Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1372
According to Victor Brombert, Michel Tournier is “arguably France’s finest novelist today.” Since 1967 and the appearance of Vendredi: Ou, Les Limbes du Pacifique (Friday, 1969), his first published novel, an increasing number of critics in Europe and, more recently, the United States, have been arguing just that case. Friday was followed by Le Roi des aulnes (1970; The Ogre, 1972), Les Météores (1975; Gemini, 1981), and Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar (1980; The Four Wise Men, 1982). The Fetishist is the first collection of short fiction by Tournier to be published in English. These fourteen short stories, which range in length from two pages to thirty-six, reveal in concentrated form the haunting absorption with psychic monstrosity that distinguishes Tournier’s longer works.
The Fetishist originally appeared in French as Le Coq de bruyère, and the eponymous fiction “The Woodcock” is the longest piece and the one that occupies the very center of the American edition. “The Fetishist,” however, which is the final story in the book, can stand as effectively as “The Woodcock” as a synecdoche for the whole volume. Both are bizarre accounts of the mechanisms of obsession.
“The Fetishist” is the manic monologue of a patient who has escaped from the lunatic asylum where he has been confined for the past twenty years. His fixation is on intimate female apparel, to the extent that he robs a woman of her garter belt in the Paris Metro; he was able to consummate his marriage, after an initial failure (nakedness is repellent to him), only when his bride had put her clothes back on. The narrator tells his story with the kind of zestful absorption in its extraordinary details that characterizes Tournier’s fiction.
Continental models such as Fyodor Dostoevski, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline can be, and have been, invoked to situate Tournier’s work. All subvert the traditions of Western rationalism with alternative universes that defy conscious control. American readers, however, might be most struck by the affinities between the macabre tales in The Fetishist and those of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Like “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Birthmark,” or “Ethan Brand,” Tournier’s fables dramatize the destructive arrogance of human art. The eponymous heroine of “Veronica’s Shrouds” is a compulsive professional photographer so consumed by her ambition to take possession of Hector, her model and lover, that she perfects the techniques of “direct photography,” whereby the subject is immersed in a solution of sensitive and lethal chemicals and then physically imprinted on linen. The process, by which a living human being is transformed into an artifact, yields a flawless image. Tournier is himself an amateur photographer, and this narrative anticipates Des Clefs et des serrures (1979), his as yet untranslated collection of forty short essays, each of which responds to a work by a famous photographer. “Veronica’s Shrouds” is, like the other Tournier stories, meticulously crafted, a chilling caveat about the cannibalistic perils of placing designs on living.
“Tristan Vox” is an account of how an unprepossessingly short, fat, and bald man in his fifties named Felix Fawcett transforms himself nightly into Tristan Vox, a radio personality idolized by millions. Fawcett, however, has only partial control over his manufactured personality, and he ends up losing it, and his wife, to a usurper. The theme of art transcending and thwarting the artist is also central to the shortest, and slightest, work in the collection, “Mother Christmas.” Madame Oiselin, headmistress of a militantly atheistic public school, dresses up as Father Christmas, “a pagan, radical, and anticlerical hero.” She stands in strident opposition to the explicitly religious symbolism of the crèche, which contains a living version of the infant Jesus. When Madame Oiselin lends her own infant son to the priest for his crèche display, the town is treated to the odd spectacle of Father Christmas interrupting “his” secular activities to come to the church to nurse the baby Jesus.
Sexuality is a disturbing, renegade force in the Tournier universe. “The Woodcock,” the title story of the French edition, explores the psychosomatic economy of the relationship between a philandering old baron and his very patient wife. Rather than acknowledge the beautiful young mistress that her callous husband flaunts, the baroness develops temporary blindness. Eventually frustrated in his erotic designs, however, the baron is reduced to a helpless paralytic, utterly dependent on his recovered wife to push his wheelchair. A demonic, destructive sexuality also asserts itself in “The Red Dwarf,” when four-foot-one-inch Lucien Gagnero learns to accept his freakishness and to exploit it. After committing a homicidal rape, the dwarf finds apotheosis as a circus clown performing exclusively for children. It is a more graphic version of what happens to Raphael Gammon in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” When no one will take his aspirations to be a concert pianist seriously, Gammon shapes a very lucrative, though unsatisfying, career as a musical clown.
Children are a challenge to adult conventions of normalcy, and children figure in a large number of the Tournier stories. They provide a challenge, as well, to literary conventions of innocence. In “Prikli,” for example, the terrifying world of grown-ups is seen through the eyes of a confused little boy. Unable to fathom its complex code of sexuality, he obediently pockets a razor and castrates himself. “Amandine, or The Two Gardens” is the oneiric narrative of a ten-year-old girl who, in the process of exploring her backyard, is initiated into unspecified mysteries. This story, too, ends with a trickle of blood along a youngster’s leg. The tensions between the pastoral and the civic and between innocence and experience are also evident in “Tom Thumb Runs Away.” When his father decides to move the family out of their garden villa and into the twenty-third floor of a Paris high rise, a little boy runs away and finds temporary refuge with Mr. Ogre and his seven young daughters.
As Mr. Ogre evokes Tournier’s novel The Ogre (though the original title, Le Roi des aulnes, does not make that association so explicit) and his general penchant for teratology, his fascination with exquisite monstrosities, so, too, does “The End of Robinson Crusoe” return to the matter of his first novel, Friday. Forty years after his shipwreck, the Daniel Defoe character has been transformed into yet another Tournier grotesque—“an aged, broken man, half-drowned in alcohol.” Crusoe is now incapable of living comfortably in European society. He desperately, futilely seeks to return to his verdant, solitary Caribbean island, but he cannot find it. Announcing the theme of universal transience that subverts reason and complacency throughout the Tournier world, an old helmsman tells Crusoe:“Your island has done what you’ve done: It’s aged! Flowers turn into fruits, and fruits turn into wood, and green wood turns into dead wood. Everything happens very quickly in the tropics. And what about you?”
Tournier defies John Donne to proclaim that each man is indeed an island and forever in a state of geological turbulence. How very odd, then, each seems to the other, and how unknowable.
Tournier has been praised for his stylistic versatility, the manner in which these stories range from lush and resonant to severe, from “literary” to demotic, yet all—whether it be the recension of the Book of Genesis that is “The Adam Family” or the account of a driver’s infatuation with his truck in “The Lily of the Valley Rest Area”—project the elemental anxieties of a grotesque fairy tale. Tournier’s pervasive humor is not so much a mechanism for displacing primal dread as a technique for reinforcing it.
A number of literary critics have noted Tournier’s undue reliance throughout this collection on trick endings. So frequently and methodically do these plots resolve themselves with a twist that the unexpected eventually comes to be expected. Nevertheless, if Tournier echoes either Guy de Maupassant or O. Henry with his elegant surprise endings, he is Aristotelian in providing not only surprise beginnings but also surprise middles. Tournier is adept at divulging the anomalies camouflaging the humdrum, the flux that defies any cognitive fix. In part, at least, the esteem which Tournier enjoys within the literary community can be attributed precisely to this ability to defamiliarize a fundamentally uncanny world.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68
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Booklist. LXXXI, January 1, 1985, p. 622.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, August 1, 1984, p. 712.
London Review of Books. VI, March 15, 1984, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 16, 1984, p. 2.
The New Republic. CXCII, February 11, 1985, p. 39.
New Statesman. CVIII, December 9, 1983, p. 25.
The New York Review of Books. XXXI, November 8, 1984, p. 25.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 9, 1984, p. 7.
Performing Arts Journal. VIII, no. 2, 1984, p. 103.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 24, 1984, p. 73.