The Four Wise Men
Le Vent du Paraclet
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,…
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