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Why Not the Best?

Friday

by Michel Tournier, translated by Norman Denny
Doubleday, 235, out of print pp.

The Ogre

by Michel Tournier, translated by Barbara Bray
Doubleday, 373, out of print pp.

Gemini

by Michel Tournier, translated by Anne Carter
Doubleday, 452 pp., $14.95

The Four Wise Men

by Michel Tournier, translated by Ralph Manheim
Doubleday, 257 pp., $14.95

Le Vent du Paraclet

by Michel Tournier
Gallimard (Paris), 318 pp., 2F50 (Folio edition)

It’s hard to consider the case of Michel Tournier without falling back on a conspiracy theory. How else can one explain the fact that this French writer still in his fifties, whose four novels have won prizes, stirred up rumbling controversy, and gained a loyal audience in Europe and parts of the Orient, remains virtually unknown in the United States? And even in his own country popular success and official recognition appear to disqualify him in many intellectual circles from genuine literary eminence. A recent rumpus in New York and Paris newspapers about the state of contemporary French culture raised the blunt question whether Tournier is the only “novelist of real importance” to appear there in twenty years.1 The overblown dispute will probably serve more to swell the envy of Tournier’s detractors than to gain him new admirers. From both a literary and a social standpoint, his case will bear scrutiny.

In 1967, when he was forty-three, Tournier won the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française for his first novel, Friday, based on Robinson Crusoe. Three years later he added the Prix Goncourt (by the first unanimous vote since the award began in 1903) for Le Roi des aulnes (The Ogre). After receiving these honors one is out of the running in France for all lesser prizes. Yet these books provoked accusations of obscenity, perversion, and unsavory politics, which were intensified in 1975 by the publication of Les Météores. The book also inspired some stunning reviews: “apocalyptic genius” (L’ Aurore); “abundant … radiant” (Le Monde); “beautiful, subversive” (Le Point); “a book of the greatest magnitude” (Le Canard Enchaîné). Tournier’s latest novel appeared in 1980, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar (The Four Wise Men), a devout yet parodic retelling of the Nativity story. It seems to close a cycle and has won readers who felt uneasy about his earlier work.

Tournier has also published a collection of short stories, a remarkable intellectual autobiography, Le Vent du Paraclet, a collection of literary essays, two volumes on photography (his hobby), and several books for young people. Sales have moved comfortably into the millions in France, where schools use some of his books. His novels have been translated into close to twenty languages, and he has gained a strong following in England. All his major novels have been published promptly by Doubleday in this country; none has come out in a paperback edition. The Four Wise Men has had favorable reviews.

Nevertheless Tournier is quietly shut out of higher cultural life. No book has been written about him anywhere, scholarly or popular, and only a small number of articles have appeared in literary journals.2 The most influential reviews devoted to the new criticism ignore him. The annual Colloque de Cerisy, an elite forum for invited speakers that has promoted the new novel and writers like Artaud and Bataille, has never recognized Tournier. American graduate programs in French literature obediently follow the party line. They make a serious fuss over ideologues like Jean Ricardou, Julia Kristeva, and Philippe Sollers and usually act as if they had never heard of Tournier. The carefully edited Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature (1980) gives substantial entries to the three authors mentioned above and no entry at all to Tournier.

But why would anyone want to conspire against so prominent a writer? Does the resistance to Tournier lie deeper than the inevitable jealousy provoked by a talent that leaped suddenly to fame without the backing of any established literary or political group? One partial answer lies in a set of circumstances on which I can give only a brief report.

In the fall of 1953 a young researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, who had just published a short volume of literary polemics collected from Camus’s newspaper, Combat, flew to Manchester to visit a friend and deliver a few lectures. In the plane he read a first novel by an unknown author whose detective-story format and stark style coincided so closely with his own ideas about literature that he wrote a probing and favorable review of the novel while still in Manchester. This appeared in Critique in early 1954, where only a few months earlier the novelist in question had revealed his literary provenance in a brief review of the recent French translation of Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel (1940). In the 1953-1954 season the thirty-one-year-old French novelist and the critic seven years his senior began an intellectual collaboration that would for a time deflect the course of fiction and criticism.

After the appearance of their first books, The Erasers and Writing Degree Zero, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes tossed ideas and critical terms back and forth in a series of now famous articles in the La Nouvelle Revue française, Critique, and Les Cahiers du cinéma. Almost without need for consultation they set out to eliminate from narrative fiction several traditional and interlocking components: reference to a “real” world of nature and human nature; character and subjective life (“the romantic heart of things”); and any appeal to systems of correspondences and analogies (“Baudelairean rhetoric”). Like Leibnitz and Newton discovering the calculus, these two sensibilities came independently to insist on the purely formal nature of literature in spite of their deep-seated Marxist inclinations. For almost a decade they worked with many converts and followers to transform fiction, criticism, and film into antihumanistic, neo-scientific endeavors based on linguistics and communications theory. A parting of ways came in the Sixties.

The “conspiracy” I have just described is, of course, a historical fiction, useful only as a way of tracing how intellectual and literary movements come into being following the encounter of powerful temperaments. However, the ideological goals of this fictive conspiracy—goals concerning nature, language, and society—have assumed a far greater importance than the mixed aesthetic of the much publicized “school” called the new novel. In the last two paragraphs of Writing Degree Zero, Barthes called for “an absolutely homogenized condition of society,” i.e., a society no longer separated by class, and for “language warfare inseparable from class warfare.” In the Sixties and Seventies, often without understanding its political underpinnings, wide segments of the literary and academic communities in the United States assimilated the Barthes/Robbe-Grillet creed—a new art for art’s sake looking toward an imperfectly defined social revolution.

In the face of this influential set of ideas, any novelist who makes modest claims to represent reality and to maintain a stake in the principles and beliefs according to which his characters act and make decisions is likely to be seen as retrograde and bourgeois. To some degree, then, the neglect of Tournier in the United States and his paradoxical situation in France can be traced to the force of a reigning literary doctrine, even though the general public in both countries has refused to swallow it. This explanation has the merit of exposing neglected literary undercurrents but it will not suffice. I can think immediately of two trusted friends—an estimable French writer of catholic tastes and an American intellectual gypsy—whose negative reaction to Tournier’s ideas, style, and stories is almost visceral. They find his works pretentious and inept. What is Tournier up to that produces so strong a clash of reactions? After all this gnashing of teeth are we dealing simply with a French equivalent of James Michener?

Both by modifying the events and by alternating a third-person omniscient narrative with Crusoe’s log, Tournier’s first novel, Friday, shifts Defoe’s story from a tale of stolid survival to a drama of high intensity. Crusoe falls into a state of wallowing, hallucinating bestiality (la souille) before pulling himself together and civilizing his solitude into a caricature of the social order complete with charter, penal code, calendar, water clock, palace, and public inscriptions from Franklin’s Almanac. Friday, when he arrives years later, fits uneasily into this thoroughgoing culture and literally blows it up by inadvertently igniting Robinson’s cache of gunpowder.

That mammoth explosion triggers an even more devastating earthquake. Afterward, emerging from the rubble, Friday gradually initiates Crusoe into a new existence more responsive to the spiritual poetry of air and sun than to cultivating an earthly garden. Friday stretches a goat’s hide into a huge kite and mounts its skull as a wind harp high in a dead cypress. Then the two residents of the island wait for a suitably stormy and moonlit night in order to participate in a ritual. For twenty pages after Crusoe has first sensed “a hidden unity” in Friday’s behavior, Tournier has been preparing this scene:

The wind blew with increased strength as they drew near the singing tree. Tied on a short string to its topmost branch was the kite, throbbing like a drumskin, now suspended in trembling immobility, now swerving around wildly. Andoar-the-flier hovered over Andoar-the-singer, seeming both to watch over him and to threaten him…. And over all sounded that powerful, melodious song, music that was truly of the elements, inhuman music that was at once the deep voice of earth, the harmony of the spheres, and the hoarse lament of the dead goat. Huddled together in the shelter of an overhanging boulder, Robinson and Friday lost all sense of themselves in the splendor of this mystery wherein the naked elements combined—earth, tree, and wind joined in celebrating the nocturnal apotheosis of Andoar.

The passage assembles a number of Tournier’s most characteristic themes: the physical and symbolic power of the elements (les météores in the original, meaning all atmospheric phenomena compounded of air, water, and fire), the different forms of throating or shouting by which human beings attempt to answer the elements, and the precious union or communion achieved under rare conditions of effort and circumstance, and lasting only for a short space. Twenty-eight years after Crusoe’s wreck a ship stops for water and finds an Englishman gone native living with an English-speaking native. Crusoe has become so attached to his “solar metamorphosis” in which he has overcome both solitude and insanity that he decides to stay. Friday, fascinated by the ship, joins the crew and leaves in his place a cabin boy whom Crusoe names Thursday. Tournier thus transposes Defoe’s story into a vehicle for both symbolic action and philosophic reflection. The double point of view permits striking meditations not only on God, religion, and morality as in Defoe, but also on perception, identity, and the temptations of oblivion.

Tournier’s fourth and most recent novel turns to a story both closer to us and more remote from us than Selkirk’s shipwreck off Chile. The Four Wise Men accepts the three names and three gifts recorded as far back as the sixth century in a Nativity account attributed to the Venerable Bede. For some reason Tournier makes Gaspar black instead of Balthazar. Considering the freedom of his version I wonder why Tournier adopted the traditional royal status of the Magi, whereas that ancient Chaldean word designates priestly augurers, occult knowledge, and suspicious status akin to charlatanry. Nonroyal Magi of dubious origins would have suited one of Tournier’s strongest concerns: good as the twin of evil. Instead, Tournier’s novel concentrates the power and fascination of evil in the world-weary, desperately ill, cruel figure of Herod. These two hundred pages of subtly stylized prose sprinkled with humor and concrete detail create a strong awareness of coincidence as the other face of destiny. At the hub of history, timing is all.

Each king according to his circumstances pursues in the miraculous comet his personal illusion. Gaspar seeks consolation after the loss of the blonde white slave girl who betrayed his love. Balthazar seeks the markings of a supernatural butterfly that will lead him to a higher form of art. Melchior seeks an unknown celestial kingdom to replace the terrestrial one he has lost through palace intrigue. And when the three kings reach the stable in Bethlehem, Tournier, instead of raising the tone of his prose to majesty or hushing it to piety, has the ass tell the story in a vernacular account that finds its level between the reverence of a stained-glass window and the rudeness of a comic strip. The angel Gabriel arrives in a column of light to direct the numerous cast. After the birth and swaddling, he has a testy exchange with Silas the hermit who complains that our “hopelessly carnivorous” God has never stopped demanding animal sacrifices—from Abel, from Abraham, and constantly from the High Temple in Jerusalem, which was thus turned into a stinking slaughterhouse. Gabriel answers Silas that this little child will be the last sacrificial lamb, replacing all others for all time.

After this angelic speech there was a thoughtful pause that seemed to make a space around the terrible and magnificent event the angel had announced. Each in his own way and according to his powers tried to imagine what the new times would be like. But then a terrible jangling of chains and rusty pulleys was heard, accompanied by a burst of grotesque, ungainly, sobbing laughter. That was me, that was the thunderous bray of the ass in the manager. Yes, what would you expect, my patience was at an end. This couldn’t go on. We’d been forgotten again; I’d listened attentively to everything that had been said, and I hadn’t heard one word about asses.

Everybody laughed—Joseph, Mary, Gabriel, the shepherds, Silas the hermit, the ox, who hadn’t understood one thing—and even the Child, who flailed merrily about with His four little limbs in His straw crib.

This time Tournier makes the moment of unison in the cosmos tragicomic, as if only that tone could renew the story in our battered consciences.

The Nativity is central, not final, in this reworking of the Magi’s story because Tournier has drawn from related legends a fourth king, Taor by name, who has set out from India in search of a celestial nourishment (or Turkish delight) more subtle and sustaining than all the delicacies of confectioners and pastry cooks. Taor meets the other kings as they are leaving Bethlehem and arrives there too late to see the Child. In a wonderful scene reminiscent of the wedding feast in Madame Bovary, he sets a royal offering of sweets from his elephant caravan before the children of the village assembled in a cedar grove. Thus they are saved from witnessing the Massacre of the Innocents that takes place that very night.

Tournier’s imagination does not shrink from the stuff of legend. Taor dismisses his royal entourage and takes upon himself a thirty-three-year sentence in the salt mines of Sodom in order to save a laborer for his wife and family. Reduced to a blind skeleton, Taor is released at the end of his time and gropes his way with Lazarus’s help to Jerusalem. He reaches the upper room just too late to find Jesus and the apostles, but discovers the bread and wine still undisturbed. “The eternal latecomer” is “the first to receive the Eucharist.”

Friday and The Four Wise Men are Tournier’s most accessible and successful novels. He makes those old bottles hold new wine. Both novels include episodes that explore the limits of plausibility and fantasy. Spurning Defoe’s prim silence on the subject, Tournier gives appropriate space to Crusoe’s sexuality. After yielding briefly to the temptation to return to the womb of nature by curling up in a mysterious niche deep underground, Crusoe returns to the surface and to his miniaturized society of one. Inspired by observing complex forms of plant insemination that require the cooperation of insects, he hesitatingly makes love to the moss-softened crotch of a fallen soapbark tree and enjoys several months of “a happy liaison.” Then an excruciatingly painful spider sting in the worst place warns him that “the vegetable way” is not the right one.

Tournier finds the sturdy blend of poetry and earthiness needed to narrate both that sequence and a more challenging one: a whole chapter describing Crusoe’s discovery in a remote dell or coomb of how to make love to the soft, sun-warmed humus of the forest floor, to embrace the body of the island itself. After a year of these happy nuptials Crusoe reads a verse of the Song of Songs about the mandrake and notices a new plant growing in the coomb.

On the day when this thought occurred to him, he ran to the pink coomb and, kneeling beside one of the plants, very gently lifted it out of the ground, digging round the root with his hands. It was true! His love-making with Speranza was not sterile. The white, fleshy, curiously forked root bore an undeniable resemblance to the body of a woman-child. Trembling with delight and tenderness, he put the mandrake back, and pressed the earth around it as one puts a child to bed…. That this closer union represented a further step in the shedding of his human self was something of which he was certainly aware, but he did not measure its extent until he perceived, when he awoke one morning, that his beard, growing in the night, had begun to take root in the earth.

So ends the chapter; we have glanced for a moment into a magic domain reminiscent of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In such passages the tone must not falter. Tournier meets the challenge and creates a fully rounded instance of what he elsewhere calls “cosmic comedy.”3

In The Four Wise Men color rather than sex provides the lurking humor. Encamped at Hebron, the oldest city in the world, Gaspar and Balthazar visit the local tourist sites—Adam and Eve’s tomb (“only Jehovah’s ashes are needed to make it complete”) and the plowed field from which Jehovah scooped up the dust with which to create Adam. Its dirt, both kings agree, is far from white, closer to the original meaning of the word “Adam” in Hebrew: ocher-red. They conclude that Adam and Eve before the Fall must have been black—thus implying the negritude of the Being in whose likeness the original human beings were made. Two hundred pages later we encounter the full consequences of this speculative theology. Taor urgently insists that Gaspar reveal “the miraculous surprise” because of which the Nativity converted him to a life of charitable love.

“…in bending over the Crib to adore the Child, what do I see? A black baby with kinky hair, with a sweet little flat nose, in short, a baby just like the African babies of my country…. If Adam didn’t turn white until after he had sinned, mustn’t Jesus in his original state be black like our ancestor?”

“But what about his parents? Mary and Joseph?”

“White, I assure you! As white as Melchior and Balthasar!”

“And what did the other people say when they saw this miracle, a black Child born of white parents?”

“…. It was rather dark in that stable. Maybe I was the only one who noticed that Jesus was a black….”4

Having expressed my admiration for Tournier’s first and fourth novels, I must not neglect his two other substantial works of fiction. In The Ogre World War II carries Abel Tiffauges from a Paris garage to three different sites in Germany where, as a somewhat privileged prisoner of war, he approaches closer and closer to the awful heart of Nazism. From the start he knows he is an ogre, “issued from the mists of time,” a benevolent, virtually sexless monster dreaming of an earlier androgynous condition in which man, woman, and above all child inhabit one body.

The intricately plotted narrative gradually reveals Tiffauges as a modern stock bearing two legendary grafts: Saint Christopher, who gave his life to save the infant Jesus by carrying him across a river; and the fearsome death figure of the Erl-King immortalized in Goethe’s poem. Feeling sympathy toward many aspects of German history and life, Tiffauges discovers the full horror of the Nazi system only when he has become half implicated in it. He extricates himself by saving a Jewish boy prisoner and carrying him to safety at the cost of his own life.

The net of religious, political, philosophical, and historical meanings that traverses every page of The Ogre has its counterpart system in Gemini, the story of an ultimate couple, a pair of identical twins. When Jean leaves their nest-prison in modern Brittany, Paul can only follow his other half in a desperate Platonic quest that turns into a latterday version of Around the World in Eighty Days and ends at the Berlin Wall. With a little detachment Gemini begins to sound like a systematically dialectic work generated by the concepts of identity and otherness, of individuality and twinship. But the central story line is almost usurped by the portrait of Uncle Alexander. This flaming homosexual and King of Garbage Men comes so close to taking over the novel that Tournier has to kill him off halfway through. The Ogre and Gemini are highly ambitious novels of ideas in contemporary settings.

At the end of Des Clefs et des serrures, one of his books on photography, Tournier has hidden his own “Necrology of a Writer.”

After prolonged studies in philosophy, he came late to the novel, which he always thought of as a plot construction [affabulation], as conventional as possible in appearance, covering an invisible metaphysical infrastructure endowed with a lively power to influence readers. It is in this sense that his work has often been referred to as mythological.

Thus Tournier deftly rolls the three parts of his literary self into one: the irrepressible teller of stories about exceptional people in dire circumstances; the trained philosopher (in 1949 he failed the crushingly competitive examinations for the agrégation and left the university world for radio and translation) who offers us something approaching a new paideia, a reconstituted system of truth and education; and the former student of Bachelard and Lévi-Strauss who, as Duchamp devised “playful physics,” has developed a playful mythology that recycles all legends for his own ends.

Those aims, which restrain Tournier from formal innovation, also appear to dictate his style. He describes it as “hyperrealist”—“objectivity pushed to the point of hallucination.”5 Too often, however, especially in The Ogre and Gemini, Tournier fails to impose the formal and stylistic discipline he prescribes for himself. The narrative energies overflow the channels of the action, and the style sometimes follows suit. He indulges in too many “untimely interventions by the author,” a practice he himself condemns as interfering with the reader’s responsibility to assemble the pieces of the story. Tournier is an incorrigible pedagogue, and, having decided not to innovate or experiment with the traditional form of the novel and to maintain the advantages of clear language, falls occasionally into excessive didacticism.

But Tournier remains immensely readable despite his lapses. The question we can no longer avoid is just what ends are served by this powerful literary phenomenon of attractive exterior. What is this new paideia? The most direct and abrupt way of addressing the question may be to grab hold of the extreme accusations aimed at Tournier by his French detractors, usually veiled when in print, yet often blurted out uncompromisingly in conversation. He is a pervert, he is a fascist. Or presumably his books, if not the living author, deserve those qualifiers.

Perversion. Tiffauges in The Ogre obeys a tender, nonsexual attraction to young children of both sexes that is mistaken by characters in the novel itself for child molesting. Several other dubious inclinations accompany Tiffauges’s pedophilia—inchoate coprophilia, vampirism, and fetishism. They combine into the gentle, polymorphous perversities of a modern ogre. Gemini will strain most readers’ sensibility even more. After an initiation combining sex acts with Christian ritual and fencing exercises, Uncle Alexander carries his homosexuality with an arrogant flourish of moral superiority. But homosexuality is a flimsy makeshift compared to the dyadic cell of twinship, the ultimate incestuous-homosexual unit. Jean and Paul practice “oval love” (sic) from a very early age, and their existence for each other as the perfect doubles permitting unnaturally close physical and spiritual relations both defines and destroys their identities as separate individuals.6 In The Four Wise Men the residents of Sodom defend their erotic practices as an effective means of diverting sex away from propagation into stimulation of the entire organism. Yet only Crusoe appears to have achieved a happy love life; for him, “sex difference has been surpassed.”

Fascism. “Returned to the state of nature, the goats no longer lived in the anarchy to which domestication reduces them. They formed into hierarchical flocks commanded by the strongest and wisest rams.” These lines from Friday may be Tournier’s most succinct refusal to espouse the ideal of a classless (or homogenized) society. In The Ogre Tiffauges accommodates to the Nazi system of which he is a prisoner more than he rebels against it, and participates in some ghoulish, SS-sponsored race experiments that fascinate him as strongly as they repel him. Tournier believes that a writer has so privileged a relation to his language and to his country that what he writes, even though traitorous as in the case of the Nazi collaborator Brasillach, should not be used legally against him.

All these elements are present in Tournier’s writings. They do not represent the dominant features of his moral and political thought, nor do they constitute adequate evidence to associate his work with perversion or fascism. Such scurrilous charges (perversion from the right, fascism from the left) conspire further to prevent us from reading Tournier without prejudice. Even if we can do so, it is not easy to survey and describe the new dispensation toward which his works seem to converge. For in most ways Tournier takes the world as it comes and preaches few reforms. Sometimes his attitude comes close to the tolerant skepticism alert to all forms of the comic that Jarry named ‘pataphysics. At our best, he implies, we are capable of a finely tuned demeanor I like to call ironic conformity.

In his photographs Tournier looks more like a playful bourgeois than like a closet aristocrat or an aging hippie. His novels of ideas search out a new paideia the way Einstein performed “thought experiments” in order to feel his way toward relativity theory. The most compact and eloquent expression of Tournier’s philosophy can probably be found in the last chapter of Le Vent du Paraclet, where he deplores the disappearance of Sophia, the ideal wisdom, a slowly acquired, personal compound of knowledge and experience. Rousseau’s “conscience” and Kant’s “good will” killed the ancient wisdom by shattering it into science, formal morality, and mere information. And in the same chapter Tournier rejects the collective security of both Catholicism and Marxism and defends the stern rewards of solitude and self-reliance: Crusoe elected to remain on his island.

I dissent from much of Tournier’s thinking about the world and our conduct within it. But his chosen themes have led him to write impressive novels. Tournier returns us to the universe of Melville, Conrad, and Tolstoy where, despite a straining toward myth and patches of overwriting, something humanly significant is continually at stake.

Tournier’s books may claim one’s attention for another reason. Without placards or fanfares, keeping their comedy and their anomaly behind a decorous exterior, his four novels acquiesce in the widely announced disappearance of the avant-garde. Insofar as they adapt existing legends and celebrate earlier forms of wisdom, his works leave behind the preoccupation with originality that has propelled the arts for the last two centuries. Tournier’s turning toward history and traditional questions of philosophical dispute does not of itself grant him classic stature or effectiveness as a novelist. But by sparing himself the need to innovate in form, he has been able to direct his inventive powers simultaneously toward elaborating a story line and toward marshaling a powerful style that is by turns descriptive, narrative, and expository.

Appropriately, the opposing figure here is once again Roland Barthes. From the preface to Critical Essays, where he isolates originality as the essential defining quality of literature, to The Pleasure of the Text, where he states that he achieves full sensual satisfaction (jouissance) only from “the absolutely new” in literature, Barthes acknowledges his quest for the thrill of novelty. He represents a very widespread sensibility, both in the realm of art and beyond. The contrast between Tournier and Barthes may tell us something about our present position in the rough seas of literature. Both profess Gide and Sartre as two of their most enduring masters. Both revel in interpreting signs, particularly signs raised to the level and scale of myth. But where Barthes demythologizes the patterns and protections of bourgeois thinking, Tournier remythologizes our world with potential meanings by a constant transformation of the existing repertory of stories and ideas.

In one of his last seminars Barthes pronounced a near-maxim that identifies the two successive stages of his own career: “One must choose between being a terrorist and being an egoist.” Tournier, always troubled by the trials and rewards of solitude, has moved in his writing toward altruism. The Four Wise Men honors its most strenuous form, Christian charity. Biographical facts may point to an even more revealing contrast between these two authors. The vagaries of state examinations freed Tournier comparatively early from the constraints and expectations of a university career and allowed him to become a writer without encumbrances. All his life Barthes fought against the conventions of the university world in which he achieved stunning successes and yearned for the open spaces of the writer. Not only did he announce in his last years that he planned to write a novel; in his book Roland Barthes he lists among his projects “a fiction about an urban Robinson Crusoe”—as if he hoped to go Tournier one better.

As time goes on we may begin to see Barthes and Tournier as complementary figures of French literature in the second half of the twentieth century. Tournier cannot be shut out much longer. Barthes gradually put distance between himself and modernism (a stopgap term), remaining faithful to originality and to the priority of language, and renouncing both correspondences with nature and the naturalized meanings of myth. Tournier courts an old maid called Sophie who may be much younger than she looks. Both are proselytizers, sometimes for causes that many readers will find disturbing.

The time has come to answer the question long left hanging. No, Tournier’s great success with the French public in the face of deep-seated opposition from some literary quarters has nothing to do with the wooden commonplaces and conventional plots of James Michener. Tournier is a writer of superb gifts and major achievements from whom we shall be hearing more. When asked who was the greatest French poet, André Gide found himself obliged to answer, “Victor Hugo, hélas.” If asked today who is the most exciting novelist now writing in French, I would answer with alacrity, or perhaps, “paradoxically,” “Michel Tournier, heureusement.”

Letters

Paper Ogre July 21, 1983

  1. 1

    This occurred when Raymond Sokolov in The Wall Street Journal (February 16, 1983) reported caustically on Mitterrand’s Sorbonne colloquium of international celebrities invited to discuss culture and the world economic crisis. Behind the whole affair Sokolov detected a socialist invasion of high culture and deep-dyed anti-Americanism. “Instead of worrying about ‘Dallas,’ Jack Lang [Mitterrand’s minister of culture] should spend his time wondering why France is a nullity in a contemporary, active world culture.” There followed a sentence citing Tournier as the only exception in French literature. Mistaking Sokolov for the whole of la presse américaine, most Paris papers matched his ineptness by responding on the same shrill level of polemic. 

  2. 2

    Gilles Deleuze wrote a solidly analytical essay on Friday in Logique du sens (1969), and the Marseille literary review Sud devoted a special number to Tournier in 1980. Except for reviews and interviews, that is all. 

  3. 3

    In Le Vent du Paraclet, Chapter 3. He detects the strain in Valéry, Thomas Mann, and Nietzsche. Tournier does not mention his contemporaries Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, and Thomas Pynchon, whose versions of cosmic comedy spring from a hallucinated, historical encyclopedism not unrelated to his. 

  4. 4

    I shall not attempt to evaluate the translations of all four of Tournier’s novels. In general he is well served. Ralph Manheim does not err often in his version of The Four Wise Men, though even his professionalism cannot consistently match the formality, tinged with familiarity and irony, of Tournier’s prose in this book. “Let’s face it” is not the right tone for “Disons-le.” King David did not “see the light” in Bethlehem; he was born there (avait vu le jour). Taor was seeking not “the trace” of Jesus but his trail. Manheim occasionally accepts the French spelling of place names that should be Anglicized. But we should be grateful that one of our best translators has devoted himself to Tournier. When the long overdue paperback edition of Friday appears, the pages Norman Denny drops without a trace from his translation (at the end of Chapter 9, for example) should be reinstated. 

  5. 5

    Tournier must have found and taken to heart Zola’s letter to Henry Céard in 1885. “We all lie more or less…but I believe that I lie for my part in the direction of truth. I practice hypertrophy of true detail, the leap up to the stars from the springboard of exact observation. With a single stroke of its wings truth rises to the level of symbol.” 

  6. 6

    The identical twins in Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill (Viking, 1982) work out their adjustments to each other and to society in a far more restricted community than that of Gemini, published seven years earlier. It is hard not to detect traces of Tournier’s highly charged narrative in the somber pages of its Welsh-English counterpart. The theme of the flesh-and-blood Doppelgänger stirred both of them to undertake an ambitious work.