Confessions of a Polymorph

The Wind Spirit

an autobiography by Michel Tournier, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Beacon Press, 259 pp., $19.95

Michel Tournier
Michel Tournier; drawing by David Levine

The English title and subtitle of this volume are both rather misleading. The original text, first published in 1977, is called Le vent Paraclet, without any subheading. The French expression refers directly to the New Testament, whereas The Wind Spirit suggests some pagan emanation of Nature, the sort of Spirit of the Wind that a Red Indian might believe in. In the New Testament, the Paraclete or Holy Ghost is presented sometimes as a dove descending, sometimes as the wind which bloweth where it listeth. It is the divine, aerial phenomenon that first impregnated the Virgin Mary like a pollen-carrying breeze, and later visited other privileged souls. Tournier is clearly using it, among other things, as a metaphor for artistic creativity. If he stresses a connection between the Paraclete (the Logos, the inspiring, healing, or consoling Word of God) and the physical wind, this is because the whole point of his art is to give phenomenological concreteness to psychological and spiritual impulses. Could this dimension not have been indicated by some overtly biblical phrase, such as “The Breath of the Paraclete” or “The Wind Bloweth”?

I may add that the inexactness characteristic of the English title also occurs in the body of the translation, which reads quite fluently, but does not always bear close comparison with the original: la geste (saga) is not to be confused with le geste (gesture or action); réticent is not “reticent” but “who has misgivings”; “coprophage” is not an English word, but a transliteration of coprophage, which in French is both adjective and noun (“coprophagous” and “coprophagist“). The very first paragraph of the book is rendered obscure through a failure to distinguish between two possible meanings of the verb porter: “to hold while moving” and “to hold while standing still.” It is translated as “to carry,” with the result that a small boy is apparently made to walk backward in front of a marching band, whereas in the original the band is clearly stationary. I mention these pedantic details, because pedantry is the soul of translation, an insistence on the letter that preserves the spirit. It takes only a spattering of such small inaccuracies to remove the bloom from Tournier’s excellent prose.

Nor can the book be properly called an autobiography, since it gives only a very fragmentary account of Tournier’s life. He himself describes it as un essai, which, in contemporary French, tends to mean a theoretical discussion of some intellectual theme. It could perhaps best be defined as an eccentric lay sermon about certain issues and memories connected with the three novels he had published by 1977: Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique (Friday), Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erl-King or The Ogre), and Les Météores (Gemini). It is anything but systematic, but the wind of a certain strange spirit undoubtedly blows through it, and it confirms what was already apparent from the works…

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