintes Ecritures. His critical writing covers appreciation of contemporary writers, book reviews, articles on such Swiss masters as Gustave Roud and Ramuz, the collection of articles on the naturalists published asMaupassant et les autres, and a book devoted to Flaubert calledFlaubert ou le désert en abîme. Chessex has also taught...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 177-186)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 187-194)
  19. Index
    (pp. 195-204)