Winner of the Prix Goncourt for this novel in 1973 (newly republished), Swiss author Jacques Chessex 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 "bent under the tyrant, broken, destroyed." His brothers and sisters have left for lives of their own, and he himself 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 and still in the thrall of a domineering parent with seemingly no emotional resources of his own.
As he fixates on the loss of his father and what it means for him, death becomes his constant companion. One of his students, Isabelle, is dying of cancer but refuses to give in. By contrast, Jean is obsessing, seeing ghosts, and thinking about the fire in the crematorium as a "beautiful purifier," even as he is dwelling on moments in which his father has called him a "cringing, muddleheaded weakling." Thoughts of sex get confused with death, as he remembers seeing his father in a forbidden relationship, and he is unsuccessful in relationships of his own. At age thirty-eight, he is a completely lost soul, ready to become a victim of others, if not himself. Symbols abound as Jean visits Bern with his students, and additional symbols of a cat, a rat, and a coin add to the heavy sense of his own oppression.
The glories of nature, lyrically described, add to the depth of this intensely psychological novel. One would think natural beauty would offer some comfort to Jean, whose aesthetic sensibilities are finely honed, but any beauty Jean sees vanishes as he contemplates death as a destroyer. 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 excuse for 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, with social networking and the internet, it is much more difficult to imagine feeling as isolated, lonely, and hopeless as Jean Calmet does, and modern readers may become impatient with a main character who blames everyone else for his own misery while taking few steps to come to grips with his problems. Mary Whipple