Marcel Aymé 1902–-1967
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Claquebue) French short story writer, novelist, dramatist, children's fiction writer, and essayist.
A prolific writer in various genres, Marcel Aymé is today widely admired for his short stories, most of which incorporate elements of the fantastique. Although many of Aymé's stories can be read as children's tales, critics have found them to have a more complex level of social and political allegory, and he is considered a moralist and philosopher comparable to Rabelais and Voltaire.
Aymé was born in Joigny, France, in 1902, the youngest of six children. His father, Joseph, was a blacksmith; his mother, Emma Monany, died when Aymé was two years old. Joseph Aymé sent his youngest son to live with Emma's parents in the village of Villers-Robert, where he remained for eight years. Aymé then went to live with an aunt in Dôle, a small city in the Franche-Comté region. He completed his studies there and served as a soldier in the French army. After leaving the military Aymé worked in a variety of trades, including journalism. Aymé eventually settled on a career as a fiction writer and published his first novel, Brûlebois, in 1926. In 1932 Aymé married Marie-Antoinette Arnaud. Two years later he experienced international success with the publication of his novel La Jument verte (The Green Mare), which some consider a masterpiece of Rabelaisian farce. The couple moved to the Montmartre section of Paris, where Aymé became a recognized member of the literary scene. During the German occupation of France during World War II and the widespread search for and prosecution of collaborators after liberation, Aymé continued to publish his works even though several other writers were prosecuted. Associated with the Right, Aymé wrote for collaborationist newspapers during the war, and was disgusted by what he considered the erosion of morals beginning with the occupation. In his later writings, however, Aymé was nonpartisan in skewering all politics. In 1950 Aymé gained success in the theater with Clérambard, although the play scandalized many audience members and critics. Many of his other plays were equally provocative. Also in 1950 Aymé was invited by Collier's magazine to visit the United States and contribute articles. His reaction to the country was one of discomfort, particularly with the political and business atmosphere. In the early 1960s Aymé grew more disillusioned with and troubled by the age of technology, as evidenced by his plays of the time. The rest of Aymé's life was spent quietly, writing short stories and plays.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Aymé's numerous short stories are generally better known than his longer works and, most critics agree, contain some of his best and most imaginative writing. Settings and characters in Aymé's works fall into two categories; the rural French countryside with its resident farmers, and the urban proletariat of Montmartre in Paris. Most of his short fiction involves elements of the fantastic, which sometimes takes the form of science fiction and sometimes of fantasy or fairy tales. While Aymé did feel affection for the country people about whom he wrote, and with whom he lived as a child, his stories sometimes evidence a caustic criticism that cuts across lines of geography, political partisanship, and social status. This is particularly true of his stories set in realistic environments but containing elements of science fiction, such as “La Traversée de Paris” (“Across Paris”), which takes place during the occupation of Paris, and “La Carte” (“The Life-Ration”), in which war-time shortages and rationing lead to the distribution of cards representing the number of days each citizen is allowed to live each month according to his or her “usefulness.” Other stories can be classified in the tradition of the French fabulists, featuring mythological figures and talking animals and usually ending in a moral lesson that may include a miracle. The stories in several of Aymé's most popular books, Les Contes du Chat perché (1934), Autres Contes du Chat perché (1950), and Derniers Contes du Chat perché (1958), concerning the adventures of two little farm girls and their interactions with a variety of talking barnyard animals, best illustrate Aymé's fabulist literature.
Despite his role as a celebrated literary figure prior to World War II, Aymé's reputation suffered after the liberation of France, largely because of his outspoken criticism of what he considered the hypocrisy of left-wing France after the war, but also because of his work on collaborationist newspapers. Accordingly, he was blacklisted, along with many other writers, and his work was ignored for years. Today some critics consider Aymé's stories to be among the best twentieth-century French short fiction, and ironically, many argue that his stories are best understood and interpreted in French. Locating Aymé's place within French literature, Dorothy Brodin wrote: “Aymé was a fundamentally French writer who might at times seem desperately cynical, or, on the contrary, too conservative, unless one realizes that his roots run deep in the French skeptical and humanistic tradition, the tradition of Rabelais, La Fontaine, Molière, and the eighteenth-century philosophers.”
Le puits aux images 1932
Les Contes du Chat perché 1934
Le Nain 1934
Derrière chez Martin 1938
Le Passe Muraille [The Walker-through-Walls and Other Stories] 1943
Le Vin de Paris [Across Paris and Other Stories] 1947
Autres Contes du Chat perché 1950
En arrière 1950
The Wonderful Farm 1951
The Magic Pictures: More about the Wonderful Farm 1954
Return to the Wonderful Farm 1954
Derniers Contes du Chat perché 1958
Soties de la ville et des champs 1958
The Proverb and Other Stories 1961
La Fille du shérif [edited by Michel Lecureur] 1987
Brûlebois (novel) 1926
Aller retour (novel) 1927
Les Jumeaux du diable (novel) 1928
La Table aux crevés [The Hollow Field] (novel) 1929
La Rue sans nom (novel) 1930
Le Vaurien (novel) 1931
La Jument verte [The Green Mare] (novel) 1934
Maison basse [The House of Men] (novel) 1935
Silhouette du scandale (essays) 1938
Travelingue [The Miraculous Barber] (novel) 1941
Vogue la galère (drama) 1944
Le Trou de las serrure (essays) 1946
Lucienne et le boucher (drama) 1947
Uranus [The Barkeep of Blémont; republished as Fanfare in Blémont] (novel) 1948
Le Confort intellectuel (essays) 1949
La Tête des autres (drama) 1952
La Mouche bleue (drama) 1957
Les Tiroirs de l'inconnu [The Conscience of Love] (novel) 1960
Les Maxibules (drama) 1962
SOURCE: “The Turbulent Spring of Experience,” in The Saturday Review, Vol. XLII, No. 4, January 24, 1959, pp. 18, 31.
[In the following essay, Vigée reviews Across Paris and Other Stories, praising Aymé's characteristic “duality,” which, Vigée notes, requires readers to approach his writing with both “childlike innocence” and “ferocious irony.”]
For more than thirty years Marcel Aymé has captured the fancy of French readers of fiction, both young and old. By now he has become something of an ageless classic, the heir of the anonymous medieval fabliaux writers. Yet, in spite of an abundant literary production, ranging from comedy or satirical essay to the novel and the children's tale, he remains a puzzle to orderly critics. They would like to label him and find themselves lost in contradictions as they compare him simultaneously to Rabelais, Voltaire, Franz Kafka, and Alphonse Daudet! There is, in this clearest of all authors, something unpredictable—like the Spanish duende—a power of renewal and invention not far removed from sorcery. His quality of imagination cannot be ascribed solely to his gift for unbridled fantasy; he has a sharp eye for the bleak realities of life on many levels of society, from crude peasants to Parisian artists or black-marketeers. His work owes its brilliance and freshness to an original blend of truth and daydream.
Dichtung und Wahrheit at best achieve an unstable combination. But it is from this effervescent mixture that genuine human experience springs. Marcel Aymé's writings depend upon a strange, uneasy tension of opposites. The souls of his shabby characters are crushed by acceptance of frustration, ennui, the endless flow of empty years, and lifted by the wildest leaps toward freedom, bliss, paradise. Their moods vary from resigned indifference to things to outbursts of maniacal passion. The drabness of daily living on archaic farms or in modern cities merges with the universe of wish-fulfilment through magic, crime, and madness. The bureaucrat's office hours and his escapes into the realm of the supernatural are both seen as commonplace events. As a consequence, the reader passes without transition through worlds which, in his own adult experience, usually remain far apart. He becomes, like Aymé's hero, M. Dutilleul, a “Walker-through-Walls.” It is not the least among our writer's achievements that his semifantastic, seminaturalistic tales almost inadvertently turn into parables of the readers' secret life and longings.
The short stories collected in this handsome volume [Across Paris and Other Stories] all bear witness to the duality of Aymé's outlook, a conflict which can be overcome only by childlike innocence or a ferocious irony. Aymé applies both remedies to the old wound. He constantly shuttles back and forth between a humor which, as in “The Picture-Well,” screens off the pit of despair and misery, and a sense of wonder through which everything dreadful becomes simple again, plain as the miracle of daylight. Sometimes—and here we find Aymé at his best—this merveilleux quotidien functions like a deluding prism through which the stark light of frustrations and hatreds is...
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SOURCE: “Adult Fables,” in Commonweal, Vol. LXIX, No. 21, February 20, 1959, pp. 550–51.
[In the following essay, Dunlea praises Across Paris and Other Stories for Aymé's ability to defy twentieth-century scientific and psychological analysis with his magical fables.]
The novels of Marcel Aymé are all things to all readers, and the same may be said of his stories; they are adult fables, fantasies, fairytales, and seldom short. Superficially they are intellectual gags, the quintessence of his farcical expertise; but this is more than expertise playing at art, and like the most authentic art it is finally irreducible. In fact, such is the ease of Aymé's...
(The entire section is 711 words.)
The Atlantic Monthly (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: “A French Satirist,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. CCVII, January-June, 1961, pp. 102–03.
[In the following essay, the anonymous critic reviews The Proverb and Other Stories, finding that it affirms that Aymé is “a born storyteller.”]
Marcel Aymé, currently represented by The Proverb and Other Stories, has been highly praised by American reviewers, and I find it a bit puzzling that he should have so limited an audience. He is, to be sure, an oddity among contemporary French writers, but his oddity is such as might be expected to recommend him to American readers. Aymé has...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
SOURCE: “Marcel Aymé, Fabulist and Moralist,” in The French Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 5, April, 1962, pp. 453–62.
[In the following essay, Temmer examines Aymé's fables and classifies the writer as a traditional French fabulist.]
Fables should have a moral that pleases the reader's mind as well as his heart, and there is no doubt that Aymé's tales meet this first condition. He appeals to the intellect, and, as for matters of conscience, he follows the tradition of French fabulists who are not intent upon improving the world but prefer to analyze it in a manner that is both lucid and humorous. His Contes du Chat Perché is a lively commentary on French...
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SOURCE: “Faerie and Fantastic Phenomena and Motifs,” in The Short Stories of Marcel Aymé, University of Western Australia Press, 1980, pp. 11–17, 20–56.
[In the following essay, Lord examines Aymé's stories that fall into the traditions of fairy tales and tales of the fantastic.]
Les fées sont agréables à fréquenter. Les hommes aussi.
It is the physical fantasies that are most commonly accepted as Aymé's trade-mark. All three pastiches of his work stress this kind of story. Commentators trying to analyse Aymé's extremely varied use of the physically unreal have had recourse to a multitude of terms to...
(The entire section is 15470 words.)
SOURCE: “Poor Little Martin,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,445, June 10–16, 1988, p. 642.
[In the following essay, Buss praises the stories collected in La Fille du shérif for their nostalgic insight into the French lower classes.]
These twenty-five stories [in La Fille du Shérif] have been gleaned from Marcel Aymé's papers and provided with a minimal critical apparatus by Michel Lecureur, some of whose notes (“unidentified review, probably in Morocco in the 1960s”) intrigue more than they inform. But apart from such puzzles, and one previously unpublished story for which Lecureur does not hazard a date, most of the pieces are...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
SOURCE: “Literature, Philosophy, Nonsense,” in The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 30, No. 3, July 1990, pp. 256–65.
[In the following essay, Tilghman examines the philosophical significance of nonsense in Aymé's tales of the marvelous.]
In this [essay] I want to suggest a thesis about the relation between philosophy and literature and I will do this by an examination of the role of nonsense in some of the short stories of the French author Marcel Aymé.
Nonsense became a philosophical category only in the early twentieth century and was first introduced by, I believe, Bertrand Russell with the theory of types. It was the syntactical...
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SOURCE: “Myths and Ironies of the Occupation: Marcel Aymé's ‘Traversee de Paris,’” in Myth and Its Legacy in European Literature, edited by Neil Thomas and Francoise Le Saux, University of Durham, 1996, pp. 49–61.
[In the following essay, Lloyd analyzes Aymé's story “Traversée de Paris” for its insight into the German occupation of Paris during World War II.]
L'homme n'est qu'un animal mythologique.
Myth, says Michel Tournier, is ‘une histoire fondamentale’, and humanity is defined by its capacity to mythologise, its receptivity ‘au bruissement...
(The entire section is 5317 words.)