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Aymé, Marcel 1902–1967

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Aymé was a French dramatist, novelist, short story writer, journalist, and writer of books for children. His fictional subject is often the common man, his fictional setting, a simple rural one. Aymé was able to integrate the supernatural into the fabric of everyday reality, offering a flight into the imaginary and the absurd. He experimented with a variety of narrative styles, revealing a strong imagination and independence of thought.

GERMAINE BRÉE and MARGARET GUITON

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A distinguishing characteristic of Marcel Aymé, when set beside other contemporary novelists in France, is the fact that he neither comes from nor has ever really been assimilated to the Paris bourgeoisie…. He is most at home within the microcosm of the small provincial village, where peasants, animals and small-scale local powers achieve a healthy, if somewhat uninspiring, pattern of existence. (p. 89)

It is not difficult to see why [La Jument verte] was, and still is, a best-seller in France. Aymé knows how to tell a story, to arouse our attention and curiosity…. Aymé, moreover, is on extremely intimate terms with life, its material necessities, difficulties and pleasures. A man in full possession of his five senses, he … is gifted with a direct, almost physical flair for the elementary and generally unacknowledged motives of human behavior. He has a fertile and salty imagination. The supernatural, a frequent element in Aymé's early novels and his later stories, has none of the dreamlike, otherworldly qualities of the surrealists but is firmly planted in the terrestrial logic of everyday events. Finally, and most important, Aymé is a novelist who can make his reader laugh out loud. (p. 91)

Germaine Brée and Margaret Guiton, "Marcel Aymé: Epilogue," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus (copyright © 1957 by Rutgers, The State University; reprinted by permission of the Rutgers University Press), Rutgers, 1957.

Charles Rolo

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Aymé has never become involved in literary and ideological cults; he is an old-fashioned individualist, more interested in people than in ideas. He is, moreover, a born storyteller, one of the best practicing in any language, and even in translation his prose is elegant and extremely readable…. Aymé's satire and farce grow out of a profound and tolerant cynicism. He distrusts or finds ridiculous high-minded idealists, revolutionary middle-class intellectuals—in fact, people of all kinds who want to remake the human animal or bowdlerize the truth about his nature. For Aymé, hypocrisy is more vicious than the natural vices of man, and one senses in his work a strong affection for life as it is. Within this framework, his range is wide. In addition to being consistently amusing, he can be gay, tender, cruel, horrifying, or sardonic.

A couple of stories in [The Proverb and Other Stories] are memorable examples of Aymé's distinctive combination of fantasy and down-to-earth realism. (p. 102)

There are twelve stories in the book, and more than half of them are outstanding. Among the readers who have so far missed Aymé's work, there must be a good many who would find this volume an entertaining introduction to the fictional world of a first-rate writer. (p. 103)

Charles Rolo, "A French Satirist," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1961 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), June, 1961, pp. 102-03.

Henri Peyre

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Marcel Aymé … brought to French literature an earthy sense of the life of the peasantry, a robust attachment to the concrete, a vigorous hatred of all escapisms, be they philosophical, esthetic, or political, and an admirably pungent gift of style. It is doubtful whether the success of his novels like "The Green Mare" and "The Second Face" will outlast his generation. They already seem strained and affected in their coarseness or in their fantasy. And Marcel Aymé, who is close to his sixtieth year, is hardly likely to acquire now the poetical touch that alone would have imposed upon disbelieving audiences his play about changing human creatures into birds. But he is today unequaled in France as a writer of racy and humorous short stories. A dozen of his best ones are collected [in "The Proverb and Other Stories"]….

The butts of Marcel Aymé's satire are the savagery of human beings when their welfare is at stake, as was the case during the years of rationing and of starvation; the selfishness of the middle class and its lack of idealism and of charity; the pomposity of the intellectuals and of the politicians, who disguise their greed for power or for importance under fake and pretentious posturing; the injustice of much French, or human, justice. The author is a fierce conservative in politics, as many satirists have been, for it is always easier to mock the new in the name of the old. He is quick to detect corruption everywhere, especially among the Parisian middle class. And if he is less severe on the farmers, he does not idealize them as did Giono or Ramuz. These pungent, entertaining stories à la Maupassant leave an aftertaste of bitterness. There is far more idealistic optimism among the existentialists whom Marcel Aymé likes to deride. And the comic vein may be a thin one, after all, in prosperous and hard-working Europe.

Henri Peyre, "Realism a la Maupassant," in Saturday Review (© 1961 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission). July 22, 1961, p. 25.

Dorothy Brodin

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In a country where most writers belong to the intellectual classes, Aymé did not conform to the general pattern. He was not shaped by the classical and humanistic disciplines, or fashioned according to the usual university mold; and he steadfastly refused to be considered an intellectual or to belong to any literary school or movement. His experience of the world and his transposition of this experience were always essentially pragmatic and strikingly individualistic, but he appeals to readers of all kinds because of his vivid and unusual style, his extraordinary ability to put words through their paces, and especially because of the fresh and unexpected quality of his vision. His imagination created a new and wonderful world which allows a momentary escape from the one we know. Then we can come back to reality somehow refreshed and perhaps see it in a new light and therefore appreciate it better. (p. 3)

Some critics have described Aymé as essentially a fabulist. He did, in fact, like La Fontaine and Charles Perrault, often use allegory and fable to speak of the world and its inhabitants. His Contes du Chat perché (1939) is a collection of ironical tales of children and animals on a typical French farm. Through the device of a nonrealistic, purely imaginative story, the fabulist pokes fun at prejudices and conventions, and indirectly, almost casually, points up a lesson.

Although Aymé's world is not the "comédie aux cent actes divers" which we find in La Fontaine, we nevertheless can discover in his animal kingdom the image of a human world with the stratification, preconceived ideas, clichés, and pomposity of men engaged in the postures of social relations. To that world and society children bring the freshness of doubt. They are not convinced by the teaching of adults. (p. 5)

Aymé's theatre also offers moral lessons. Vogue la galère (1944), for instance, takes up … the themes of change, of freedom, and of the tendency we have to sacrifice them for the animal comfort of knowing what is expected of us and what the next day will bring. (p. 9)

The play, besides being a commentary on man's reactions to freedom and change, suggests that a society cannot subsist without discipline, common sense, and a kind of moderate conservatism. The idealism of Barrals [a nobleman condemned to death for religious reasons], who preaches friendship and brotherhood, not only dooms his mutiny to failure because of his basic ineffectiveness; worse than that, it nearly causes the loss of the galley with all on board. By his well-intentioned bungling, the young man causes more bloodshed and death than the brutally efficient convict who finally takes over and salvages the ship and its crew. (p. 10)

Men as individuals or men in society, whether through ignorance, stupidity, malice, or selfishness, can deform or flout certain natural laws and in so doing engender suffering. Most of Aymé's fables contain this truth. He presents these natural laws, which should govern human relations and which must enter into account if men and societies are to be saved, in a cosmos often quite different from that of our daily lives. Indeed the supernatural and the mechanisms of science fiction and of surrealism are frequently the chief ingredients of his universe. His characters move in a world where reality extends beyond the limits we usually assign to it. There, animals and human beings undergo varied and striking metamorphoses. (pp. 10-11)

Aymé was primarily concerned with man and with the society and relationships man has created. Whether he presented his characters in a world of fantasy and the supernatural where imagination rules and makes its own laws or whether, on the contrary, he had them move in the ordinary world we know, he always expressed through them his interest in mankind. He looked about him and described what he saw, often in very amusing terms, sometimes with caustic and bitter irony or under the guise of "black humor." In his first books, his verve was exercised mostly at the expense of peasants and artisans, castigating the mores of those who live in small towns and villages. Even in his later stories (La Jument verte, La Vouivre), country people were the target of a good deal of his banter. (p. 14)

[When Aymé left the country for the city, his] writing was to reflect the change in his surroundings. From country settings he passed to stories with the city as a background; and, as he began to concentrate on the bourgeoisie, his attitude became more caustic. Unlike Maupassant, who had also satirized both peasant milieus and city-dwellers, Aymé did not create a cohesive universe based on a naturalistic and pessimistic point of view. He merely described the people he saw and remembered.

In such works as Le Moulin de la Sourdine (1936) and Uranus (1948), the novelist dealt with the petite bourgeoisie of small towns; in Maison basse (1935), Travelingue (1941), and Le Chemin des écoliers (1946), he dealt with that of big cities. (p. 16)

On the whole, although Aymé's irony is particularly sharp when it is directed against self-satisfied moralists who consider themselves the allies of Providence, what he criticized in American civilization he criticized everywhere…. Aymé mistrusted and disliked power, powerful individuals and powerful collectives…. As for bad taste, Aymé did not consider it an American monopoly. (p. 35)

He was perhaps even less sanguine when he discussed nationalism and war, for he saw in them the outgrowth of basic human defects—vanity, smugness, pettiness, as well as savagery and the urge to kill—which have characterized men throughout the centuries and will probably continue to do so in that future era portrayed in La Convention Belzébir. (pp. 35-6)

Like most satirists, Marcel Aymé wrote about and against man's vices and illusions. He denounced envy, vanity, pride, prejudice, snobbery, bigotry, egoism, lack of charity, foolishness, all the inner evils that plague mankind. He was especially outspoken against moral blindness and hypocrisy. (p. 36)

[In Aymé's tales, animals] may be cruel, or vain, or envious. They may present all the defects common to men, but they are generally true to their own nature, and this is a saving grace. We cannot really condemn the wolf for his voracity, nor the peacock for his vanity. There is a certain guilelessness in the animals' conduct even when it is most reprehensible.

Human beings, on the other hand, far from measuring up to their real or imagined dignity, seem to spend much of their time and energy deluding themselves and deceiving others. (p. 37)

Aymé repeatedly attacked hypocrisy in its myriad forms, and did so with increasing indignation as he treated of its large-scale public manifestations…. In the novel Uranus, which has been called "a mirror of modern hypocrisy," almost every character is a hypocrite, but it is among those who are leaders in their social or political spheres that the vice is best exemplified and indeed becomes a way of life. (p. 39)

The postwar novels and plays of Aymé are often savagely sarcastic and contain gruesome accounts of stonings, lynchings, hideous massacres of helpless people, brutal useless acts committed under the mantle of patriotism. The author, when asked about the shocking scenes he described, said that he had not invented them, and indeed could not have done so; that "civilized" men and women had in fact sadistically participated in those violent events or stood by without protest while the mob killed its victim, because they "wanted to be on the side of morality." (p. 40)

[Critics have] accused him of subscribing to a "morale de l'indifférence" and of seeing only self-interest, hypocrisy, depravity, and hatred in an absurd world where norms and values are either inexistent or false. Such a reaction to his work is understandable, but it is as unjustified as the equally one-sided view that he was no more than a tender and amusing storyteller. The truth is more complex. Criticism of hypocrisy and evil in the societies, institutions, and professions of men has been traditionally the affair of writers through the ages; Aymé's satire cannot fairly be singled out as more violent a denunciation than most. Bitterness, moreover, is far from being the only element to be found in his work. It must be remembered that in Uranus, for instance, there appears the luminous character of Watrin, and that even in Silhouette du scandale, a book which contains some of the author's most indignant statements, there is the thought that we human beings are not absolutely shockproof but can at length be roused from our "morale de l'indifférence," our lethargic acquiescence, when events become scandalous enough.

However caustic Marcel Aymé may have been when he spoke of the smug Pharisaic powers of society, he always dealt gently with the humble unpretentious creatures whose candor and occasional stupidity make us laugh. His sympathy went to animals, children—especially country children and poor children—and those adults who are true to their own nature. He could understand and forgive weakness, and he pitied men and women who are sometime led by their senses, but are redeemed by their capacity to love. (pp. 40-1)

Whereas Marcel Aymé's popularity can undoubtedly be attributed to the richness of his imagination and his ability to tell even the most fantastic and unbelievable tale convincingly and entertainingly, he was much more than a popular author of entertaining books and plays. He could bring to vigorous life all sorts of characters, ranging from the most commonplace to the most extraordinary. He possessed, moreover, a wonderfully supple and vivid style, a brilliantly inventive and amusing way of writing. He used all kinds of literary devices, freely inventing new words and spellings and indulging in many forms of verbal acrobatics.

The names he imagined for the people and places he described, and indeed for the books and stories he wrote, were highly evocative. Such titles, for instance, as "Les Sabines," Le Chemin des écoliers, Les Quatre Vérités, and Les Tiroirs de l'inconnu are closely akin to puns; and Travelingue is a particularly appropriate name for a novel about people interested in the motion picture world and pseudo-American, "arty" attitudes. (pp. 41-2)

At times the author achieved striking effects through lists and enumerations, malapropisms, misunderstandings, and the deliberate association of incongruous terms or incongruous acts. He was very apt to use parody, imitating with signal success all types of literary styles in prose and poetry…. He liked to take over the point of view of others, of animals—dogs and wolves and pigs, or even a green mare—and of people—murderers and judges, soldiers, civil servants, children, hypocrites and saints.

Perhaps the most famous and the most fully developed of Aymé's accounts made from the vantage point of someone else's outlook are the "Propos de la Jument" scattered through La Jument verte. (pp. 43-4)

Marcel Aymé had a highly developed sense of the incongruous and the paradoxical, creating a world of the absurd which functions according to its own very special brand of logic. (p. 44)

Aymé was primarily a man of imagination. Freely he created new situations where the laws of our cosmos are abrogated or suspended. His creatures move about with an imperturbable logic of their own, forcing our assent. We are freed from our hidebound concepts of time and space, cause and effect; and we can appraise characters and events with a fresh outlook. Like La Fontaine, he composed fables and apologues; like Swift and Lewis Carroll, he invented strange new worlds. There are in his work distant echoes of many famous writers, and critics have often compared him with the great authors of the past, with Rabelais and Voltaire in his use of language, with Molière, Balzac, Stendhal, Proust, and others, because of his interest in society and the human comedy. (p. 45)

[However,] what is a conscious and systematic process with a Balzac or a Rabelais or a Queneau is incidental and transitory with Aymé. He may be a novelist of mores, but he is not a sociologist, and if his works often possess documentary value it is because of his remarkably keen perception of significant traits. Like Queneau he coined new and amusing words and resorted to unconventional spellings, but there is no such thing as a theory of language in his works. He wrote in one manner or another according to the necessities of his subject and, although he himself did not deny the possibility of having been influenced by his readings, that influence, if it did exist, was largely unconscious. He was above all an individualist, curiously old-fashioned at times in his attachment to the values of individualism itself. He was perfectly capable of rising in anger at the abuses he saw about him, but he was unable or unwilling to sustain his indignation in the manner of a true satirist. Bitterness and anger mark only part of his work. He was undoubtedly mercurial and outspoken, but there was about him a gentle quality more often reminiscent of La Fontaine than of Voltaire. Much of the time he appears primarily as a witty, entertaining writer who thoroughly enjoyed his life and his work.

Aymé cannot easily be classified. Perhaps this is a weakness, in that his very versatility, his lack of identification with any single genre, may lead some readers to think of him as a pleasant literary dilettante rather than a serious critic of his times. But if the purpose of art is to touch and to please, Aymé was an artist and a good one. Neither a realist nor a surrealist, he usually looked at life with tolerant amusement, and he varied his style and his approach with his particular mood and the needs of the story he wished to tell. His bittersweet, tragicomic world contains a wealth of gayety, imagination, and lusty good fun. (pp. 45-6)

Dorothy Brodin, in her Marcel Aymé (Columbia Essays on Modern Writers Pamphlet No. 38; copyright © 1968 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1968.

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Aymé, Marcel (Short Story Criticism)