by Michel Tournier, translated by Barbara Wright
Doubleday, 212 pp., $13.95
Like all his other works, this first collection of short stories by one of the most interesting French novelists of recent years has suffered a change of name in passing from one language to another, and the fact is probably worth commenting on, since it highlights the specific nature of his writing. The original volume is called Le Coq de bruyère, after the title of one of the longer pieces, here translated as “The Woodcock,” a term that was no doubt felt to be too blank and unispiring as a general heading for the English-speaking public. Actually, the rendering “woodcock” is incorrect, at least as bird names go in Great Britain. If my childhood memories of country life are still reliable, a woodcock is a shy creature with a soft, mothlike flight (la bécasse des bois in French), whereas le coq de bruyère is a capercailzie or grouse, a species noted for the flamboyant mating behavior of the male birds. The story centers, in fact, around a provincial French aristocrat who is all sprucely and bouncingly sexy—notre petit coq de bruyère, as his mother calls him. “Our little bantam cock” might have come somewhere near the meaning, if the bantam had not been a farmyard fowl.
Perhaps the translation problem was insoluble, since Anglo-American does not seem to use these game birds as virility symbols. At any rate, to get an appropriately eye-catching title, the publishers have fallen back on the last piece in the collection, Le Fétichiste, which goes straight into English but, of course, gives a strong flavor of kinkiness to the whole volume.
However, the title is not irrelevant, because all the stories can be said to be about fetishism, if we take the term in its broadest possible sense as indicating all forms of obsessiveness. As Tournier tells us in his fascinating autobiographical essay, Le Vent Paraclet (another teaser for the translator: “The Breath of the Paraclete”? “The Spirit Bloweth…”?), which was published in 1977 but has not yet appeared in English, he came to literature by way of philosophy, and all his writing is sensuously epistemological or phenomenological; that is, he is primarily concerned with our emotional-cum-intellectual grasp of reality which, for each of us, turns the world, if not into “a forest of symbols” in the Baudelairean sense, at least into a sharply idiosyncratic pattern of poetic responses, either positive or negative.
Tournier is an extremely cultured man who is not afraid to recognize the many influences, both philosophical and literary, that have helped to make him what he is—Plato, Spinoza, Valéry, Colette, Giono, Sartre, Camus, Lévi-Strauss, etc.—but I think he can be best understood in relation to one of his teachers, whom he singles out for special mention. This is Gaston Bachelard, the historian of science who, during the second half of his career, sought relief from the impersonal truths of science in the deliberate cultivation of the appealing pseudo-truths or emotional realities of the imagination, which he expounded in …