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 entire section is 1,440 words.)