The Four Wise Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

In less than twenty years, Michel Tournier has come to be regarded internationally as a major writer. His novels are best-sellers in France and have been translated into eighteen languages. All four of his novels have been published in the United States and a collection of short stories, Le Coq de bruyère (1978), is scheduled to appear in 1984. Among his works of nonfiction are Canada: Journal de voyage (1977) and two volumes of essays, Le Vent paraclet (1977) and Des Clefs et des serrures (1979). He is not as well-known in the United States as the quality of his work merits.

Some knowledge of Tournier’s background illuminates his fiction. Born in Paris of parents who were German scholars, he studied at the universities of Paris and of Tübingen. A student of Claude Lévi-Strauss, he earned master’s degrees in law and in philosophy. He produced programs on photography for French television, for which he was also a cultural consultant; he was a newspaperman for several years; and for a decade, he was literary director at Éditions Plon. A bachelor, he lives in an old vicarage twenty-five miles from Paris in the Chèvreuse Valley.

Mythological conceptions that lend a transcendent quality to documentary facts govern all Tournier’s fiction. All of his central characters share Tournier’s obsession with processes of metamorphosis, transfiguration, and inversion, terms that characterize his style. “There’s a secret collusion, deep down, connecting what happens to me with what happens in general,” says Abel Tiffauges in Tournier’s second novel, Le Roi des aulnes (1970; The Ogre, 1972). For Tournier’s characters, everyday life becomes filled with signs and symbols that have mythological significance. Abel sees “experience as an inversion of values”; he is “alert to changes in signs, from benign to malign, from malign to benign.” His vocation is “not only to decipher essences but also to exalt them, to bring all their qualities to the point of incandescence.”

In Vendredi: Ou, Les Limbes du Pacifique (1967; Friday, 1969), a close retelling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Tournier implies analogies between a classic work of literature and contemporary everyday life. An example of this rare genre in American literature is John Seelye’s “adult” version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The point of view of Tournier’s novel is not first person, as is Defoe’s, but third person omniscient, with journal entries in first person as contrast. Seen as inverted twins, Robinson and Friday anticipate the theme of Tournier’s third novel, Les Météores (1975; Gemini, 1981); and racial concepts of black and white become even more important in The Four Wise Men. Friday won the Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française, and the Chicago Tribune listed it as one of the outstanding books of the year. Tournier also wrote a children’s version, Vendredi: Ou, La Vie sauvage (1971; Friday and Robinson: Life on Esperanza Island, 1972).

In The Ogre, Abel the giant, a benign ogre, like St. Christopher the Christ-bearer, pursues his destiny as a childbearer. Tournier sees mythic patterns in World War II and the Holocaust. The Ogre was the first unanimous winner of the Prix Goncourt, and Janet Flanner called it “the most important book to come out in France since Proust.” It is one of the most intellectually demanding novels of recent years; it is also one of the most sensuous. One thinks of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955).

In Gemini, Tournier explores numerous facets of the concept of twins to project a vision of life. Similarly, in his fourth novel, a major myth of Christian civilization, enhanced by an apocryphal dimension, provides Tournier with another way of conceptualizing all human experience in symbolic terms. The French title is Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (1980). The American title, The Four Wise Men, simplifies, perhaps distorts by overemphasis, Tournier’s unique approach.

In a sense, three of the Evangelists, like Taor, the fourth wise man, missed the adoration of the Magi. The basis for Tournier’s novel is found only in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-16). Tournier imagines everything else. Many writers have been attracted to the “What if. . . ?” possibilities inherent in famous legends, myths, and historical events. Old and New Testament possibilities have attracted Thomas Mann (Joseph und seine Brüder, 1933-1942; Joseph and His Brothers, 1934-1944), Paul Claudel (L’Annonce faile à Marie, 1912; The Tidings Brought to Mary, 1916), André Gide (Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue, 1907; Return of the Prodigal Son, 1953, in which a new character is introduced), and, more recently, in America, William Goyen (A Book of Jesus, 1973) and Romulus Linney (Jesus Tales, 1980).

There are seven facets to Tournier’s vision of the legend of the Magi, with a different character focus for each. Tournier has Gaspar, King of Meroë, tell his story first to set up several of the ironic paradoxes, inversions, affinities, and parallels for which he has a kind of obsession. “I am black, but I am a king,” Gaspar begins. He bought and fell in love with a white slave, whom he imagines saying, “I am a slave but I am blond!” In his kingdom, whites are despised, but his blonde slave takes possession of his life, causing him to hate his negritude. She spurns Gaspar for her fellow-slave, a blond who she implies is her brother. Hoping to forget her, Gaspar travels, following the path of a golden comet, “a head dragging a train of flowing hair behind it.” He is told that a “journey . . . is a series of irrevocable disappearances.” The gait of...

(The entire section is 2434 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

America. CXLVII, November 13, 1982, p. 297.

The Atlantic. CCL, October, 1982, p. 105.

Library Journal. CVII, October 15, 1982, p. 2006.

National Review. XXXIV, October 15, 1982, p. 1290.

New Statesman. CIV, November 19, 1982, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 24, 1982, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 13, 1982, p. 66.