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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...
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- Critical Essays
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.”
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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
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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 broken into the beautiful hues of consoling dreams. Underlying the delightful fairy tale created and actually carried out by the innocent dreamer in real life, is a frightening human story of unsatisfied lusts, compulsive aggression, and breakdown into insanity. Thus the two distant spheres of Desire and Action sometimes do coincide, at the expense of the hero who did not know how to keep them separate.
Duvilé, in “The Wine of Paris,” has to pay the price for his pent-up anger and for exacting a vicarious revenge against the world. After years of rationing caused by the war this humiliated little man is possessed by an overwhelming thirst for red wine, which looks so much like fresh blood. This wish suddenly causes him to see all human shapes going down the street in the likeness of “dozens and dozens of bottles of every vintage.” Frustrated in pride and drink, as he has been all these years of war and married life, is it surprising that Etienne Duvilé, armed with a heavy poker, should try to take the neck off many such miraculous bottles, “just level with the shoulders, neat as anything”? He naturally started with his nagging, bald-headed father-in-law, “for he was particularly fond of Burgundy.” But, the narrator hopefully concludes, the doctors soon release Duvilé from the insane asylum to send him to the wine-growing Arbois country, where the abundance of real red wine will soon cure him of all his wartime and matrimonial frustrations: thus a natural reconciliation is humorously held out by Aymé as a possible solution to man's existential conflicts and metaphysical duality.
“The State of Grace” is written in the same charitable Christian spirit. The saintly M. Duperrier from Montmartre certainly did his utmost in the way of the Seven Deadly Sins in order to get rid of the embarassing halo Divine Grace had bestowed upon him. This heavenly gift was incompatible with his earthly life: his wife complained that “the light of the halo, bathing the pillows, made it impossible for her to sleep at night.” But all his exertions in the direction of sin were of no avail. Aymé coyly describes him ending his career as a pimp on the Boulevard de Clichy, where he supervises the labors of Marie-Jeannick of Landivisiau, an ex-maid-of-all-work from Brittany. He can be seen by everyone, “waiting at the hotel door to count her takings by the light of the halo.” Yet, from the depths of his heroic degradation and inverted martyrdom, there sometimes rises to his lips “a prayer of thanksgiving for the absolute gratuity of the gifts of God.” Above the pitiful contingencies of mundane existence floats a never-never land where all conflicts are blissfully transcended.
It is, of course, a little distressing to discover that the two kingdoms should be related only through incongruities: dreams, madness, sins, or miracles. Even after he finally gets caught within the stone wall he dared so often to walk through, Aymé's wretched hero still feels “the restless hankering which was in some sort the call of the other side of the wall.” When cruel life has denied him the levity of his dreams, his faithful artist-friend “comes to console the unhappy prisoner with a song, and the notes, flying from the benumbed fingers, pierce to the heart of the stone like drops of moonlight.” Thus, through the medium of art and poetry, illusion keeps feeding on human nostalgia at the very core of disillusionment.
Poor Jouque had a sadistic drunkard of a husband, who used to put her down his well, standing in the bucket, while everyone in the village kept silent “because the simplicity of the fields is by nature indulgent to brutes.” Welled-in Jouque stared at the image of the two Hollywood-style lovers she fancied she saw reflected on the dark surface of the subterranean waters: “Jouque saw their lips were about to touch. She signed to them to wait for her, and plunged in.” One wonders why the translator suppressed the last sentence of this edifying drama: “The pagan gods were celebrating that day in Pignol's well.” It gives the story a joyful, melancholy, skeptical resonance, which is in keeping with Marcel Aymé's outlook on things. But, in general, the translation is both accurate and alive. It restores to the English reader something of the unique flavor of Aymé's style, where clever understatement of the main motives and emphatic treatment of apparently irrelevant detail constantly clash and mingle.
The choice of stories is excellent and covers a long period of the author's life. However, one regrets not finding any of the exquisite Contes du Chat Perché included in this volume. As it is, Across Paris constitutes but an introduction to the rich universe of Marcel Aymé. To do him full justice the reader must turn to novels like The Green Mare, La Vouivre, and Uranus, where the short storyteller's wit, talent, sense of fantasy are woven into a broad tapestry depicting in quasi-Rabelaisian tone the lives and times of quaint French petty bourgeois, or peasants.
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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 legerdemain, he nourishes the suspicion that perfection can be a gift.
Aymé is as capable of unadulterated charivari as of sheer sorcery. A sentimental mocker who lets the moral take care of itself, he is sly but he never really pinks. He evokes masterfully life's spontaneous disorders, yet he couldn't be more serious than when he leads off with “Once upon a time. …”
The opening lines of most of these stories are like charms: “In his thirty-fifth year the dwarf belonging to the Cirque Barnaboum suddenly grew.”
The best Christian in the Rue Gabrielle was a certain Monsieur Duperrier, a man of such piety that God, without awaiting his death and while he was still in the prime of life, crowned his head with a halo which never left it by day or by night.
[Dermuche] had murdered a family of three in order to get possession of a gramophone record he had coveted for several years.
Noel Tournebise had so many marriageable daughters and so little memory that he could not recall their names and had to keep a list.
There lived in Montmartre on the third floor of No. 75, Rue d'Orchampt, an excellent man named Dutilleul who possessed the singular gift of being able to walk through walls without experiencing any discomfort.
Barring one such supernatural aberration apiece, these individuals go on, or rather try to go on, functioning normally; they have no choice, for the irony of Aymé's fantasy is that it calls no general moratorium on physical law. Along with the stories where the afflatus is gay and altogether earthy, there are ones, like “Rue de l'Evangile,” “The Seven League Boots,” “The Picture-Well,” that leave not only a tingle but an almost tragi-comic twinge as well. A prime example of Aymé's versatility—indeed his talent is more protean than original—is “Across Paris,” which is the longest story here and the only one narrated from an angle of intensely realistic insight. Nevertheless, this now-famous tale (it was filmed as Four Bags Full) of wartime black-marketeers on a safari through the blacked-out City of Light, has an atmosphere fully charged with mystery.
In the ribald vein Aymé is sub-acid and very sure; when he ventures to lure the sanctity-afflicted into his range he becomes conspiratorial and arch, and the muse is stifled. He is grated by an abstract Tartuffe in whom he finds no genuine comic leverage: he has neglected to offer a humanly concrete projection of his attitude toward formal religion. This failure lays bare the vital dimensions Aymé lacks as a satirist. The great risk faced by the writer who sets out to deflate the illusions of human vanity is that in its own extravagance his laughter will cease to be tonic and will merely belittle, even contort.
To call even the most piquant of these drolleries “Rabelaisian” is forcing the pace, even though this has become the frozen epithet for Aymé. It implies an artificial context in which he appears least refreshing, and in this respect these stories cast some light on his novels. Life is relished in these novels without being affirmed; theirs is a wondrous world but wanting. Its creator is a fabulous realist but equally an epicurean, and the epicurean, in his passivity, leaves a certain taste of deception.
But Marcel Aymé is delightfully out of step with the age of analysis. He can turn reality upside down without any evident temptation to turn man inside out. He is not sounding the soul's desolate spaces; he holds his analysis to reason's absurd reductions. Yet all the while it is reality's own magic he is conjuring with.
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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 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. What possibly disconcerts some Anglo-Saxons is that 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 present collection are memorable examples of Aymé's distinctive combination of fantasy and down-to-earth realism. “The Life-Ration” describes, through the diary of a novelist, the consequences of a wartime law which rations people to so many days of existence a month according to their usefulness. “La Bonne Peinture,” which seems to me a masterpiece, begins with the discovery that the canvases of a minor painter are as physically nourishing as la grande cuisine and ends with the satiric vision of a French utopia: all of the arts have become “effective,” and France is fed by painting and heated by poems and novels, its people are made beautiful by looking at sculpture, and its machines are driven by music. “The Bogus Policeman” is a grisly parody of the idealistic orgies of “purification” which swept France after the Liberation. And “Backwards” parodies the French climate of opinion, which makes it prudent and fashionable for the very rich to represent themselves as socialists and champions of the masses.
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.
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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 life, and his wit spares neither beast nor man. The viewpoint is more fantastic than poetic, the language more natural than formal, and it is precisely this smooth juxtaposition of the fantastic and the natural which characterizes not only his fables but also his many short stories. Aymé's works exhibit le bon sens français that shuns poetic exaggeration and seeks what he has defined as le confort intellectuel, namely “ce qui assure la santé de l'esprit, son bien-être, ses joies et ses aises dans la sécurité.”1 Fortunately, Aymé is a better writer than philosopher, and the interest of his stories, it will be seen, resides less in their moral than in their dramatic action, which differs in every tale.
These fables, however, do share common traits in terms of their setting, style, formal development and characters. The human protagonists, as opposed to their animal counterparts, are few: a nameless Father and Mother and their children, Delphine and Marinette. Occasionally sentimental, rarely loving and never poetic, the parents are forever badgering their little girl with threats and admonitions. Typical French farmers, they tend to be thrifty and unimaginative—the black rooster is to them but a coq-au-vin. Furthermore, they seem cruel—are they not willing to sell their children after they have assumed the shape of a donkey and a horse? In contrast to les parents, who reflect the author's disenchantment, Delphine and Marinette are delightful heroines. Invested with a goodness and mischievousness abstracted from real life, these little girls have no personal history and yet they live, representative of girlhood in particular and mankind in general. Knowingly, the fabulist appeals to adult nostalgia for lost innocence and purifies this yearning of sadness. There is a breath of fresh air in these stories which relate the girl's adventures with fox and hens in the timeless setting of a French farm. Our fantasy is freed, and our belief and trust in the pleasures of childhood are once more justified.
It is likewise possible to isolate certain constants in the structure of the intrigues. Hostile intrusions or misdeeds with unforeseeable consequences disrupt the daily life of play and study. The girls consult their animal friends who offer advice and intervene to prevent disaster. The gods, however, are neither called upon nor even mentioned. The dénouement contains elements of surprise that are often imaginative or fantastic in nature. Frequently the logical order of life breaks down. Causes are no longer efficient; effects no longer predictable. Yet, despite this seeming reversal of the actual order, the essential facts of life are never disregarded, for Aymé's fantasy does not invoke supernatural powers. As in Alice in Wonderland, the result of fancy is truth, and madness but disguise.
Outlines, however, are of little use in describing Aymé's extraordinary imagination whose capriciousness defies any reduction to schemas. The tale entitled “Les Bœufs” illustrates the very vanity of such pedantry and of knowledge in general. Reminiscent of Bouvard et Pécuchet, the story begins with a speech by a sous-préfet belaboring a group of children on the advantages of a good education: “Mes chers enfants, dit-il, l'instruction est une bonne chose et ceux qui n'en ont pas sont bien à plaindre.”2 Intoxicated by his harangue, the girls exhort their oxen to become students of higher things. The red ox resists, but the white one begins to “orner son esprit.” He reads extensively, investigates problems in physics and takes pleasure in quoting Victor Hugo: “J'admire, assis sous un portail. …” Gradually, our scholar turns into a bore who scorns his friends and neglects his duty which is to pull the plow. About to be sold to the butcher, he refuses to abandon his idée fixe and replies to the entreaties of his companion: “Oui, Monsieur, j'ai méprisé vos conseils, comme je les méprise aujourd'hui. Sachez que je ne regrette rien, et quant à vouloir oublier quoi que ce soit, je refuse. Mon seul désir, ma seule ambition, c'est d'apprendre encore et toujours. Plutôt mourir que d'y renoncer” (p. 42).
Although the implications of Aymé's stories are sometimes sad, the genre and forms of the apologue are, by their very nature, gay and sprightly and thus mitigate any satire the apologue may contain. Aymé stops short of exaggeration and eschews the now fashionable gloom of expressionistic allegorists such as Kafka and Beckett. Quite circumspect in his use of the principle of the reductio ad absurdum, he criticizes what is, without, however, questioning ideals of loyalty, camaraderie and compassion. To the insulting speech of the white ox, the red one replies: “Si tu venais à mourir, j'aurais du chagrin, tu sais.” But the intellectual has become corrupted and doubts his companion's love: “Oui, oui, on dit ça, et puis dans le fond. …” Finally, the white ox joins a circus and out of friendship his mate follows him. The moral of the story is “qu'à moins de trouver place dans un cirque, les bœufs ne gagnent rien à s'instruire, et que les meilleurs lectures leur attirent les pires ennuis” (p. 50).
The fable entitled “Le Chien” is a study in selfishness and altruism. Delphine and Marinette meet a blind dog whom they befriend and who tells them his sad tale. He had been a seeing-eye dog of a blind beggar and out of pity, had assumed his master's affliction: “Chien, veux-tu prendre mon mal et devenir aveugle à ma place?” (pp. 79, 80). Abandoned by the thankless wretch, he ingratiates himself with the girls and parents and quickly succeeds in making the cat feel guilty who in turn assumes his blindness and revels in his new found goodness: “Ronron … je suis bon … ronron … je suis bon.” He, too, is neglected, and perchance, catching a mouse, does not waste any time in forcing the rodent to accept his blindness. His friend's reactions are revealing: “Quand le chien arriva à son tour, il fut si heureux de la guérison de son ami, qu'il ne put cacher sa joie devant la souris. Le chat a été très bon, dit-il, et voyez ce qui arrive: il en est récompensé aujourd'hui! C'est vrai, disaient les petites, il a été bon. … C'est vrai murmurait le chat j'ai été bon. … Hum! faisait la souris, hum! hum!” (p. 90) The dog interprets the miracle as a divine act of Providence which recompenses the just and the girls agree whereas the cat, traditionally realistic, mutters with a mixture of regret and relief: “j'ai été bon.” The mouse's “hum” speaks louder than words. The beggar, unwilling to work and unaware of the subsequent transmissions of his blindness, returns and beseeches first the dog, and then the cat to give him the affliction in exchange for helping him find his way. They refer him to the mouse who gladly consents to the bargain. As he stumbles off, led by his fragile guide, the dog can no longer contain himself and rushes back to his former master not daring to look back at the girls and the cat who are in tears. The moral is left to the discretion of the readers. Should we infer that we are neither exclusively compassionate nor selfish, or should we conclude that it is impossible to draw a moral about mice and men and that there is but one certainty, namely, that a dog is man's best friend?
In any case, Aymé's fables demonstrate a basic truth, that life triumphs over those who are victims of preconceived ideas about their destiny and instincts. Fate and instinct, however, are not always in accord. Such is the moral of “Le Cerf et le chien.” A stag arrives in the courtyard pursued by hounds. The girls hide him and the lead dog, Pataud, taking pity on him, leads the pack astray: “Après tout le cerf ne m'a rien fait. D'un autre côté, bien sûr, le gibier est le gibier et je devrais faire mon métier. Mais, pour une autre fois. …”3 The noble stag remains on the farm to assume an oxen's yoke. But after being beaten and brutalized by the parents, he returns to the life of the forest. Pataud, unable to prevent his death, and sickened by his trade, becomes a watch-dog: “Je ne veux plus entendre parler de la chasse. C'est fini.” His remorse, so simple and evident, is far more telling than wordy self-accusations and confessions. Although one's guilt be only circumstantial, it should be redeemed by self-awareness if not by change. Passions must be curbed, for, as the pig declares: “… s'il ne fallait écouter que son appétit, on aurait bientôt dévoré ses meilleurs amis.”4
The tale of the “Le Mauvais Jars” is a variation on the same theme. Its protagonists are the Bad Gander and the Clever Jack-ass. The former is a remarkable portrait of a bully, a kill-joy and vexatious husband. His choleric outbursts are borne patiently by Mother Goose whose conjugal reply, “Mais voyons, mon ami!,” never varies. The Jack-ass, a tragic-comic character, endures the gander's mockery and, like a true clown, joins in the merriment. When the gander confiscates the girls' ball, he consoles them by allowing, nay, by urging them to stroke his long ears. Compulsive about exhibiting the objects of his ridicule, he invites injurious comments. The girls oblige him. It is in vain that he bemoans the injustice of his fate; Delphine and Marinette are not convinced, for his bêtise is proverbial and they cannot believe that things might be otherwise. Here is the turning point of the fable: “Il comprit qu'il ne réussirait pas à les convaincre de l'injustice dont il était victime. Elles ne le croiraient jamais sans preuves.”5 The remainder of the fable tells the donkey's vengeance. The gander is punished and our author concludes his tale in a spirit of ironic justice: “Aussi n'est-il plus question, depuis ce jour-là, de la bêtise de l'âne; et l'on dit, au contraire, d'un homme à qui on veut faire compliment de son intelligence qu'il est fin comme un âne” (p. 140).
It is of paramount importance that everyone, men and beasts, act according to the prescribed rules of society. To transgress openly their limits is to court disaster: witness le petit coq noir who lives on the assumption that to be eaten by one's master is a “règle sans exception.” Seduced by Reynard's call to live freely and encouraged by the children to become the leader of his race, he is soon killed by the fox and eaten by the parents. Worst of all, the girls are scolded for meddling, and they now realize that “le mensonge et la désobéissance sont d'affreux péchés.”6 Thus, Aymé derides empty precepts by contrasting them with a reality that operates under its own laws. There is a lag between the logic of life and the logic of justice. Indeed, the punishment does not always fit the crime, and sometimes, one is chastized regardless of what one has done. Cognizant of this fact, the girls soon learn to defend themselves by assuming a rôle, and the resulting contrast between pretense and reality creates comic effects. As the wolf stares at them through the window, Marinette laughs at his pointed ears. But Delphine knows better. Clasping her sister's hand she declares: “C'est le loup. Le loup? dit Marinette, alors on a peur? Bien sûr, on a peur.”7
Despite these oscillations between sincerity and irony, Aymé takes great care to inform the reader of the true feelings of any given character at any given time. Even the wolf enjoys feelings of tenderness and contrition until the confession of his evil deeds turns into torment when he is overcome by “le souvenir d'une gamine potelée et fondant sous la dent” (p. 14). The insertion of colloquial expressions in the dialogue furthers the dramatic development of his character. Thus, the girls propose to jouer au loup and as he participates in the game of being himself he quite naturally becomes himself and devours them. However, in contrast to Thurber, whose fables and morals are often derived from a commonplace (e.g., “Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.”) Aymé rarely subordinates his intrigue to the dramatic possibilities offered by a reinterpretation of a proverbial saying. Puns and jests have their place, but action is prior to style.
In order to be fabulistic, this action must be both human and animal, that is to say, the successful fabulist should understand man and beast, capture the essences of each and then invest the animal with those human qualities that best stress its respective folkloristic character. At the same time, he should grant the human protagonists a clear insight into animal psychology. Aymé is a master at creating a natural interplay between the children and the denizens of the barnyard and surrounding fields. Their conversations are spontaneous, their dialogues dramatic. Narration alternates pleasingly with direct discourse which enlivens the intrigue and serves as a convenient vehicle for parodying braggarts and pedants. In this respect, he belongs to a distinguished tradition of French writers that begins with the anonymous authors of Le Roman de Renart and has as its most illustrious member the immortal La Fontaine. Surely his Fables must have been Aymé's livre de chevet, for Les Contes du chat perché are pervaded by a similar spirit of classical restraint and mediaeval realism. And above all, Aymé, like La Fontaine, is an acute observer of the human and animal kingdoms. The story entitled “La Patte du chat” is excellent proof of his talent to distill the quintessence of cat. The intrigue is simple: Alphonse, the feline, tries to save the girls from being punished for having broken an old and valued piece of china. They are to pay a call to Aunt Mélina, a fearsome hag, and in order to stave off the dreadful visit, he causes rain by washing his face. The angry parents put him into a weighted sack and are about to drown the self-sacrificial cat, who insists on perishing for the sake of his friends. Heartbroken, Delphine and Marinette seek counsel from the duck: “C'était un canard avisé et qui avait beaucoup de sérieux. Pour mieux réfléchir, il cacha sa tête sous son aile. J'ai beau me creuser la cervelle, dit-il enfin, je ne vois pas le moyen de décider Alphonse de sortir de son sac.”8 The melodrama ends with a delightful scene in which the cat assumes the thaumaturgic rôle of a pagan rainmaker: “Le soir même de ce même jour—le plus chaud qu'on eût jamais vu—Delphine et Marinette, les parents et toutes les bêtes de la ferme formerent un grand cercle dans la cour. Au milieu du cercle, Alphonse était assis sur un tabouret. Sans se presser, il fit d'abord sa toilette et, le moment venu, passa plus de cinquante fois sa patte derrière l'oreille. Le lendemain matin, après vingt-cinq jours de sécheresse, il tombait une bonne pluie, rafraîchissant bêtes et gens” (p. 40).
It would be unjust to Aymé as well as to poetry, to classify him as a poetic prose-writer. His Confort intellectuel is a traditional bourgeois attack against Baudelaire in particular, and, in general, against all forms of symbolist prose and poetry, “celle qui consiste à dire des choses fausses ou à ne rien dire.”9 Whether or not this refusal or incomprehension is the negative side of his talent is debatable. Yet poetic he is, at times, not in terms of metaphor, concept or rhythm, but in terms of his dramatic situations. They should not be simply subsumed under the heading of “realistic fantasy” and any difficulty we may encounter in defining this poetic feeling should not deny its residual presence. His poetry is an integral part of his composition; perhaps it is the fabular spirit itself. Despite his prejudices against those who do not write “clearly,” Aymé may well be more closely allied to the surrealists than is good for his own confort. His revolt against, and transcendence of, the sociological norms of perception and behavior, suggest surrealistic influences. Above all, Aymé the fabulist rejects utilitarianism and in this respect Jules Monnerot's definition of poetry is à propos: “Il y a poésie quand l'affectivité charge une manifestation humaine d'un sens qui ne se laisse pas ramener sans résidu à la notion vulgaire de l'utile. L'efficace poétique est autre que l'efficience d'une modification du monde préméditée et exécutée selon le principe de réalité, les normes de l'entendement.”10 The fable of “Le Paon” furnishes a splendid illustration of this principle. The girls undergo a crise de vanité which affects everyone, especially the pig. Envious of the peacock, he wants to lose weight and, above all, acquire a tuft and feathers to make a wheel. All succumb to discouragement except the dandy whose perseverance elicits ridicule and much headwagging. Yet, at the end, when hope seems gone, a rainbow converges on the pig's tail who mistakes it for plumage. Desire for beauty, a forgivable folly, is rewarded, and dreams turn to reality: “Derrière lui, l'arc-en-ciel fondit tout d'un coup et se déposa sur sa peau en couleurs si tendres, et si vives aussi, que les plumes du paon, à côté, eussent été comme une grisaille.”11 The tale of “La Buse et le cochon” has a similar ending. Through the intervention of his friends, the pig escapes the butcher's knife by flying away with the wings of the buzzard who has been stripped of his pinions (buse signifying also blockhead). Gracefully, he cruises above the yard, shouting to the astonished parents: ‘J'aime mieux quitter la maison que d'y finir au saloir. Adieu, et apprenez à être moins cruels.”12 This, too, is poetry.
The fables entitled “Le Problème, Les Boîtes de peinture,” and “Les Eléphants” have metaphysical implications. The first one illustrates pragmatism. The girls, unable to do their homework, seek help from their friends to solve their problem: “Les bois de la commune ont une étendue de seize hectares. Sachant qu'un are est planté de trois chênes, de deux hêtres et d'un bouleau, combien les bois de la commune contiennent-ils d'arbres de chaque espèce?”13 “La petite poule blanche” resolves the question by proposing that they count the number of beeches, oaks, etc. within the territorial limits of the village. In so doing, the group meets a wild boar who cannot bear the sight of the pig. It is worthwhile to quote him: “Que cet animal est donc laid. Je n'arrive pas à m'y habituer. Cette peau rose est d'un effet vraiment écœurant. Mais n'en parlons plus. Je vous disais donc qu'à vivre la nuit je suis resté ignorant de bien des choses. Qu'est-ce qu'une maîtresse d'école par exemple. Et qu'est-ce qu'un problème?” (p. 46) In the ensuing discussion, scholarly endeavors are divested of meaning and assume an air of absurdity when confronted with the pleasures of l'école buissonière. In the final scene the school mistress tries to explain to the animals that the assigned problem does not correspond to anything real. Angrily they retort that the terms of a problem must be related to reality if the problem is to have any value.
Common sense, however, should not impair the powers of fancy and imagination. When the children paint a donkey and grant him but two legs, he actually turns into a biped. Art becomes constitutive of reality. At times, Aymé favors philosophical idealism and questions the realness of the exterior world. Such is the conclusion of the whimsical tales “Les Eléphants.” Wanting to play “Noah's Ark,” the girls herd their friends into the kitchen, where the cow stares at a pitcher of milk and slice of cheese, murmuring all the while to herself: “Je comprends, maintenant, je comprends.”14 “La petite poule blanche” wants to join the expedition, but is de trop unless she changes into an elephant. The hen concentrates and ipso facto assumes the shape of a stately pachyderm. After the conclusion of the game, she refuses to become her former self. The parents arrive and, puzzled by the shaking walls, finally open the door to the kitchen which, lo and behold, is empty save for a small white chicken. There is no explanation and Delphine and Marinette themselves begin to doubt the reality of the metamorphosis. Is it a fiction of childish fancy, or could it be that games and fables need neither proof nor justification?
In only one fable, “Les Cygnes,” do the parents enter the domain of the fabulous and le merveilleux, and it is characteristic of Aymé that this adult vision should be clouded with tears. Marinette and Delphine stray from the beaten path and join other creatures in search of the “rendez-vous des enfants perdus.” The meeting is held under the auspices of swans who refuse to let the children return home. But an old swan intercedes in their favor and leads them back to the farm. At that moment the parents appear and witness the following scene:
Le vieux cygne s'écarta de la haie, puis, rassemblant ses dernières forces, s'élança en courant vers le milieu des champs. … Alors, il se mit à chanter, comme font les cygnes quand ils vont mourir. Et son chant était si beau qu'à l'entendre, les larmes venaient dans les yeux. Sur la route, les parents s'étaient donné la main et, sans prendre garde qu'il tournaient le dos à la maison, s'en allaient à travers les champs à la recontre de la voix. Longtemps après que le cygne eut cessé de chanter, ils marchaient encore dans la rosée et ne pensaient pas à rentrer.
Dans la cuisine, Delphine et Marinette cousaient sous la lampe. Le couvert était mis et le feu allumé. En entrant, les parents dirent bonjour d'une petite voix qu'elles ne reconnaissaient pas. Ils avaient les yeux humides et, ce qui ne leur était jamais arrivé, n'en finissaient pas de regarder au plafond.
—Quel dommage, dirent-ils aux petites. Quel dommage que vous n'ayez pas traversé la route tout à l'heure. Un cygne a chanté sur les prés.15
The moral of this tale is sad. The tragedy, Aymé tells us in a matter-of-fact tone, is not that we must die, but that we are like the parents, often heartless, yet unable to maintain our composure and indifference when we hear the song of a dying swan. The tears they shed are tears of remorse for not having lived the life of poetry and friendship. Unwilling to tell their children the truth, they conceal it behind an impersonal statement: “Un cygne a chanté sur les prés.” Only once are the parents freed from their own guilt and pomposity, and this against their will when la panthère aux yeux d'or forces them to become playful: “Depuis qu'elle s'était installée au foyer, la vie avait changé et personne ne s'en plaignait. Sans parler du vieux cheval qui ne s'était jamais vu à pareille fête, chacun se sentait plus heureux. Les bêtes vivaient en sécurité et les gens ne traînaient plus comme autrefois le remords de les manger. Les parents avaient perdu l'habitude de crier et de menacer, et le travail était devenu pour tout le monde un plaisir.”16 Fleetingly, Aymé suggests the age of innocence, the golden age so dear to Supervielle. But whereas the latter's wit and humour are purely poetic and mythological, our fabulist's realistic evocations are forever threatened by his own laughter and disbelief. Salvation depends on a complete and improbable reversal of rôles: “C'est à peine si Delphine et Marinette trouvaient le temps d'apprendre leurs leçons et de faire leurs devoirs. Venez jouer, disaient les parents. Vous ferez vos devoirs une autre fois” (p. 173).
It is regrettable that Aymé's style does not always match the excellence of his fantasy and imagination. His prose, dry and functional, is not marred by any specific flaw or “little rift within the flute,” but rather by a dull absence of ornament, design and metaphor. Admittedly, Aymé's ideal is simplicity, and he has bitterly attacked misuse of language: “Quand les mots se mettent à enfler, quand leur sens devient ambigu, incertain, et que le vocabulaire se charge de flou, d'obscurité et néant péremptoire, il n'y a plus de recours pour l'esprit.” Yet, as we have suggested, this refusal of pretentiousness may well mask his weakness. Wanting to be natural, he tends to be artless, and his discourse lacks the diction, tension and luster of great prose. In art, nature is fashioned of art. Had he been as exacting towards himself as towards others, his fables might already be a part of France's literary patrimony. To be sure, Aymé, the fabulist, holds a very respectable position among the representatives of the genre mineur, of the fabular spirit which refuses to die, but the question of whether or not he has succeeded in immortalizing Delphine and Marinette remains the subject of much doubt.
Marcel Aymé, Le Confort intellectuel (Paris, 1949), p. 12.
Marcel Aymé, Les Contes du chat perché (Paris, 1939), p. 29.
Marcel Aymé, Derniers Contes du chat perché (Paris, 1958), p. 80.
Les Contes du chat perché, “La Buse et le cochon,” p. 156.
Ibid., “Le Mauvais Jars,” p. 132.
Ibid., “Le Petit Coq noir,” p. 13.
Ibid., “Le Loup,” p. 10.
Autres Contes du chat perché (Paris, 1950), p. 29.
Le Confort intellectuel, p. 14.
Jules Monnerot, La Poésie moderne et le sacré (Paris, 1945), pp. 15, 16.
Les Contes du chat perché, “Le Paon,” p. 201.
Ibid., “La Buse et le cochon,” p. 160.
Derniers Contes du chat perché, “Le Problème,” p. 40.
Les contes du chat perché, “L'Eléphant,” p. 105.
Autres Contes du chat perché, “Les Cygnes,” pp. 55–6.
Les Contes du chat perché, “Le Canard et la Panthère,” p. 172.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15470
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 qualify it: fantaisie, merveilleux, surréel, fantastique, fabuleux, absurde, non-sens, miraculeux, féerique, science-fiction. This list makes the analysis of Aymé's unreal stories seem a particularly daunting project, but in fact many of these terms are wrongly or too vaguely applied. Aymé's unreal has little connection with the vogue of Surrealism, the ‘literature of the Absurd’ or the rather anglophone trend towards verbal nonsense, and the theoreticians of the unreal tend to condemn the terms merveilleux and fantaisie as being too general, along with the once precise but now vague use of miraculeux and fabuleux.
Part of Aymé's originality is that he dabbles in several different currents of fantasy. Apart from a thin vein of science fiction, Aymé's imagination can be divided between the two widely accepted currents of féerique and fantastique. It is important to make a clear distinction between these two because Aymé tends to disregard literary convention by mingling them and adapting them to his own purposes. The féerique implies a world apart, like C. S. Lewis's Narnia or J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, a world inhabited by fairies, unicorns and sorcerers. Its normal phenomena are spells, magic lamps and moonlight. Describing the faerie world of Perrault, Marcel Schneider writes of ‘un monde où tout vit, où tout parle, où tout agit. Ce monde a un sens.’ It is also a moral world where man's causality is absent even though his attributes may be reflected in humanized animals; Isabelle Jan underlines the tradition of ‘L'Ours-valeureux’, ‘le Cochon-tyran’, ‘le Renard-fripon’ and ‘le Chat-brigand’. Man's presence is not obligatory but Aymé obviously finds that faerie is much more relevant and interesting if man participates. Yet this participation will usually be temporary; man will return to the security of his own world at the end.
The literature of the fantastic tends to be taken more seriously than faerie because it talks of our world, our own time and space coordinates. Humans provide most of its protagonists even if they have some frightening new power, and where there are monsters—vampires and werewolves—they often reflect man in their creation. Several common themes recur: metamorphoses, time manipulation, invisibility, voyages to a ‘beyond’, statues that come to life, pacts with occult powers, monstrous psychological reflections of human feelings or experiences. The essence of the fantastic is the intrusion of something strange and frightening into our secure world. The fear is stressed because our security is threatened; man himself is closely involved and usually helpless before the fantastic. He could kill a fire-breathing dragon but the spectres that he encounters now are often part of himself, the fantastique intérieur that is so important in the work of Hoffmann and Poe.
There are elements of both faerie and the fantastic in the stories of Marcel Aymé. He admits appreciation of the work of Andersen and Perrault and has written prefaces to the stories of both. In his comments on his own childhood Aymé refers to the influence of fairy stories as well as to his penchant for Jules Verne and the comtesse de Ségur. All of these influences are to be seen in borrowings of material, but what is more interesting is the way Aymé adapts, distorts and often parodies that material.
Aymé's most recognizable borrowings are from faerie literature. He does not exploit faerie very often, perhaps because the inventive and nonconformist conteur felt constrained by the particularly strong rules of a tradition which ‘n'admet pas d'acte vraiment créateur ou vraiment libre’. What is more, Aymé is essentially a humanist and faerie is too far removed from man. He has exploited only a few truly faerie characters: a water-sprite, a wicked ogre and a centaur; but several stories are infected in a more general way by the faerie spirit.
Aymé's break with tradition starts very early. The water-fairy Udine in ‘Au clair de la lune’, after nine hundred years at the bottom of her river, enters man's time and space scale. She is quite a conventional fairy: long blonde hair ‘comme elles ont toutes’, magic wand, crystal and jade chariot drawn by white rabbits. One of Aymé's recurrent themes is the clash between reality and fantasy. This is accentuated here by bringing Udine out of her traditionally closed context into our world. Udine is quickly threatened with a fine for driving on the highway without lights. An evil fairy, smiles Aymé, would have turned the gendarme into a merino ram or a coffee-grinder, but Udine is a kind fairy: she adapts to his world by telling him she is ‘la femme du préfet’. The clash of real and fantasy continues as Udine tries to help young Jacot win the hand of his Valentine. Reality threatens to turn her conte rose into a conte gris: she sees her rabbits beaten by Jacot's sports car and then she is so disturbed that she muddles up her magic spells. Aymé's sad smile persists at the end: Udine does manage to bring the lovers together but must go on her way discouraged by a world where man's law requires head-lights even though ‘la lune éclate au firmament étoilé comme la rose livide dans un parterre de jasmins’ (PI 171) and where Jacot cannot go and ‘chanter la romance éternelle sous les fenêtres de Valentine (…) dans ces jardins tout parfumés de blanche aubépine et de tendre péché’ (PI 179) because Valentine's father has set traps in the flower-beds!
Aymé's ogre in ‘Conte du milieu’ suffers even more than Udine in his confrontation with man's world. This ogre no longer inhabits a cave in Fairyland but runs a café near the Porte St. Martin. His particular vice is to touch young ladies on the cheek with his magic ring and mutter the incantation ‘Calvados, Cognac, Fine Champagne’ to shrink them and store them in his salad bowl until he wants to take his pleasure or eat them. After bringing this faerie out of its context into the reality of Paris Aymé almost parodies a conventional fairy-story plot. The young hero's mistress is spirited away and Janot sets out to rescue her, turns the ogre's own weapon against him, rescues Riri la Blonde and they live happily ever after as proprietors of a brothel. We do not need Pierre Berger's ribald etchings in the separate edition of this tale to realize that it is pure entertainment.
Aymé enlivens several of his more serious short stories by borrowing faerie accessories and effects from their traditional context and applying them in a very real frame. At the end of a rather lengthy account of an unmarried mother's sacrifices to give her young son enough to eat, Aymé introduces magic into ‘Les Bottes de sept lieues’ to provide a happily-ever-after ending that he shows to be sadly impossible if we remain tied to reality. The boots enable young Antoine to escape his life of poverty and bring back poignantly simple treasures to his mother in their cold attic:
En dix minutes, il fut à l'autre bout de la terre et s'arrêta dans un grand pré pour y cueillir une brassée des premiers rayons du soleil qu'il noua d'un fil de la Vierge.
Antoine retrouva facilement la mansarde où il se glissa sans bruit. Sur le petit lit de sa mère, il posa sa brassée brillante dont la lueur éclaira le visage endormi et il trouva qu'elle était moins fatiguée.
Magic tears, gestures and incantations are used in Les Contes du chat perché as well as the eerie sound-effects that accompany the metamorphosis in ‘L'Ane et le cheval’: rattling chains, a music box and the howling of a non-existent storm. Aymé further mixes his genres by applying moonlight effects to the fantastic time jump in ‘La Fabrique’ and the strange storm motif accompanies the time movement and metamorphosis in Le Décret, which by its structure and theme belongs well and truly in the fantastic vein.
The novels La Table aux crevés, Gustalin and La Vouivre are coloured by elements of Aymé's native Jurassian mythology that should clearly be classed as faerie. Yet, despite its influence on his childhood, this pagan faerie with its mysterious trees and rocks, its enchanted ponds and snake-charming nymphs, touches only one short story, ‘Les mauvaises fièvres’, and there as hardly more than an accessory. Aymé more often exploits the faerie of classical mythology. ‘Fiançailles’ is the story of a young centaur called Aristide who has the torso and face of a charming adolescent but the body of a stallion. Here, too, the intrusion of fantasy into reality and man's own reaction are underlined. Aristide has been born to the marquise de Valoraine and then hidden away to avoid social scandal. The story describes his discovery of the outside world, his sexual coming of age and his choice between the two sides of his nature. He becomes excited by the budding young god-daughter of the local bishop and thinks that it must be his ‘âme’ that he feels stirring at the sight of her rounded ‘croupe’. His spontaneity, candour and evident lack of social conditioning provide some rather amusing situations, the best of which is the proposed marriage of real and fantasy. The bishop is at first shocked by the proposition, seeing nothing but ‘péché’ and ‘animalité’ in the uneducated Aristide, but soon jumps at the opportunity to marry off his ward.
Aymé turns this story into a light-hearted dig at the religious and social constraints that the untutored centaur cannot comprehend. Aristide relives Udine's experience with the representative of society's law and order: the gendarme in this case regards Aristide's very existence as an affront to authority and threatens to arrest him for ‘attentat à la pudeur publique’. Aristide is confused and instinctively decides that his animal half must be the better one. He rather symbolically breaks out of the park and runs off into the forest with the first real mare he meets, leaving poor Ernestine to have her stirrings repressed by the nuns of the école Sainte-Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jésus.
Just as recognizable as Aristide or the seven-league boots are several images which are biblical or at least religio-moral in origin while being féerique in spirit. Aymé's preface to the stories of Andersen shows that he regarded this as a legitimate extension of faerie material. Whether his irreverent story is to be based on Samson's magic hair, a comic-strip God astride a cloud, the Devil riding up to the pearly gates on a broomstick to parley with St. Peter, or St. Francis of Assisi appearing to a sadist to ask him to read his Vita (Editions du Ciel, of course), Aymé's parodic exploitation of the image is similar to his use of more conventional material.
‘La Fosse aux péchés' exploits the biblical parable tradition with a story of allegorical monsters acting out the battle between good and evil. Aymé uses a dream to frame a ribald pastiche of the whole tradition. This is one of several stories where the ironic Aymé subjects a pure character to temptation. The hero this time is Martin, a ‘professeur de pureté’ who gives in to temptation in a very familiar pattern: he sells his soul to the Devil for a golden calf but the Devil snaps him up on his way to spend it. The following scene in hell, where an English pastor does battle with the Devil's seven deadly henchmen, allows Aymé to indulge his Rabelaisian streak of verbal amusement. The pastor vanquishes one by one the grotesque sins which take the form that the sinner imagines them to have. Here is Aymé's vision of pride:
Son corps avait la forme d'une commode Louis XV. (…) Il avait le derrière empanaché d'un flot de tentacules multicolores où dominaient l'or et la pourpre. Ses jambes de pierre étaient d'un blanc laiteux, ses pieds et ses cuisses couleur merde d'oie. Il portait en sautoir, imprimé sur la peau, un grand cordon violet fileté de blanc et, sur son torse Louis XV, deux rangées de décorations qui étaient ses excroissances naturelles aux coloris des plus chatoyants. Ses cornes étaient dorées, ses oreilles de veau d'un rouge éclatant.
At the end of the epic struggle hell vomits its prey, but this ending is deceptive. Aymé's target is once again the constraints placed on man by a religio-social educative process, so he arranges a reversal of the standard moral ending: the Devil's pleasure-creed ‘Le péché est la substance essentielle de la vie’ wins the day. Once back among his disciples, Professor Martin tells them:
—Déchirez mon traité de prophylaxie de l'âme. (…) Si vous voulez vous garder des mauvaises tentations, ne haïssez pas le péché, mais familiarisez-vous avec le péril. Ne soyez pas bêtement modestes, ne méprisez pas les bonnes nourritures, ne fuyez pas les femmes, etc.
Hypocritical conceptions of virtue are ridiculed more bitterly when Aymé uses the décor of heaven and an imaginary country for his ‘Légende poldève’. The exaggerated virtue of the old maid Mlle Borboïé is Aymé's target. Her virtue is constrained, ritual and above all egoistic. All her actions are directed towards her own entry into paradise. Aymé's satire of her self-righteousness continues right up to the gates of a heaven that is disturbingly like an administrative office. She pleads her ‘dossier’ with St. Peter as with any other public servant and tries to get him to take a personal interest in her case:
—… Prière du matin, action de grâces, puis messe de six heures par tous les temps. Après la messe, invocation spéciale à saint Joseph et remerciement à la Vierge. Chapelet à dix heures, suivi de la lecture d'un chapitre des Evangiles. Benedicite à midi … (…)
—Ecoutez, dit ce bon archange, votre cas me paraît intéressant. Je veux tenter quelque chose pour vous.
Aymé subjects the hypocritical old maid to a final test: to attain paradise she must pretend to be whore to a regiment of hussars! In ‘Légende poldève’ Aymé is very close to Voltaire in his blend of ironic humorist and bitter moralist. This is visible not only in his imitation of the style of Candide and his satire of the spinster and her heaven, but also when he describes the comic-strip war fought for national honour:
Un petit garçon de Molletonie pissa délibérément par-dessus la frontière et arrosa le territoire poldève avec un sourire sardonique. C'en était trop pour l'honneur du peuple poldève dont la conscience se révolta, et la mobilisation fut aussitôt décrétée.
Wartime God-on-our-side sentiments and the idea that wholesale slaughter becomes moral when backed by a ‘noble’ cause are mocked as Aymé reveals the ignoble side of militarism: the swaggering local soldiery assault, rape and plunder the very civilians they are supposed to be protecting. And of course all combatants (and only combatants), automatically ‘morts pour la patrie’ and also ‘pour le bon droit’ even if they are the enemy, are admitted to heaven with no questions asked.
True to Voltairian tradition, Aymé works through irony rather than direct statement. Certainly he is exploiting the faerie mode to satirize reality, but faerie is only a ruse. Aymé's main weapon is his language itself. His attitude is conveyed by tone rather than by the actual events that are narrated. A good example of this is his treatment of the contrast between Marichella Borboïé and her nephew Bobislas. The nephew is a thorough scoundrel: we follow his career through lechery and drunkenness to theft, rape and pillage. Aymé appears to have created an obvious candidate for the fires of hell and yet the joyous, flowing narrative contradicts these appearances: it provokes a smile which lures the reader into feeling a certain sympathy for the ribald Bobislas:
Un chapelet d'abominables jurements l'annonçait du bout de la rue où demeurait la vieille demoiselle. Titubant, son grand sabre cognant et s'embarrassant à tous les meubles, sans autre bonjour qu'un blasphème, il lui signifiait, éructant et braillant, qu'elle eût à sortir son argent et à se hâter. Plusieurs fois même, comme elle tardait à s'exécuter, il avait à moitié dégainé son bancal et menacé la sainte fille de la partager en deux dans le sens de la longueur
while the dry irony of the sentences devoted to the ‘virtuous’ but stupid old spinster and her misguided faith leaves no doubt as to Aymé's opinion of her:
Pendant cinq ans, Mlle Borboïé voulut croire qu'il s'amenderait un jour et lui prodigua inlassablement les bons conseils et les pieuses exhortations avec tout l'argent qu'il fallait pour les faire fructifier.
The theme, the reversal structure and above all the rather féerique accessories of ‘Légende poldève’ recur in the very similar ‘L'Huissier’. The comic potential of the heavenly décor is more fully realized here; it is brought into more profitable contrast with reality. Aymé opens the story with another light-hearted parody of a Last Judgement trial scene. The magistrate is St. Peter with his book of records, the defendant is an over-zealous, cynical and self-righteous bailiff called Malicorne, the evidence is a large vat full of the tears of the widows and children he has evicted, and the appeals judge is God, who enters on his cloud to the accompaniment of a roll of thunder. Malicorne's refusal to be cowed by the situation provides some rather splendid dialogue. Undeterred by St. Peter's opening remark that there are hardly any bailiffs in paradise, he suavely assures the guardian of the gates that he does not really insist on being with his colleagues. … Asked about his ‘bonnes oeuvres’, he searches back fifteen years in his memory and cites the occasion when he gave ten centimes to a beggar. The objection that the coin was counterfeit leaves him unperturbed too; the beggar would have passed it on quite easily. Naturally there is also a dark side to this humour. Malicorne's cynical defence is that he was only doing his job to the best of his ability (‘Dieu merci, mes affaires marchaient bien et je n'ai pas chômé’, PM 232), but he was obviously rather too zealous a bailiff. St. Peter is all for stoking up the fires of hell and washing down Malicorne's burns with the salt water from the vat, but Malicorne appeals against this judgement. The appeal is heard, because ‘La procédure est la procédure’, even in heaven. God deems that St. Peter was rather too hasty in his condemnation: it is not the bailiff (over-zealous or not) who is at fault, but the human laws whose agent he is. Yet they can hardly allow a bailiff into heaven because ‘Ce serait un scandale’.
Malicorne is sent back to earth to redeem himself. He tries to buy his way back into heaven by performing good deeds and he records these for St. Peter in a little notebook drawn up with debit and credit columns:
‘J'ai, spontanément, augmenté de cinquante francs par mois mon clerc Bourrichon qui ne le méritait pourtant pas.’
At the end of his first day of reprieve Malicorne has performed twelve of these empty ‘bonnes oeuvres’ at a noted cost of 600 francs. It seems that the only good deeds he can think of involve money. Aymé is not only using his faerie borrowings, complete with suggestive dream frame, to scourge those hypocrites who would purchase salvation with their ‘charité intéressée’; he has also treated us to a neat ironic reversal. We have before us a miser who is now determined to part with his fortune. It is almost as if Aymé had started a new story by suggesting that ‘Il y avait, à Paris, un méchant huissier qui, un jour, décida de devenir bon.’ This is a particularly fruitful premise because Aymé has chosen a rather excessive bailiff to start with:
Il y avait, dans une petite ville de France, un huissier qui s'appelait Malicorne et il était si scrupuleux dans l'accomplissement de son triste ministère qu'il n'eût pas hésité à saisir ses propres meubles.
Obviously there is great potential for humour in this reversal. Imagine the bewilderment of the bailiff's staff when their tyrannical master suddenly doubles their salary! Malicorne sets his target of good deeds at twelve a day, but increases this whenever an ache or pain makes him afraid his end might be near. At the end of a year he has filled six exercise-books, and Aymé indulges in a superb parody of the classic Scrooge image: Malicorne gloating as he weighs his tally-books and leafs delightedly through their pages (PM 241).
Here, too, there is a dark side to the humour, a sombre dramatic irony in the bailiff's first post-metamorphosis encounter with his client, the landlord Gorgerin, who does not know that Malicorne is now working against his interests. There is even more bitter irony in the comparison between the two men's ambitions: Malicorne is trying to be known as ‘bon’ while Gorgerin is desperately trying to avoid it. Money is the only tool Malicorne knows. As the bailiff does his rounds dispensing alms to the poor, Aymé builds a case against Malicorne's former clients, the heartless slum landlords like Gorgerin who exploit the poor in their defenceless misery. Malicorne is received in heaven at the end but it has nothing to do with his false generosity. He is finally moved by the poverty of a tawdry seventh-floor garret and, in his first truly spontaneous gesture, turns on Gorgerin shouting ‘A bas les propriétaires’. He is shot dead for his treason and of course goes straight to Aymé's anti-serious heaven that is reserved, like his sympathies, for the meek and the down-trodden:
Dieu, émerveillé, commanda aux anges de jouer, en l'honneur de Malicorne, du luth, de la viole, du hautbois et du flageolet. Ensuite, il fit ouvrir les portes du ciel à deux battants, comme cela se fait pour les déshérités, les clochards, les claque-dents et les condamnés à mort. Et l'huissier, porté par un air de musique, entra au Paradis avec un rond de lumière sur la tête.
This unexpected reversal motif, already visible in ‘La Fosse aux péchés’ and ‘Légende poldève’, is a favourite one with Aymé. He uses another faerie image to pursue it in ‘Conte de Noël’, where ‘l'enfant Noël' distributes joy to the ladies of a brothel instead of to spoilt little rich children, and again in ‘Dermuche’ where ‘le petit Jésus’ comes down to die instead of a morally innocent criminal. ‘La Grâce’ explores the same thematic area with a hero who is so virtuous that he is awarded a halo. He has to wear it around the streets of Montmartre. Here Aymé is again combining two genres; the halo is essentially a faerie accessory but the situation—a mortal has a strange gift conferred upon him within his own context—is clearly fantastic. Duperrier is quite embarrassed by his distinction. At first he replaces his bowler hat with a wide-brimmed one to hide the halo, but finally tries to get rid of it. This is where the common notion of virtue comes under fire. It seems reasonable to the victim that he should simply sin to get rid of it. This neat paradox—a saint trying desperately to sin—provides Aymé with some very comic situations. Duperrier is innocent of lust, for example, and has to consult ‘un livre révoltant où se trouvait exposé, sous forme d'un enseignement clair et direct, l'essentiel de la luxure’ (VP 95). He tries pride, anger, greed, envy, laziness and avarice as well as lust but all to no avail. He finally becomes a pimp on the boulevard de Clichy, counting the night's takings by the light of his halo. Aymé's notion of sin and virtue is no ordinary one. His spokesman is perhaps the Devil in Les Jumeaux du diable when he says to St. Peter:
—Vraiment le monde est trop vertueux. C‘est un scandale. Tu ne recevrais pas dix âmes par an, si le monde allait raisonnablement.
In ‘Samson’, Aymé pastiches the biblical story line while adapting it to his own ends. His hero has magic hair and a lucid knowledge of his destiny, but Aymé adds to the psychological interest of the theme by describing a superman who is ‘désespérément seul’, who aspires to mediocrity and anonymity and whose submission to Dalila is quite conscious. ‘Samson’ is a rather heavy tale and not as typical of Aymé's style as the lighter hearted and much freer adaptation of the same motif in ‘Le faux policier’, where Martin's mistress Dalila insists he shave off his moustache, thus changing his appearance and bringing catastrophe.
The entertainer in Aymé is very fond of parody. This comes out again in ‘Le Mendiant’, which adapts the biblical Nativity theme to a modern American setting. Aymé's intermediary is the pauvre type (American style) Theo Bradley who is pitied by all his friends because he has to drive a car that is several years old. One night Bradley is visited by an angel who takes him to a ramshackle Detroit garage where a young couple are just putting the finishing touches to a car that has taken them nine months' effort. We witness the ecstatic moment of completion (‘il est né!’) and the arrival of three worshippers from afar bearing petrol, oil and water. From what seems to be a dream, Bradley wakes with a sense of purpose: he will be the prophet of ‘Le Grand Moteur’ and will found ‘La Grande Eglise Motorisée’. The tale grows bitter now as Aymé satirizes the commercialization of the new religion and acidly underlines the American worship of the motor car. He sketches the repressed, hypocritically puritan, racist matriarchy that preoccupied him in the plays Louisiane and La Mouche bleue. Aymé was criticizing the United States from first-hand experience. In 1949 he had been invited to the United States by Collier's magazine, which planned to publish his impressions in article form. ‘Le Mendiant’ was part of his offering. It was politely declined.
Aymé's rather liberal attitude towards literary convention is visible again in the special case of Les Contes du chat perché. This collection is one of Aymé's best-known works. It won him the Prix Chanteclair and has been consistently re-edited ever since its first publication. In 1979 several of the tales were even adapted for the theatre by a young Parisian troupe, the Compagnie de la Licorne. Outwardly, these stories seem to have been written for children. Aymé intimated quite early that they were part of ‘l'art d'être grand-père’ and that they were written for his granddaughter Françoise, but he later confessed: ‘Mes contes pour enfants, je les ai écrits pour moi-même. Je ne crois pas à la littérature enfantine.’ His second prière d'insérer to these tales was probably more honest: like so many so-called children's books, Les Contes du chat perché were ‘écrits pour les enfants âgés de quatre à soixante-quinze ans’. For Marcel Aymé there was certainly an element of personal nostalgia in them too: they harked back to his games of ‘chat’ in the Cours St Maurice at Dôle and to the happy days of his early childhood in Villers-Robert and his adventures with his cousins in his uncle's mill.
These tales are special in two ways: firstly, because Aymé makes a faerie world apart out of a very real setting, and, secondly, because some of the unreal within that world is distinctly fantastic in character. The seventeen stories are set in a special farmyard and centred on the farmer's two young daughters, Delphine (‘l'aînée’) and Marinette (‘la plus blonde’) and their animal friends. This is an ideal frame for faerie. Aymé encourages the feeling of this being a world apart not only by setting the action in the farmyard and its surrounds but also because the stories feature an esoteric child's point of view. The farm is a children's world like so many that have been exploited in literature, an
univers enfantin séparé, replié sur lui-même et où peuvent faire irruption l'improbable, l'étrange et même l'impossible.
We are much closer here to the Wonderland of Peter Pan or Alice than to a Fairyland of giants and magic spells. Alice and Wendy are surely related to Delphine and Marinette and a long line of young girls whose imagination and sensitivity have been exploited to link fantasy and reality.
The magic of the farm mainly surrounds the animals. It is not the simple magic proposition of Aymé's earlier novel La Jument verte, where he proposed a storytelling horse with a highly refined sensuality; here it is much more episodic. The animals can talk and play humanized roles and to a certain extent they can use their reason.
Aymé is clearly conscious of the tradition which produced the ‘Cochon-tyran’ and the ‘Renard-fripon’ but he varies his characterization. His fox is the traditional wily creature but his pig is usually stupid, vain and rather nasty, his duck very clever and helpful, his cat rather passive and his rooster proud, arrogant and even treacherous. Yet any stability from story to story depends on Aymé's whim and on the girls' imagination. The pig turns out smart enough to play the detective in ‘Les Vaches’ and the ass, normally stupid and obstinate of course, appears as sensitive and intelligent in ‘Le mauvais jars’.
Most of the action depends on contact between the girls and their animal friends. There is complicity and understanding only between them. The girls try to educate an ox; the animals help the girls with their homework and troop into the classroom to see the results. As well as occasionally adopting human roles, the beasts change roles among themselves: a deer swaps with an ox, a panther comes to live on the farm, a wolf wants to play ‘chat perché’ with the girls and a duck turns world-traveller. Animals talking and thinking is not an end to the magic. Aymé waves his wand once more and we see blindness transferred by telepathy, a hen that changes into an elephant, two white cows that disappear and a horse that shrinks to the size of a rooster. The fantastic even touches Delphine and Marinette to change them into an ass and a horse. This potentially frightening situation is eased somewhat by the fact that it occurs within a frame where such events seem almost acceptable.
The magic often starts with mischief; one of the girls' pranks backfires on them or one of the animals does something unnatural. A frequent story pattern starts with the parents going to town for the day and warning their daughters against doing one particular thing in their absence. Of course Delphine and Marinette disobey and promptly get into a fix. Their situation worsens as they try to repair the damage and the ominous moment when their parents will return approaches. This tension is usually eased by a convenient last-minute solution. It is the girls' curious predicaments and the inventive solutions that provide much of the charm of these tales.
Delphine and Marinette's pranks are caused by their very innocence. Aymé is presenting the world through unconditioned eyes. He has created a frame where the girls can question the constraints, the conventions and the routines of the adult world and find them lacking. There is fantasy not only in the metamorphoses but also in the girls' minds: perhaps the wolf would make a nice playmate after all; perhaps the donkey is really quite clever despite what people say; and why should a panther not live on the farm? It is their fecund and strangely logical imagination that often provokes the magic. In ‘Les Boîtes de peinture’ Delphine and Marinette try to draw the two white cows, but it is not possible to draw them on white paper, say the girls, or at least they would not be visible: ‘C'est comme si vous n'existiez pas.’ So the offended animals promptly disappear. The animals apply the same innocent process to the girls' homework. The problem is to calculate how many trees there are in a hypothetical forest, so the animals simply set out to count the trees in their own real forest. And when the girls want it to rain so they will not have to go and visit their nasty old aunt, what more natural solution than to ask Alphonse the cat, transposed from the Aymé apartment on the rue Paul-Féval, to wash his whiskers?
Naturally the parents cannot participate in this innocence. They are depersonalized, being referred to and even addressed as ‘les parents’. In fact the other adults suffer the same fate, becoming ‘la maîtresse’, ‘l'inspecteur’ and ‘l'aveugle’. Even aunt Mélina and uncle Alfred tend to be stereotyped figures. When they are active, the parents are always enemy figures. They seem hard-hearted, suspicious and miserly. What little dialogue they are accorded is unsympathetic: they spend their time scolding the girls or else rather optimistically warning them to ‘soyez sages …’, and they whisper ominously to each other as they watch the pig or the chicken growing plumper each day. There is a communication barrier represented by different attitudes to the animals. For the practical parents they are beasts of burden and work and candidates for the cooking pot, while for the girls they are playmates. The parents' main function in this faerie is obviously to represent the parallel, real world, the world of farm chores, homework and the threatened ‘pain sec’, a world to which the girls usually return after each episodic tale.
Strange things may occur and the girls will get into all sorts of scrapes, but in the end all will be put right. The animals will be restored to their proper forms and proportions, Delphine and Marinette will cease to be a horse and an ass and the blind man will retrieve his blindness. The kidnapped hens are brought back, the lost cows are found and the little black rooster can employ all the guile he can muster but will end up au vin in the pot all the same.
Often a return to reality includes a moral ending. Good deeds are rewarded and pride, hard-heartedness, arrogance and treachery are suitably punished whether in the pig, the rooster, the drunken soldier or the parents. Yet these moral punishments almost never involve Delphine and Marinette. Grandfather Aymé is clearly trying to teach the girls a lesson without actually punishing them. The threatened punishments for disobedience are miraculously waived (an exception: their ‘affreux péchés' of falsehood and disobedience in ‘Le petit coq noir’). Sometimes this is simply because Aymé finds the parents too malicious: the girls fool their parents and allow Alphonse the cat to escape his drowning in ‘La Patte du chat’ because the parents were being quite unjust. Sometimes it is because the girls have had a fright and already learned their lesson: they are temporarily eaten by the wolf in ‘Le Loup’, harshly whipped as animals in ‘L'Ane et le cheval’ and made to feel thoroughly ashamed in ‘Les Boîtes de peinture’. But more often it is simply that the girls have got into a fix through their own innocence or generosity: they are led into mischief in ‘Le Loup’ and ‘Le petit coq noir’. Good intentions and the saviour figure of uncle Alfred retrieve the situation in ‘Le Mouton’. The girls seem to deserve punishment in ‘Les Cygnes’ because they have again disobeyed their parents, but their pure hearts and good intentions save them once more.
Delphine and Marinette are not wilfully disobedient; it is just that girls will be girls. … This same reasoning is even applied to the animals. The pig's raving vanity should perhaps be punished in ‘La Buse et le cochon’ but he is let off because Nature made him the ugliest of all; and when the wolf eats the girls he is only being his natural self. So when he is painfully cut open to free them he is sewn up again instead of being left to die. And in any case, he seems to have learned a lesson so why punish him? It is he, rather than the scolding parents or a moralizing Aymé who rounds off the tale: ‘Je vous jure qu'à l'avenir on ne me prendra plus à être aussi gourmand. Et d'abord, quand je verrai des enfants je commencerai par me sauver’ (CP 182).
The reprieve in ‘Les Cygnes’ gives the entertainer in Aymé a chance to show off his talents in a superb ending. The girls have crossed the road in spite of their parents' admonitions and are being held prisoner by some swans who turn out to be harsh disciplinarians. They are finally liberated by a wise old swan and returned to the farmhouse just in time to welcome their parents. But the effort costs their liberator his life: it is his swansong that will enchant the parents just long enough to let the girls scurry home. The final irony lies in the parents' comment: ‘Quel dommage que vous n'ayez pas traversé la route tout à l'heure. Un cygne a chanté sur les prés’ (CP 325).
Les Contes du chat perché is the work of a storyteller much more than of a moralist. This is clear above all in his endings. When the animals cause an uproar in the classroom trying to help the girls with their arithmetic homework, the teacher gives them ‘zéro de conduite’. But the inspector, fortuitously present that day, saves the story by giving them the ‘croix d'honneur’ for their originality! This is the Aymé who, having allowed an ass a certain measure of cunning to teach the nasty gander a lesson, rounds off his tale with:
Aussi n'est-il plus question, depuis ce jour-là, de la bêtise de l'âne; et l'on dit, au contraire, d'un homme à qui l'on veut faire compliment de son intelligence qu'il est fin comme un âne.
Aymé has often been called a fabulist more than a moralist. Indeed there is something of the simple world of La Fontaine or the medieval fabliaux in stories like ‘Le petit coq noir’, ‘Le Paon’ or ‘Le mauvais jars’, where the animals interact among themselves. The moral character of this world cannot be denied. It has been stressed by almost all those who have written on Aymé. Yet for him the purity lies not so much in the moral character as in the lack of artificial adult preoccupations. In his first prière d'insérer Aymé wrote:
Je les écrivais pour reposer mes lecteurs éventuels de leurs tristes aventures où l'amour et l'argent sont si bien entremêlés qu'on les prend à chaque instant l'un pour l'autre, ce qui est forcément fatigant. Mes histoires sont donc des histoires simples, sans amour et sans argent.
The fact that we are adventuring in a moral world should not necessarily provoke a search for an individual lesson at the end of each story. This has been a common failing among commentators, who have felt obliged to label as many stories as possible. The formulae ‘A chacun sa fonction dans la vie’, ‘la sottise des gens qui vont à l'encontre de leurs talents naturels’ or the more complicated ‘la dangereuse séduction dont jouissent les révolutionnaires dans les milieux intellectuels’ may not be actually wrong, but to sum up Aymé's tales like this is absolutely to miss the essence of his talent. This kind of formulation (and thus limitation) quite destroys the conteur's nostalgic, whimsical, grandfatherly charm. Such activity is as futile as the criticism of André Rousseaux, who missed the point entirely when he accused Aymé of ‘lèse-réalisme’, asserting that ‘Si les bêtes parlaient, elles tiendraient un tout autre langage.’ Aymé's ironic reply is contained in his second prière d'insérer:
Il avait bien raison. Rien n'interdit de croire en effet que si les bêtes parlaient, elles parleraient de politique ou de l'avenir de la science dans les îles Aléoutiennes. Peut-être même qu'elles feraient de la critique littéraire avec distinction.
Jules Verne and the comtesse de Ségur are two of Aymé's most often avowed sources of inspiration. Ségur's influence is easily seen in the Contes du chat perché, but it is only when we move towards Aymé's fantastic vein that we encounter a thin vein of science fiction which might be a product of Aymé's penchant for Verne. For Aymé, science fiction seems to be an extension of the fantastic. He avoids the traditional thematic material—interstellar invasions, space stations and one-eyed Martians:
Habituellement, je n'éprouve pas de sentiment bien vif pour le genre science-fiction. Dans la réalité, les exploits des spoutniks ne m'ont jamais fait battre le coeur.
Aymé's science fiction is more humanized, like his faerie and like the more traditional fantastic. He often uses future man to focus attention on present man.
Aymé's most significant contribution to the science fiction genre is a long and serious nouvelle called Pastorale. He launches into the futurism of a seventeenth Republic where a series of skyscraper villages shelter the whole of France. On the surface this is pure fantasy but on closer examination it is an Orwellian world closely based on reality, reflecting present problems like over-population, centralization and government control of all aspects of life. Aymé describes a society where the social authorities exercise total control over the individual, the kind of society that Aymé foresees and criticizes not only in stories like ‘La Carte’ and the play La Convention Belzébir but also in several polemic articles devoted to civil liberties. It is a society where nothing is left to chance. The number and sex of all children are regulated, dreams are monitored, excess population is exterminated, all desires find immediate satisfaction and poets are re-educated in mathematics and the physical sciences in case they upset society's logic. The ugly buildings and lifeless inhabitants of Pastorale allow Aymé to exercise his acid wit against many of our social and political customs and institutions.
Futuristic imagination sparkles even more darkly in a story called ‘La Fille du shérif’ and subtitled ‘Le roman que je n'écrirai jamais’. This is an undeveloped sketch for a longer story, rather clumsily blending Aymé's black humour and his post-Liberation political views. Several of his magazine and newspaper articles of the period strongly criticize the government's attempts to tie France's defence to America and N.A.T.O. Written in 1951 and supposedly set in 1953, ‘La Fille du shérif’ tells of an atomic war between Russia and America using France as the battleground. France is obliterated and then abolished by the U.N. Most of the French have been killed and the rest are enslaved by the United States. Aymé once again takes the opportunity to scourge de Gaulle: during the atomic war a government of ‘la France libre’ is set up in Missouri and their radio broadcasts tell the French to give their lives willingly for France. Their post-war épuration executes 100,000 and imprisons twice that number.
The fantastic genre seems to be less governed by literary convention than Fairyland or Flash Gordon and more widely accepted as a tool of ‘legitimate’ literature. Aymé takes full advantage of this freedom. In Fairyland, Aymé's man has worn seven-league boots, made love to a dryad and defeated a magic ogre, but here his Everyman, so often called Martin, will be more personally and more disturbingly involved. Yet Aymé still anchors his fantastic creations in reality. Reality is his source material even more visibly than it was with his faerie. One of the rules accepted by most writers of the unreal is that one must not get too far from the recognizably real:
Pour arriver à créer une oeuvre viable, en quelque domaine que ce soit, il est nécessaire de s'éloigner assez du réel pour le dominer, tout en restant assez près de lui pour ne pas le perdre de vue.
Like most creative minds, Aymé starts with known elements and rearranges them rather than indulging in total creation. He can suggest that two minds may inhabit the same body or that one being can have multiple bodies, but they will be real bodies. They will never have three arms or two heads. Aymé never goes as far as the grotesque. Man may be given a halo or a changed face, but not green horns or a tail. Aymé's fantastic images are usually either extensions or reversals of reality. An extension is proposed in Le Décret, where instead of the government advancing the clock one hour in summer, the move proposed is seventeen years in order to reach the end of an interminable war. ‘La Liste’ is an extension of a different kind: a poor farmer has so many daughters that he has to have a list to remember their names. When one name is accidentally torn off the list, he forgets the particular daughter and the poor girl disappears. A reversal of reality is the basis of ‘La Grâce’, where Duperrier wears his halo despite what is normally regarded as a life of sin. Mostly Aymé tries to reverse or extend the more certain elements of man's existence—death, space, time, identity—so that our shock is all the greater.
Spectres, vampires and werewolves, the traditional fantastic creatures, do not interest Aymé much more than ‘les exploits des spoutniks’. The closest he comes to this tradition is in Les Jumeaux du diable with its supernatural twins. It is man and his society that concern Aymé. Much of his fantastic is concerned with giving new capacities to man and then exploring the consequences. Just as the faerie of ‘L'Huissier’, ‘La Fosse aux péchés’ or ‘Légende poldève’ and the science fiction of Pastorale were used to mask social criticism, so Aymé's fantastic is put to this use. In ‘Dermuche’ capital punishment and the cruelty of prison authorities chained by impersonal regulations come under strong attack. The simpleton Dermuche is condemned for a triple murder but he has no comprehension of a crime he committed simply because he liked the tinkling of a music box. He is morally innocent, having ‘une petite âme claire comme une eau de source’ (VP 122). Dermuche has long talks with the prison chaplain about ‘le petit Jésus’ and on the eve of his execution he writes to heaven to be allowed to have his little music box when he reaches paradise. That night Dermuche's soul dominates his body to the extent of transforming him into a new-born baby complete with the same tattoos. It seems that the soft-hearted Aymé has granted Dermuche a reprieve, and this would be a typical Aymé ending, but this time he is not in the mood for reprieves. The chief warder is stubbornly unmoved: ‘je ne veux pas d'histoires’. The rules are the rules even in the face of a miracle. We are treated to several pages of Aymé's blackest irony as the guards coldly verify Dermuche's birthmark and fingerprints and carry the child up to the guillotine regardless. As with Pastorale and ‘La Fille du shérif’, Aymé is using the unreal mode to complement the real mode; he criticized the judicial system and capital punishment in several polemic articles and in his notorious play La Tête des autres.
Aymé's satire is not quite as bitter when he underlines the commercial exploitation of creative artistry in La bonne peinture. The fantastic premise of this nouvelle is a concretization of the intellectual satisfaction derived from the contemplation of a work of art. Lafleur's canvases have very special qualities:
sa peinture était devenue si riche, si sensible, si fraîche, si solide, qu'elle constituait une véritable nourriture et non pas seulement pour l'esprit, mais bien aussi pour le corps. (…) Le menu variait selon le sujet du tableau, sa composition et son coloris, mais il était toujours très soigné, très abondant et il n'y manquait même pas la boisson.
Like ‘Avenue Junot’, La bonne peinture is a rambling frolic through Aymé's familiar Montmartre with his artist friends, but here there is more direction to the tale. The basic situation is familiar: the poor but happy artist whose lifestyle is threatened by fame and fortune and the grasping parasites—critics, gallery-owners and journalists—who are attracted by his success. Aymé exploits his premise for its comic potential by satirizing the American scientists who try to analyse Lafleur's gift and the art critics who are nonplussed by the tangible qualities of his work. In another comic scene the dealer Hermèce gets indigestion from feasting his eyes.
Of course there is a darker side to this humour. Hermèce and his fellow parasites think of nothing but profit. The dealer doesn't even want to tell Lafleur about his talent, and buys up the paintings as fast as he can. The state soon puts a stop to this by nationalizing Lafleur, and Aymé's cynical wit now describes the artist as one of France's ‘instruments de production’ with a factory and the associated bureaucracy. Art has become ‘efficace’, a political tool and a means to material rather than intellectual comfort.
Aymé obviously found the conte fantastique well suited to social criticism. More than with his faerie, the entertainer now often takes second place to a more serious side of Aymé. Many of his ridiculous situations are used to present parallel realities through which Aymé can snipe at the corresponding real situations. This process is used particularly well in ‘La Carte’. Yet in general, Aymé's fantastic is still much more personal than his faerie; it is above all the more individual human failings that he underlines. The social or political criticism is often accessory to his story's primary effect.
The little ironic twists introduced into reality often provide Aymé or his protagonist with a rather special position, a privileged point of view from which to reassess reality. The short story seldom allows room to discuss this advantage and it is the novel La Jument verte that provides Aymé's most explicit comments. When the painter Murdoire endows a canvas of a green mare with the gift of observation so that she can spy on the Haudouin family from her wall, the mare offers her remarks directly to the reader:
Je m'appliquai à observer mes hôtes, à réfléchir sur le spectacle qu'ils me livraient de leur vie intime. (…) Tandis que l'observateur ambulant ne peut s'attacher à découvrir dans le monde que les harmonies des grands nombres et le secret des séries, l'observateur immobile a cet avantage de surprendre les habitudes de la vie.
A much more personal advantage is gained for Cérusier by his change of face in La belle image. Since his friends no longer recognize him, he can overhear what they say about him behind his back. But what he hears is not always to his liking:
Tiens, dit Joubert le sculpteur, voilà la bonne de Cérusier. A propos, qu'est-ce qu'il devient, ce pauvre Cérusier?
—Pauvre, protesta Garnier. Il n'est pas à plaindre.
—Je ne dis pas qu'il soit à plaindre, mais c'est quand même un pauvre type.
Quoiqu'il en eût dit, le ton de ses paroles exprimait une commisération à mon égard.
Cérusier, too, has time to reflect on this new ability to see beneath his own façade, ‘examiner sa vie avec un lucide regard d'outre-tombe et pénétrer en étranger dans ses propres secrets’ (BI 85).
The novel La belle image deserves in many ways to be treated as a short story. It starts with the same absurd premise and proceeds to explore the consequences and the protagonist's reactions. It is almost as if an ideal short story situation has been stretched and padded artificially to fill a novel. In fact this kind of situation is much better suited to the pace and concision of a short story. Much the same could be said of the play Les Oiseaux de lune except that there Aymé stretches his situation with much more subtlety and variety.
An almost identical advantage is engineered in ‘Le Nain’, where the dwarf Valentin suddenly grows up and is not recognized any more. The truths he overhears are more flattering than Cérusier's but equally revealing. Delphine and Marinette are given an unpleasant insight into what it is like to be an animal on their parents' farm in ‘L'Ane et le cheval’, and a spoilt young bourgeoise in ‘La Fabrique’ is given a much more instructive appreciation of her own existence by means of a jump in time. Valérie is told that if she does not stop biting her fingernails by Christmas there will be no presents this year. We see her wake on Christmas Eve to discover that she has indeed bitten them again:
Elle eut un mouvement de retraite comme pour échapper à la triste réalité, et croyant s'enfoncer sous les couvertures, elle s'enfonça dans la nuit des temps et de cent vingt ans en arrière, en sorte qu'elle se retrouva en 1845.
This trip is a lesson in humility. Valérie is put in the position of invisible observer of a day in the life of an underprivileged family. This new reality chills her to the bone. The youngest son is dying of consumption but he is still sent to work in the freezing factory because the family needs the pittance he will earn and above all because if he is left at home his retarded brother will probably assault him. Hippolyte knows he is going to die, just as many of his young colleagues have that winter, but he has heard of the visits that ‘l'enfant Noël’ pays to little rich children and wants to see a Christmas tree before he dies. At the end of his terrible day's work, the speechless Valérie follows him home. On the way, he hears hammering: ‘C'est Papa qui cloue mon arbre de Noël’, but in fact his father is making a little coffin. Valérie can bear it no more: taking him by the hand she succeeds in translating them both back to her century. On Christmas morning she gives him her tree and her presents and is just about to tell her parents she has a little brother for Christmas when his exhaustion and happiness finally kill him and he disappears. ‘La Fabrique’ is a rarity in Aymé's work, a story completely devoid of humour. It was the last short story Aymé ever wrote and was published after his death. One of the most moving of Aymé's tales, ‘La Fabrique’ was very successfully adapted for television by Pascal Thomas and shown on Christmas Eve 1979.
Cérusier's ‘coup d'oeil oblique’ is also reflected throughout the Contes du chat perché in the innocent, unconditioned eyes through which Delphine and Marinette interpret the world, but a richer exploitation of it is found in Le Décret, with its voyage seventeen years into the future and abrupt return. The anti-serious Aymé uses this premise to provoke several comic situations. The narrator tries to return a cycle he hired during his stay in the future and discovers that the shop still sells umbrellas! The owner, who has the same name as the cycle seller, finds rather ridiculous the idea that one day he might sell ‘bécanes’. Seriousness returns as the narrator continues:
Tandis qu'il parlait ainsi, je comparais à ce jeune visage frais et rieur, un autre visage de dix-sept ans plus âgé, dont un lupus déformait tout un côté.
It is this ability to see through present appearances to a future reality that is the most disquieting aspect of the narrator's position and the most fruitful for Aymé's social commentary too. Here he meets a friend in the métro:
Il est très déprimé et me confie qu'il est dans une situation extrêmement difficile. Je regarde avec curiosité cet être minable qui, dans une dizaine d'années, se trouvera à la tête d'une fortune colossale, malhonnêtement gagnée à de scandaleux trafics. Tandis qu'il me parle de sa misère présente, je le revois dans sa future opulence. (…) je suis partagé entre la compassion et le dégoût que m'inspire sa brillante carrière.
The splitting effect of this privileged position is the main theme of this long humanist nouvelle. The victim can see things that are invisible to others. He does not always like what he sees; he quickly rejects his privilege, effectively ‘forgetting’ the future. Like Samson, he wants to be nothing more than an ordinary man.
Aymé's physical unrealities also serve him particularly well by providing a tangible image for an abstract process, sentiment or quality. This often borders on the traditional role of the fantastique intérieur with its physical representations of psychological activity. Aymé is not so much a moralist here as a very serious humanist. Le Décret gives a physical dimension to the feeling of déjà vu and, as young Valentin changes more and more of his friends into birds in Les Oiseaux de lune, we are afforded a bleak look at the effects of absolute power on man's soul. Both of these show a particularly serious Aymé. His lighter tone returns in the use of Duperrier's halo to represent his inner virtue in ‘La Grâce’, or in the concretization of inner satisfactions in La bonne peinture. ‘Le Romancier Martin’ is perhaps the most fruitful example of the mental becoming physical. Here Aymé uses the fantastic to give a concrete dimension to the experience of artistic creation. He adopts the Pygmalion gift of life motif (akin to what the French theoreticians call the statue vivante) in portraying a novelist who creates his characters so thoroughly that they come to life and manage to exist on the same plane as their author. They have a will of their own and try to change the course of their novel. Finally some of them even escape from Martin's control. The powerless novelist confesses: ‘J'abandonne mes personnages, mais leur vie continue.’
The special experience of childhood is to some extent made concrete in Les Contes du chat perché and Aymé proposes a tangible image for the next stage of the human cycle in ‘Le Nain’. Valentin's body becomes adult but he still has the innocence of a child. Like the narrator in Le Décret and the centaur in ‘Fiançailles’, he is torn between what he was and what he is becoming. His metamorphosis also reflects Aristide's potentially traumatic discovery of sex through the eyes of someone who knows nothing of social convention and constraint. His clumsy but spontaneous advances to Germina are rejected. The ex-dwarf tries frantically to learn another circus trick so that he can stay in the circus and win back the love that Germina bore him. But that love was innocent and can never be the same. He reluctantly leaves the artificial, protected, childhood life of the circus where he no longer belongs and goes to face the adult responsibilities of earning a living and forming mature relationships. M. Barnaboum finally announces: ‘Le nain est mort.’
The physical image in ‘Le Couple’ intensifies the next stages in the human cycle: marriage and divorce. Antoine and Valérie love each other so much that their bodies fuse together into one. Society's sexism is reflected in the choice of Antoine's body to express the union. Valérie lacks physical presence and effectively loses her identity in this marriage. She finds no fulfilment wearing her husband's body so the union disintegrates after a few weeks. The experience of death is explored somewhat less seriously in ‘La Carte’ and ‘Le Temps mort’, which propose a sort of relative death through the total disappearance of a victim for a short period. But Aymé is more interested in the manipulation of time in these stories and, apart from touching on man's egoistic resentment that the world will keep on turning when he is gone, hardly explores the notion of death any further.
Man's solitude, a strong element in the modern literary conception of man, is often Aymé's primary target in these fantastic intensifications. Newly unrecognizable characters are placed in a situation where their isolation from others is increased by their fantastic affliction. After his face change, Cérusier feels that ‘Cette solitude soudaine dans un monde qui ne vous connaît plus, c'est une chose épouvantable’ (BI 90) and the dwarf Valentin feels cut off in the same way when his metamorphosis removes him from his friends:
Valentin regardait Mlle Germina galoper sur la piste. Debout sur son cheval, et le bras tendu vers la foule, l'écuyère répondait par des sourires aux applaudissements, et Valentin songeait qu'aucun de ces sourires n'était pour lui. Il se sentait las et honteux de sa solitude.
Valentin is not spared Aymé's irony: his happiness lay in his deformity itself.
The most striking intensification of man's solitude is probably the image of the superman Samson who feels cut off from other men because of his magic hair and wants to return to the ranks of ordinary mortals to discover ‘la sensation d'équilibre que procure une force musculaire à la mesure de l'homme’. Despite its rather faerie character, Samson's magic hair serves as a fantastic intensification of the absurdity of his condition and provides a physical metaphor for his frustration when faced with the forces of a destiny he cannot control. This is another reason why he tries to have his magic hair cut off: his superhuman strength is too strong for his merely human will. He is not in control of himself:
Ma force m'apparaissait comme une personne surajoutée à la mienne, un maître qui se servait de mes membres, de mes mains, de mon corps et disposait sans discussion de ma volonté. Ecrasé sous la pression de ce géant et emporté par son élan imbécile, je n'étais qu'une créature dérisoire, reléguée dans un coin de mon être et moins libre que ne peut l'être un paralytique.
Samson has a split image of himself as man and superman, ‘assis entre deux sièges’. He is very conscious of his destiny as national liberator but he wants to be just human. The impossibility of this is brought out by his symbolic attempt at suicide: he goes to Gaza looking for a girl who will sell him to the Philistines. Shaved, blinded and chained to a mill-stone, he seems to have escaped the ‘présence étrangère’ and found his human self. But his hair is beginning to grow again …
Aymé had already tried to give a physical dimension to grace and free will by describing man's life as predestined and controlled by a guiding master in Les Jumeaux du diable, but the novel's length and heavy style negate the potential advantage of Aymé's graphic image. Les Jumeaux du diable, like La belle image, is easier to appreciate if it is considered more as a short story mistakenly stretched to novel length. The opening of the novel reflects the tongue-in-cheek tone and the easy style that were to become the trade-marks of the conteur:
A travers les infinis où les dimensions se reposent, Satan chevauchait un manche à balai qui est le véhicule ordinaire aux créatures infernales d'occident. Il avait hâte, murmurant à chaque instant: Keibal, Ikal, formule incomparable pour presser l'allure des manches à balai
and Aymé follows up the image with the sort of proposition that was to become the backbone of his short stories:
—Céphas, j'ai rêvé un jeu amusant. J'imaginais deux hommes de la Terre, deux hommes tout pareils, d'âme et d'apparence, (…) Je n'ai pas imaginé plus avant, Céphas. Seulement, je m'interrogeais s'ils étaient promis au Ciel ou à l'Enfer.
Le Diable sourit.
—même, je me suis demandé s'il se pouvait que l'un fût damné et l'autre élu de Dieu.
But what follows is an over-long and rather unimaginative exploitation of the early momentum of the story and is totally lacking in the charm of Aymé's later developments of this kind of proposition. The novel is a clumsy mixture of the mysterious and the banal. Aymé clearly sensed the failure of this, his first venture into the unreal: he always refused to have the novel reprinted, calling it ‘un très mauvais roman’.
‘Le Romancier Martin’ shows what Les Jumeaux du diable might have become had it been written ten years later. Aymé explores a similar thematic area through the image of a god-author who cannot refrain from ending his novels with a massacre:
Il y avait un romancier, son nom était Martin, qui ne pouvait pas s'empêcher de faire mourir les principaux personnages de ses livres, et même les personnages de moindre importance. Tous ces pauvres gens, pleins de vigueur et d'espoir au premier chapitre, mouraient comme d'épidémie dans les vingt ou trente dernières pages, et bien souvent dans la force de l'âge.
Siné's humorous sketch on the cover of the Livre de Poche edition shows bodies sandwiched between pages of manuscript while Martin eyes off the fleeing remnants of his characters, wondering whom to impale next with his giant pen. The main action of this story is a revolt by Armandine Soubiron, who comes to plead with her creator and ‘maître’ in a prayer situation. She is upset by her ‘fatalité’ and Martin's excessive use of arbitrary power over his characters' destinies. Martin protests that he is not really in control and Armandine comes to realize that she is free as long as she doesn't regard herself as a prisoner of destiny. She finally escapes completely from Martin's novel.
The frantic running out of time as man rushes towards his absurd death is given a physical dimension in ‘Le Temps mort’, where another Martin simply ceases to exist every second day. Aymé has also given a solid dimension to the relativity of time. For Martin, time actually does pass twice as fast as for everyone else. His solitude is intensified by the difficulty of communication with those around him. His mistress is used to bring out the way two people develop at different rates:
Son amour, qui durait depuis deux années pleines, n'avait ni la fraîcheur, ni l'élan que gardait celui de Martin, âgé d'une année seulement.
Aymé exploits Martin's predicament, drawing brief glimmers of comedy from his pathetic ruses to make time go more slowly and from the situations he finds himself in when he suddenly comes back to life.
The fantastic time rationing of ‘La Carte’ is probably Aymé's most striking attempt to give a concrete dimension to the abstract. Here, too, the relativity of time is intensified. He describes the inhuman logic of a governmental decree that institutes time rationing, a situation reminiscent of the authoritarian excesses of Pastorale. Those citizens whose work is regarded as socially productive will live full time while all unproductive consumers will be rationed by time cards and ‘tickets de vie’. The relativity of time is well underlined by Aymé's marvellous stretching month. A humble painter may experience a month of only fifteen days while the necessary butcher lives the full thirty-one and a corrupt official or a wily black-marketeer may stretch the month even further! This relativity leads to interesting problems of communication. How can the painter and the butcher share their experiences, since for one of them time goes twice as fast as for the other and a month only contains half as much experience? How can Flegmon arrange a rendezvous with his mistress when the day in question will have a different date for each of them?
This kind of intriguing invention allows Aymé to touch on potentially complicated concepts of time and then move on quickly before the story is slowed down by intellectualism. Aymé's story of fluid time is also a pretext for him to explore the humorous consequences of his premise: Monsieur Dumont arranges to have his fifteen days of existence in the second half of the month so as to avoid his shrewish wife, while the Roquenton couple come back to life in their bed separated by Lucette's lover. The guilty pair pretend not to know each other but the outraged husband finds their story ‘bien invraisemblable’. But Aymé is a realist as well as a humorist; there will always be serious consequences too. The government's draconian decree only remains valid for as long as it takes the resourceful few to profit by it or find a way around it. One of Flegmon's rivals takes advantage of his temporary annihilation to manoeuvre against his candidature for the Académie Française. All efforts to change to a useful job are soon declared illegal, and very few citizens succeed in their attempts to obtain additional time tickets. So we soon see more sinister solutions. Flegmon and many others take to living at twice the pace, eating twice as much to make up for the days when they will not exist. To his credit, Flegmon also tries to work at twice the pace. Trading in time tickets begins, soon to blossom into a flourishing and well-organized black-market. The rich and the wily exploit their weaker fellows and amass large numbers of tickets, and they find themselves able to lengthen a month beyond its normal thirty-one days. Finally the decree has to be repealed because the expected economy of food has not been realized, but not before Aymé has used the consequences of his premise to highlight man's inhumanity, his lack of courage and moral fibre and his blatant egoism, all illustrated by the intellectual Flegmon.
Of course Marcel Aymé is using his fantastic time rationing to comment on reality. ‘La Carte’ is not one of Aymé's frivolous fairy tales; it is a very dense story and contains some of his most serious socio-political commentary. And far more than just being a pseudo-philosophical glance at the relativity of time, Aymé's tale is an indictment of events in the France of 1943. The time being taken away by decree in ‘La Carte’ is a metaphor for the human life that was being so callously disposed of during the Deportation. Of course the time rationing in ‘La Carte’ is a reflection of food rationing, but is not food a source of life? Aymé's pattern of trading, hoarding and black-marketeering closely follows the real patterns induced by wartime food rationing. But Aymé's story of relative death (so it is christened by the trendy set at their death soirées) is really an indictment of French acquiescence in deportation and extermination. The arbitrary but rationalized nature of the time decree:
Afin de parer à la disette et d'assurer un meilleur rendement de l'élément laborieux de la population, il serait procédé à la mise à mort des consommateurs improductifs
could not fail to suggest Hitlerian policies to the Frenchman of 1943. The economic reasons given reflect some of the lame justifications advanced by the Nazis for their persecution of the Jews in the 1930s. Aymé's choice of victims for the fantastic rationing reflects the Nazis' deportation priorities too: among them are artists, prostitutes, intellectuals and of course Jews. The latter are allowed only half a day's existence per month.
It is above all people's reactions to this crisis that interest Marcel Aymé. Frenchmen who peeped from behind curtains (or worse, who stood and stared in the market-places) as their Jewish countrymen were trucked to the Vélodrome d'Hiver must have felt a little guilty on reading Aymé's fantasy: in ‘La Carte’ no one who is untouched by the decree pleads for the victims, no one protests, all are silently thankful that they are not on the list. Not even the Church, in the person of its bishop (a stand-in for Pope Pius XII, who was criticized for not denouncing Hitler's policies forcefully enough) is prepared to condemn the measures. Indeed, many people stand to gain from their colleagues' temporary deaths, just as neighbours and competitors must have often benefited from the Jewish deportations. To the sinister reactionary Maleffroi, society as a whole has benefited from the decree:
On se rend compte alors à quel point les riches, les chômeurs, les intellectuels et les catins peuvent être dangereux dans une société où ils n'introduisent que le trouble, l'agitation vaine, le dérèglement et la nostalgie de l'impossible.
Nor are the victims of the decree totally blameless. None of them seem revolted by the ghastly inhumanity, the absurdity, the arrogance of the decree; they are all too busy trying to gain some personal advantage. Collective resistance is undermined by individual egoism. In Flegmon's diary entry for 18 February Aymé reiterates the often-voiced suggestion that Europe's Jews went into the Vélodrome d'Hiver, the cattle trucks and even the gas chambers without putting up much resistance. That day's entry describes a queue of victims waiting to register for their card. It is very like a rafle, complete with French police doing the dirty work and the victims' faces seeming to say, ‘Je ne veux pas mourir encore.’ But no one really resists. Flegmon tells us of his own ‘cri de révolte’, but adds that it was bellowed ‘mentalement’. This suggestion of the victims' resignation to their fate blends into a brief, pessimistic comment on the speed with which man can adapt to and passively accept this kind of measure, his perception of injustice dulled by the fact that the decree is official and perhaps by the knowledge that many of his fellows are similarly afflicted. Flegmon gets used to his fate with rather unhealthy rapidity: just before his first disappearance he is ‘angoissé’ but the very next time he expresses ‘Aucune appréhension’. Roquenton's second experience of death is even greeted with ‘bonne humeur’.
Aymé's experiments with time also lead him to indulge in conventional time travel. He matches Valérie's trip backwards in time in ‘La Fabrique’ with a double time movement in Le Décret. Cathelin stresses the conte philosophique aspect of both ‘La Carte’ and Le Décret and Dumont devotes a whole chapter to Aymé's time manipulation, referring to the theories of Lavelle, Bergson and Bridoux, but in fact Aymé's stories are much more human, more personal than these critics suggest. Just as Aymé avoids Jules Verne or H. G. Wells time machines, so he avoids getting out of his depth with philosophical complications. The first half of Le Décret is Aymé's only failing in this respect. The story starts very slowly because Aymé spends several pages telling of man's growing awareness of compressible, relative, physiological and subjective time and his efforts to control it (including a reference to the previous tale, ‘La Carte’). It is only after eight pages that Aymé's victim starts to tell of the trip to the Jura and the inexplicable (and for him gratuitously mysterious) reversion to 1942, and it takes him several more pages to ascertain that he is in fact the only person who has retained a memory of the future.
At this point the orientation and quality of Aymé's story changes. It is almost as if the learned arguments about time, the narrator's difficulties in adapting to 1959, his trip to Dôle with its mysterious forest and strange fall back through time were nothing more than a pretext. Aymé's conte philosophique is really about man's loss of control in his attempts to master time, and his subsequent confusion. Psychological chaos results for a narrator split between time zones and not really knowing where he belongs. As he says, belonging is not just a matter of changing the clock:
‘Etre d'une époque, pensai-je, c'est sentir l'univers et soimême d'une certaine manière qui appartient à cette époque.’
The discussion of time in the first half of this long nouvelle leads to a much more human discussion in the second half. More explicitly than in ‘L'Huissier’, Aymé seems to start a new story: ‘Il y avait, à Montmartre, en 1942, un homme qui connaissait l'avenir.’ Once again, Aymé sets out to discover the human consequences of the special gift. The same loss of control is visible in Rechute when time is reversed by a similar governmental decree. The Assemblée Nationale institutes a ‘projet de loi visant à instituer l'année de 24 mois’. This seems reasonable enough except that in Aymé's world it means that everyone's age in years is thereby halved! The result is the kind of split already seen in stories like ‘Fiançailles’, ‘Samson’, ‘Le Nain’ and Le Décret: Josette now has the body of a child but the experience of an eighteen-year-old. For her it is not only disconcerting but humiliating:
‘Si mon bébé pleure, j'appelle le grand loup méchant’, disait maman. Et papa: ‘Comme tu dois être contente! C'est si charmant d'être une vraie petite fille!’ Leur enjouement m'était odieux, j'enrageais d'entendre leurs sottises. J'aurais voulu les écarter, les chasser d'auprès de mon lit, mais, en face de ces grandes personnes, je n'étais qu'une fillette de neuf ans que ses larmes ne protégeaient pas.
Youth stages armed revolt against the egoism of their elders' abuse of power and the law is abrogated.
Rechute is a longer, more complicated nouvelle than many. The rather high-handed and egoistic actions of the adults, and above all their official hypocrisy and lies, are certainly criticized here. Yet a more pertinent theme in 1950, when the story was published, was young Bernard's collaboration. Aymé describes Bernard's situation and justification very fairly. The young man's metamorphosis leaves him with naturally divided loyalties: while Josette and Pierre revert fully to physical childhood despite their emotional advance, Bernard was just old enough to keep his ‘réalités physiologiques’ as well as the memory of what they were for. So, although partly a child, he is tempted to side with the adults. When he is accused of collaboration and threatened with the comité d'épuration (a practice that Aymé's polemic articles describe as being hardly better than the excesses of the Occupation forces), his defence is that of so many Frenchmen who simply tried to pick the winning side and lost:
—Je nai pas collaboré! proteste-t-il. Comme tant d'autres, j'ai eu tout d'un coup treize ans, j'ai dû m'accommoder d'une situation moralement très pénible et, matériellement, des plus menaçantes. Bien sûr, l'idée ne m'est pas venue qu'un coup de force pouvait rétablir l'ordre légitime, mais je ne suis pas le seul à n'y avoir pas pensé.
Josette forgives him but only because he is part of the sexuality that she is just rediscovering.
The confusion provoked by these manipulations of time is also a feature of several stories where Aymé explores the multiplicity of man's personality. The duality of someone who is placed in the position of having to choose between two sides of himself recurs in ‘Le Passe-muraille’. Dutilleul is an unassuming pauvre type whose monotonous existence is divided between his job as civil servant (third class) and his leisure hours reading the paper and sorting his stamp collection. Aymé has created a particularly ordinary character in order to use him as a vehicle for the clash between reality and fantasy. One day, Dutilleul discovers that he has the ability to walk through walls without encountering the slightest resistance. At first he has no idea what to do with this ‘étrange faculté qui semblait ne répondre à aucune de ses aspirations’ (PM 8). His early, hesitant steps in the world of fantasy provide Aymé with some rather hilarious moments. First of all Dutilleul scares his tyrannical superior Lécuyer by appearing head and shoulders on the wall of his office like a hunting trophy. Having whetted his appetite, Dutilleul takes his crusade to extremes: he terrorizes Lécuyer to such an extent that within a day the poor fellow has lost a pound in weight. Within a week he is fading away, having taken to eating his soup with a fork, and he is spirited off by men in white coats. This light-hearted vein in ‘Le Passe-muraille’ is the one chosen by Jean Boyer to exploit in his film version of Aymé's story, made in 1950. Unfortunately, the adaptation made by Boyer and Michel Audiard takes some quite unjustified liberties with Aymé's plot and characters. It fails completely to reproduce Aymé's symbiosis of solid reality and outrageous fantasy, leaning towards the tradition of boulevard comedy instead. It is worth seeing only for Bourvil's performance as Dutilleul.
Aymé's ‘Le Passe-muraille’ does not rely much on comedy. Dutilleul's next step is to become a burglar—an ideal profession for someone with his particular talents. By day he continues as the modest Dutilleul but by night he becomes the romantic Garou-Garou who grandly autographs each crime in red chalk. This second self is of course the antithesis of the meek civil servant from which it sprang. Dutilleul soon has the police baffled, and provokes the resignation of the Minister for the Interior, since he can escape at will through the challenging walls of the Santé prison. Dutilleul's adventure is of course a revolt against mediocrity and anonymity. He longs to be someone. When the mysterious Garou-Garou starts to become famous, Dutilleul cannot resist confessing to his colleagues at the ministry, ‘Vous savez, Garou-Garou, c'est moi.’ Mortified by their scornful laughter, he allows himself to be arrested and is vindicated by the appearance of his photograph on the front page of the paper. His colleagues start growing little goatees like Dutilleul's in homage and admiration; Dutilleul has acceded to full existence. Soon he abandons his dual life, preferring that of Garou-Garou. He buys different clothes, shaves off his beard and takes a new apartment. His metamorphosis seems complete. In reality, of course, Dutilleul is still there beneath the mask.
The duality light-heartedly sketched in ‘Le Passe-muraille’ is made tangible in a different way in ‘Le Cocu nombreux’. A vagabond traveller arrives in a village where the relationships between the people he meets begin to seem rather complicated. Slowly he realizes that each person has two complementary bodies. Here is Aymé's description of one of the women he meets:
C'était pour un quart, une petite femme sèche, à la voix pointue, et pour les trois autres quarts, une gaillarde ventrue et fessue, aux bras énormes, à la voix de tonnerre.
Always on the lookout for the most outrageous side effects of his inventions, Aymé describes a husband who has been cuckolded by another of his own bodies! The traveller tries to question them about their multiplicity but they cannot communicate because they have not the same ‘notion de personne’. But there is a still more troubling aspect of the side effects. Aymé underlines society's conditioning towards ‘normality’ and the repression of the individual: the only person to live by the one body-one mind ratio has a black cross painted on his house and is known as ‘le fou’.
‘Héloïse’ provides an excellent image of fluidity with its Martin who changes into a woman (Héloïse) every night and then back again every morning. ‘Les Sabines’ intensifies the same fluidity of identity and gives Aymé the opportunity to pursue the consequences of his initial situation much further through the metamorphosis motif. Variety of experience is given a physical dimension by Sabine's ability to multiply her body at will. She starts by creating a twin ‘pour la commodité d'examiner son visage, son corps et ses attitudes’ (PM 23) but soon tastes the joys of a varied existence, wanting ever more variety. Here, again, the humorist gives free rein to his penchant for Rabelaisian enumeration: Sabine is
dans le même instant, lady Burbury, assise à une table de bridge en face du comte de Leicester; la bégum de Gorisapour, étendue dans son palanquin porté à dos d'éléphant; Mrs Smithson, occupée dans l'Etat de Pennsylvanie à faire les honneurs de son château Renaissance synthétique; Barbe Cazzarini dans une loge de l'Opéra de Vienne où ténorisait son illustrissime; Rosalie Valdez y Samaniego, couchée sous la moustiquaire, dans une hutte d'un village de Papouasie, …
‘Les Sabines’ is perhaps rather long, given the premise Aymé is working from, but he succeeds in rescuing his tale to some extent by bringing it back towards a more easily manageable duality. He does this by describing a moral struggle taking place within Sabine: she is tempted by her infinite, luxurious variety but deep down she feels she should belong to one man. Aymé develops the struggle between ‘la Providence’ and ‘le Péché’. Some Sabines turn to charity and repentance to make up for their sinful sisters. Dark realism contrasts with fantasy when Louise Megnin, one of the repentant ones, goes on a mission of charity and self-sacrifice to the zone St. Ouen, ‘ce dernier cercle de l'enfer terrestre’ (PM 59) where she is abused, raped and finally murdered to atone for the excesses of her other embodiments.
In these exploitations of the fantastic to underline certain aspects of reality there are clearly some very serious themes involved, yet the anti-serious ironist is always hovering nearby and the result is often an irritating refusal to pursue them. The essence of Aymé's conte is still the invention of a disturbing situation and a brief exploration of its most interesting consequences. Social commentary and pseudo-philosophical discussion take second place to this. The confusion in stories like Le Décret, ‘Le Cocu nombreux’ or ‘Les Sabines’ is the final stage; Aymé proposes no solutions, offers no intellectual discussion. His primary goal is to find an image that will intrigue us, disturb us, increase our awareness and amuse us.
It seems inevitable that with this questioning of what is often regarded as stable and absolute—one of Aymé's greatest short story successes—he should venture further than confusion of time and identity. Indeed, the stability of reality and existence themselves suffers half mocking, half serious distortion too. In ‘La Clé sous le paillasson’ Aymé exploits a less exaggerated image of fluidity than in ‘Les Sabines’ but moves the reader further towards a fluid reality. The basic movement of the story is a gentleman burglar's search for his lost family and his true identity among all the aliases that he has been using:
‘J'ai eu tant d'états-civils, depuis que je cours l'aventure, et tant de faux parents respectables que je ne suis pas fichu de m'y retrouver. Aussi bien, je me demande quel est mon nom véritable?’
Il porta la main à son front et cita rapidement une cinquantaine de noms.
To add to the confusion, Rodolphe is initially proposed as a character who has escaped from between the pages of a detective novel to arrive in a real country town! His search involves a constant mingling of two levels of reality.
Aymé pursues this transfer between two levels of reality much further in ‘Le Romancier Martin’. Not only do the novelist's creations now leave their fictional frame to attain the same level of reality as their author, but Martin has the power to remove people from real life and imprison them in a purely literary reality. A thorough mingling results: Martin's editor falls in love with one of his characters and another friend wants the novelist to translate his mistress Jiji into a ‘personnage de troisième plan’ so that he can be rid of her. It is rather surprising that an author so interested in images of mingled identity and fluid reality should have missed the ideal figure of a spy; maintaining two or three identities at once and living in an unstable world of changing loyalties and disintegrating façades, the spy could have combined Cérusier, Rodolphe and the bewildered time traveller in Le Décret to become Aymé's greatest creation.
Most of Aymé's short stories question reality to some extent. He often seems to create absurdities in order to have them accepted as realities, whether by the victim, who hardly has any choice, or by the reader, who is equally bound if he wants to read on. Cérusier is at first bewildered by his face change and goes through a period of confusion when he concludes that ‘le monde feint d'exister’ (BI 85). Finally he accepts Roland Colbert, his new self, as a ‘nouvelle réalité’. In Le Décret Aymé does not just aim at confusion of time for his victim but goes as far as the brief suggestion of a parallel existence:
J'arrivais à cette conclusion baroque qu'il existait simultanément deux villes de Dôle, l'une vivant en 1942, l'autre en 1959.
Aymé suggests very strongly that this other reality is perhaps only ever mental; the deeper reality is in the eye of the beholder. ‘Oscar et Erick’ deals directly with this important theme. Oscar has for a long time been painting only imaginary things, but the people of the northern kingdom of Ooklan where he lives hardly appreciate his inventiveness and (shades of the villagers of ‘Le Cocu nombreux’) call him ‘Oscar le fou’. One day his Viking brother comes home from the sea bearing real objects that appear to be the exact models for Oscar's fantasy canvases. The unreal has become real, or what is unreal in Ooklan exists as reality elsewhere.
It is this fantastic vein that is most often regarded as typical of Aymé's short stories. The three successful pastiches of his stories all stress this vein of the unreal. Yet anthologists of the fantastic have tended to ignore Aymé, probably because his fantastic is so often anti-serious and contains so little of the deep-rooted fear that is so essential in Poe, Hoffmann and even marginal writers like Lovecraft. There are occasional thematic similarities but Aymé's attitude to his material and his adaptation of it to accentuate reality is different. Because of Aymé's disarming, anti-serious, anti-intellectual stand it would also be wrong to align him too closely with the Surrealists who were often among his friends and who used similar processes in arriving at their strange images, or with the dramatists of the Absurd whose phenomena and situations so often resemble his own. Aymé has created his own distinctive blend of faerie, fantastic and reality. The accumulation of unreal imagery in his fictional world gives the impression that it is a special world apart where any absurdity is allowed. Exploring story after story, the reader feels that the fantastic is really quite banal and, what is worse, even expected. Masson's pastiche best captures this atmosphere when it describes a world where
Le merveilleux est partout. Seulement il se cache. Et le plus souvent, vous mourrez avant de vous être aperçu du don que les fées vous ont donné au berceau.
So we see his hero Mouton (read Martin) wondering what his next gift will be—transmutation of cobblestones into gold or the power to stop a bus with nothing more than telepathic commands. Sadly enough, Masson was right: after reading a lot of Aymé we are tempted to expect phenomena whose charm should really be in their unexpectedness.
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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 traced to periodicals of the early 1930s and early 1950s, when the French social and political scene provided Aymé with ready targets for satire.
Comparisons across the period (1929 to 1962) covered by the stories reveal the consistency of Aymé's method and the continuity of his themes. “Le Monument”, for example, exposes a snobbery and narrow-mindedness typical of small-town politics in the Third Republic; in fact, it was published during the Fourth. After the war, he directed his attention to left-wing rather than conservative targets and renounced the crudeness of “Premier prix de comédie”, directly parodying 1930s politicians, for a more oblique approach and for his characteristic brand of fantasy. This starts from an absurd situation (the man, for example, who changes sex regularly twice a day), explores the logical, and therefore still more absurd, consequences (he falls in love with herself and vice versa), some further implications (their love is doomed, since they can never meet) and developments (they get pregnant), while gently poking fun at conventional responses to this incongruity (the real wife's “what will my parents say?”).
This does not provide the basis for hard social criticism or for very profound imaginative writing, and it runs the danger of whimsy which Aymé usually avoids by the vigour of his writing and the wry detachment of a narrator who has to record improbable or impossible events. There is a hint of coldness in his treatment of human beings and their relationships, and one suspects that if he appears most feeble when attempting direct political satire, it is because he did not care deeply enough about politics to be more than mildly unpleasant to politicians.
In any case, politics is about power, while Aymé's sympathies are with the little man. His characters, often with the generic name “Martin”, act against their better natures under the pressure of events: the dutiful chemist's assistant becomes a blackmailer, the sensitive doctor a mass murderer. The Martins remain what they always were, it is fate that is cruel. He turns from Martin to the biblical Samson to show that strength is a dubious blessing (“si tu faisais le compte de tout ce qu'il a brisé depuis qu'il est au monde, tu serais moins fier de sa force”, Samson's uncle complains): in Aymé's version of the story, Samson is a leader on whom God has imposed an unwanted burden. He plans his haircut as a return to normality and a rediscoverery of himself.
Aymé still enjoys a faithful readership twenty years after his death, as do other writers, such as Pierre MacOrlan, who celebrated the clerks and artisans of the lower middle-class, and their homes in small provincial towns or the “village” of Montmartre. The settings and the type may have lingered beyond the war, but both have since changed beyond recognition. Aymé explores what is now, increasingly, their nostalgic charm, and he occasionally reveals more than that: a perceptiveness about sexual relationships, a sardonic humour. All are represented in this collection.
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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 restrictions enjoined by the theory of types that allowed Russell to charge that many of the assertions of earlier philosophers were not simply false, but in fact made no sense. Nonsense was given a deeper dimension by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus with the distinction between the sayable and the unsayable: nonsense results from the attempt to say the unsayable but, ironically, it was everything of importance in life that he believe to be comprehended under the latter. That aspect of the Tractatus was totally missed by logical positivism which sought to use the verification theory of meaning to distinguish the meaningful statements of empirical science from the nonsensical pseudo-statements of metaphysics. Wittgenstein went on to provide a still richer exploration of nonsense in the Philosophical Investigations where he locates a craving for nonsense in certain deep aspects of our language and our life. It is this craving that he believes is responsible for much of traditional philosophy which, on his view, turns out to be grounded in conceptual confusion and therefore a kind of nonsense.
Given the fact that a good case can be made that the notion of meaning and all it implies for the distinction between sense and nonsense has been the primary concern of twentieth-century philosophy, at least Anglo-American philosophy, it is surprising that in their aesthetic studies the role that nonsense has played in literature has gone almost unnoticed by philosophers. Lewis Carroll's Alice books are, of course, the obvious exception to this, but the attention they have drawn has usually been directed towards picking out the philosophical theses and jokes rather than towards the larger possibilities of nonsense as a literary device.
It may not be so surprising that literary critics and commentators have not seen those same possibilities or have not even been aware of the existence of the kind of nonsense I want to call attention to. To be sure, literature has always recognized a garden variety of nonsense that exploits made-up words, silly situations, and unlikely juxtapositions exemplified by Jabberwocky, the ‘nonsense’ verse of Edward Lear, and that American folk classic ‘I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago’.1 What I have in mind, however, is rather different from that and can be illustrated by some of the short stories of Marcel Aymé.
Marcel Aymé (1902–1967) has not been widely read in the English-speaking world and very few of his seventeen novels, twelve plays, and eighty-three short stories have been translated into English. Aymé is generally considered to be a writer of what the French call contes des merveilleux, tales of the marvellous. What can be categorized generically as the marvellous has long been a staple of French literature. Since at least the twelfth century the literature of France has been populated by sorcerers, giants, ogres, fairies, and strange events. Literary historians have devised a number of ways of sorting out and classifying the various themes of these contes des merveilleux. Marcel Schneider, for one, distinguishes between fairy tales, horror tales, and fantasy literature.2 In slicing up the domain of the marvellous it has not been recognized that one of its sub-divisions belongs to a brand of nonsense. I want to direct attention to the literary and philosophical importance of that brand of nonsense and at the same time to call attention to an interesting author who has unfortunately been neglected by English-speaking readers.
Many of Aymé's stories clearly are contes des merveilleux. One of his best known is “Le passe muraille,”3 ‘the man who could walk through walls’. A clerk of modest and regular habits suddenly discovers that he has the ability to walk through walls unhindered. Worried by this derangement in his daily life, he went to the doctor who readily diagnosed his problem and prescribed two powders together with a regimen of overwork that would surely put him to rights again. He took one of the powders but put the other aside and forgot about it. Meanwhile he began to learn that his new talent had certain advantages. He thrust his head through the wall of the office of his tyrannical boss and shouted imprecations at him. After a few repetitions of this the unfortunate man had to be taken to the mad house. He discovered that he could walk in and out of bank vaults and serve himself as he pleased. The headlines soon spoke of little else than the phantom bandit. He entered into an affair with a married woman and found it most convenient to walk directly through the wall into her bedroom. One day he suffered from a headache and so took some headache powders before going off to visit his lady love. Alas, however, it was not only a headache powder that he took, but the forgotten prescription as well. The additional dosage took effect just as he entered the wall and before he emerged on the other side. And he is still there lamenting the untimely end of his career.
And then there is “Fiançailles,”4 “The Betrothal”. It seems that a woman had read so much Greek mythology that when her son was born he turned out to be a centaur. The father kept this shame hidden away from public view on his large estate and had him privately educated. One day when luncheon guests were strolling about the grounds they accidentally encountered the young centaur. The guests had a daughter—the first human female he had seen apart from his mother—and he was immediately smitten with her and she with him. An engagement was arranged on the spot and to celebrate the girl hoisted her skirts, climbed on the back of the centaur, and went for a trot around the estate. Both, needless to say, found the experience rather erotic. He seized the occasion to venture for the first time beyond the walls of the estate. Once beyond the grounds he had his first encounter with the realities of life when a passing policeman gave him a summons for indecent exposure. It was then that he spied a young mare in the pasture across the way. She was the first of her kind that he had ever seen and something deep was stirred in the other half of his nature. He threw his betrothed into the ditch and galloped off with the mare. Neither has been seen since.
Delightful as they are, it is not these stories that I want to talk about, but three others that treat, in a fast and loose manner, of the subject of time. These three are “La carte,” “Le décret,” and “Rechute.”5 “La carte” is set in Paris during the German occupation. Shortages of nearly everything make life increasingly difficult and it is decided that in the interest of efficiency time, like all else, should be rationed. Ration cards are issued. Strong and productive workers and those in necessary occupations are, naturally, given more days to exist per month than old people and those in less vital capacities. Prostitutes are allotted only seven days per month and Jews, regardless of age, sex, or occupation, are permitted to exist only a half day each month.
There are, of course, inconveniences in the new order brought about by the decree. An old man married to a young wife is in bed when his time period runs out. He returns to existence in the same place as before only to find himself between his wife and her more virile lover. In no time at all a black market in time cards has sprung up. Poor workers sell their cards to feed their families; the wealthy are buying them up and living more than their share. Some are able to amass enough tickets to live forty, fifty, even sixty days a month. Fortunately, however, another administrative decision soon cancels the programme.
The story entitled “Le décret” also begins in wartime Paris. It has long been a custom each summer to set the clock ahead an hour or two to take advantage of the extra daylight but now the authorities decide on a far bolder step. The war has become a terrible burden for all sides and so the warring powers agree—and it is a universal agreement—to set the clock ahead seventeen years in hopes that the war will have been over by that time. Once the decree takes effect it is found that the war is indeed over and fortunately another has not broken out.
The narrator must take a trip to a small rural town to visit an old friend who is ill. When he arrives in the town he is surprised to encounter German soldiers and upon enquiring for his friend is startled to learn that he is still a prisoner of war in East Prussia. He wonders whether the decree has somehow never been announced in this remote corner of the country but then the truth begins to sink in and he realizes that he really is back in 1942. He returns to Paris to find it in the throes of the German occupation; he returns to an apartment house that hasn't been built yet and he must find his old place; and he returns to children that are still small and two of whom haven't been born yet. He sees people in the streets whose acquaintance he won't make for years. He remembers all the things that are going to happen. Little by little, however, these memories of the future begin to grow dim and before long all is as it was.
“Rechute,” unlike the other two, is not a story of the occupation. The Chamber of Deputies has just passed the ‘twenty-four’ law making the year twenty-four months long. As soon as the law took effect everyone found himself exactly half of his previous age. Grandmother who was in her late sixties is now ready to go out on the town. The girl who is the principal character in the tale was eighteen and just engaged to be married; she wakes up to find herself nine years old and her fiancé thirteen. The army is suddenly composed of ten and eleven year olds whose adult uniforms swallow them and who can scarcely carry their automatic weapons. All, however, retain the experiences and habits of mind of their former ages.
The girl's fiancé now scorns the child of nine for, as he says, between nine and thirteen there is an abyss and he reminds her that they are divided by certain physiological realities. Later on, with the aid of her brother, she forces him to reveal those physiological realities which turn out, alas for him, to be in proportion to his scrawny thirteen year old frame. As we should expect, the class of newly created children is restive, there is disorder in the streets, the army of children—let's not say ‘infantry’—cannot be relied upon, and eventually the twenty-four law is repealed and all is returned to where it was before.
Unlike the other stories, these three exploit a kind of conceptual nonsense and do not simply trade in fantasy and whimsy. It is the kind of nonsense that results from misusing the word ‘time’ and its friends and relations by assimilating its grammar to that of some other concept. Thus time is spoken of in the way that we speak of commodities that can be bought and sold, rationed and hoarded, and so on. Or the notion of moving the clock up for summer time is assimilated to rescheduling an event or changing its venue. Or time is treated as if its dimensions were subject to legislation as the dimensions of the football pitch can be changed by action of the rules committee. What Aymé has given us in each of these tales is a picture of time, i.e., the word ‘time’ is incorporated into a series of descriptions that are appropriate only for another notion.
What is perhaps the most familiar picture of time that we often make use of is that of a river upon which our life and the world is carried from past to future. As a poetic conceit this is certainly harmless and sometimes may even be apt. Gripped by this picture, nevertheless, we may be led to push the figure into doing duty for which it was not intended and begin to ask questions about it that we would ask about real rivers: how fast does time flow and might its rate change? Is there some high ground or vantage point from which we might see what is around the next bend in the future? Might we not turn the barque of our lives around and paddle back upstream? While these are exactly the questions we want to ask about rivers, they have no application to time; no sense has been given to them. An innocent trope can lead us to ask ‘What then is time?’ and we find ourselves in nonsensical metaphysical speculation.
It is this very idea of a picture that is the basis of Wittgenstein's criticism of traditional philosophy in the Philosophical Investigations. Philosophical problems are said to arise when language goes on holiday [§38] and thus is not doing its usual job, that is, when the use of certain expressions is mistakenly assimilated to that of others so that these expressions turn out to have no use, no role to play in either language or life. Thus are born those misleading analogies that are the stuff of philosophical theories, those pictures that hold us captive [§109] and prevent us from seeing the world aright. In the stories I have just mentioned Marcel Aymé is exploiting—deliberately—exactly the kind of nonsense that Wittgenstein believes is the very stuff of philosophical theory.
The illusion of sense surrounds many of these events. We may think we can imagine a sudden transformation in which everyone has a body just like the one he had at half his age, or people vanishing for so many days each month and then reappearing. It is tempting to comprehend all this under the traditional category of fantasy and to think it is one with what the wicked witch does in changing the prince into a frog. We hide all the difficulties by whispering ‘Magic!’ and think no more about it.
Whatever the intelligibility of any of that, the nonsense at work in the stories that I want to consider enters with the description of the goings on as alterations in time brought about by legislative enactment. It is as if these descriptions are offered as explanations of the strange events: ‘Why is Josette in “Rechute” suddenly a little girl again?’ we ask and are told that it is because they passed that law doubling the length of the year. It is important to focus our question on the right target. It is one thing to note that a piece of legislation cannot bring about a physical change, no act of Congress by itself can increase the length of the Mississippi River; that is an empirical truth. In addition to the legislative enactment it would require digging new channels and raising new levees. We can describe clearly what it is that the act of Congress cannot by itself bring about. Can a law nevertheless change the year? Our inclination is to say no. We can always divide the year into twenty four rather than twelve months or decide to count two revolutions of the earth about the sun as one year instead of two, but that changes only how we count birthdays—recall the unfortunate chap in The Pirates of Penzance who was born on February 29 of a leap year—but that is not at issue and in any event temporal processes continue the same. (What would it be like if they didn't?) Since no other sense has been given to the expression ‘changing the year’ we cannot say what it is that the piece of legislation is supposed not to be able to do.
That these stories of Aymé's are built around a piece of nonsense has not been recognized by his commentators. Jean-Louis Dumont, for example, says that ‘Aymé has found in the concept of time the possibility of a notion contrary to the one men have of it’6 and again, ‘his intentions are neither to horrify nor terrify his reader; he simply wants to make him laugh by upsetting the natural order of things’.7 This is surely wrong. He has not presented us with another possibility at all nor has he upset the natural order which he would have to do by suggesting some alternative order. If he is talking nonsense, then he has removed all place for a new possibility or revised order of things. What we laugh at is the nonsense wrapped up in a picture that radiates the illusion of sense. Each of these stories is an extended conceptual joke.
Equally off the mark is Graham Lord's comment that “La carte” is in part ‘a pseudo-philosophical glance at the relativity of time’.8 The relativity of time belongs to the esoteric reaches of physical theory and has nothing to do with Aymé's playing fast and loose with our ordinary ways of talking. To be sure, “Le décret” mentions several theories of time, including relativity, but that itself is all part of the joke.
Although it is not specifically about Marcel Aymé, the following remark of Marcel Schneider's is revealing:
It is science itself which restores fantasy to the universe rationalized by the encyclopedists and from which the scientism of the 19th century had pretended to extort its secrets, not only in inventing prodigious machines and means of destruction which disorient thought, but also in rendering precarious, vacillating, and illusory all the certainties on which scientists had built their edifice and which serve as religious dogmas for modern man.9
Schneider is obviously referring to the replacement of Newtonian concepts of absolute space and time by Einstein's relativized ones, to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and quantum theory with its particles that aren't anywhere or are two places at once, to Gödel's theorem, and the like. In other words, twentieth-century science is supposed to have done a great many of the very things that the fiction of fantasy has done. It is in this spirit that Graham Lord mentions, apropos of Aymé, ‘this questioning of what is often regarded as stable and absolute’. Jean Cathelin, for another, sees him as writing a kind of science fiction, only doing it better than the likes of Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov.10
In the next paragraph after these reflections on modern science Schneider suggests that the French may have something to learn from Lewis Carroll whom they had hitherto dismissed as merely a children's writer. The juxtaposition of these topics implies that Lewis Carroll may be one of those who have put the conceptual certitudes of our world in doubt. This has to be a misreading of the adventures of Alice. We recognize Carroll's nonsense as nonsense precisely because we see it against a background of sense. Carroll's point in playing with nonsense is not to put anything in doubt or to entertain any new conceptual possibilities, but is to remind us where sense is to be found.11 And so it is, I think, with Marcel Aymé. His play with the nonsense about time is intended to remind us of what the conceptual restraints on our lives really are.
Everyone is agreed that something more, quite a bit more, is going on in these stories in addition to the time fantasy. By and large the critics are right about the nature of this something more—at any rate, it is not necessary to dispute any of the details of it with them. Of “La carte” Cathelin says:
the satire here is at once social, philosophical and political; the fantasy here serves only to highlight more intensely character traits in a time of penury, of an inhuman and ferocious bureaucratism which believes that in order to find a solution to no matter what problem it is enough to regulate something.12
It is worth pausing to add that one of the explicit themes of “La carte” is the resentment of the narrator, a writer, at being included in the decree along with these other ‘useless’ ones. Writers are characterized as among the ‘consumers whose maintenance is not compensated for by any real return’. The narrator admits that he would have expected the decree to apply to painters and musicians. Aymé's playful but not quite unobtrusive proposition is that writing (and reading) are in danger of being understood as uncompensated, or improperly compensated, consumptions of time. We might reasonably take this story as making an issue, however playfully, about the importance of writing and about whether, in particular, it is worth the time that it takes.13
It is much the same with “Le décret.” The nonsense about remembering the future directs attention to something important about life and human relations. Think how our relation to another is altered when we know what is going to happen to him; that the company has, for example, already decided to fire him and you are bound not to tell him. The narrator's reflection that ‘youth which has nothing to learn is not youth’ is a reminder that our concept of youth is not simply a chronological one, a matter of from these years to those, but is in addition the concept of a moral, that is, a human condition, a stage on life's way, if you would. This very same reminder is what makes “Rechute” such a wonderful commentary on the nature of childhood and the logical conditions that make the relation of parent to child what it is. The authority of the parent over the child is not merely a matter of discrepancies in size and physical competence, but is in part a function of the moral incompleteness of the child who must be guided and led and pushed and prodded not only into the paths of righteousness, but also into satisfying the daily necessities of life. This is brought home to us by representing the moral competence of the adult clothed in the body of a child. The unfortunate composite being is forced to submit to the direction and correction appropriate to a child and the result can only appear as degradation to the adult in child's clothing.
Aymé's stories must not be understood as offering speculative theses about the nature of time, theses which careful examination show to be nonsense. The stories do not advance theories that could demand examination independently on their own merits. Aymé is using nonsense deliberately to say something about the human condition. What is going on in his stories must be distinguished from the inadvertent introduction of nonsense into literature where the aim is to present a piece of philosophy. Sartre's La Nausée is a case in point. There is little doubt that Sartre meant La Nausée to present metaphysical theses about the nature of the world, that everything in the world is contingent and therefore human practices have no justification, and so on. As philosophy this is elementary confusion and scarcely worth the effort of straightening out. In using his novel to state philosophical theses Sartre falls victim to all the snares and delusions of that kind of philosophy. Fortunately for his readers it is possible to take the novel as offering something other than metaphysics. When we read it carefully in order to follow the fortunes of its hero we sense that Roquentin's worries about necessity and contingency, being and becoming, may be better understood as the manifestation of his dissatisfaction with the lack of direction in his own life and his repugnance at the bourgeois culture of Bouville. What is presented as philosophy becomes instead the vehicle for the expression of what in the most general terms can be described as a mood or frame of mind and is thus not really philosophy at all.
What I have been saying about philosophical theses in literature is in direct opposition to a view of the relation between the two held by Peter Jones. In Philosophy and the Novel Jones says, ‘I do not examine the literary embodiment of the philosophical views I abstract from the text, … I do not consider the particular contexts within the novel which occasion the philosophical utterances. …’14 When we look closely at the context in which those supposedly philosophical remarks occur we do not find them conveying philosophical theses at all, but instead expressing or describing some observation about the course of the world or human relations. It is only when they are taken out of context that they can appear to be theses.
It will be instructive to end with a comparison of Aymé's way with nonsense and the way of a philosopher who had learned much from Wittgenstein about how to expose nonsense by telling stories. I am referring to O. K. Bouwsma who raised to an art form the technique of teasing and tickling us with nonsense by telling stories intended to produce philosophical insight, a technique that others practice at their peril. Aymé never explains to us that his nonsense is nonsense. He lays out a situation with a perfectly straight face and proceeds to talk about things just as if they did make sense and were the most ordinary in the world. It must dawn on us that it is all nonsense. To get the point we must already have a nose for it, a quickened sense of the queer, as it were. Aymé, after all, is teaching us about people and not about nonsense. He is teaching us about people through the medium of the nonsense of conceptual jokes.
Aymé's literary practice is thus rather different from Bouwsma's philosophical practice, the fact notwithstanding that Bouwsma's practice is also very much a literary one. We can see this in his article ‘Descartes’ Evil Genius'15 where the Evil Genius undertakes to deceive the innocent and unsuspecting Tom. His first evil essay in that direction is to make everything out of paper. For a time Tom is deceived into thinking that the flowers, his beloved Millie, and even his own body are real, but before long he is undeceived by suspicious crinklings and tearings. Bouwsma makes it explicit that this story trades on our ordinary understanding and familiar use of words such as ‘deception’, ‘illusion’, ‘real’, and the like; in this part of the story we find whimsy, but not nonsense.
Having failed in his first attempt the Evil Genius tries again and this time succeeds, but only too well. All conceivable tests for flowers and Millie turn out positive. The Evil Genius suggests to Tom that nevertheless he is being fooled about all those things, but Tom naturally fails to understand his evil insinuations. The criterion of reality and, consequently, of deception being invoked by the Evil Genius now proves to reside in a sense possessed only by Tom's Adversary. In other words, he does not mean what we mean when we speak of real things and deceptions and their ilk and, furthermore, by the terms of the story we can never know what he means. Now the nonsense has entered and Bouwsma can point out to us how Descartes' talk of the possibility of total illusion is the result of the misuse of language—our language—and that it is really without sense. Bouwsma has used these stories to instruct us in the nature of nonsense, how it can get started and the mischief it can work.
Bouwsma, following Wittgenstein, sees the task of the philosopher as one of turning disguised nonsense into patent nonsense [PI, §464]. The point of this exercise is not merely to remove impediments to theorizing or to permit the beauty of clarity to shine through, but is to remove impediments to seeing the world aright, to seeing other people and ourselves aright and this kind of understanding has much to do with how we are to live our lives. And, I would add, with how we are to allow literature to enter our lives.
In his stories Marcel Aymé exploits patent nonsense, but it is nonsense that passes for neither philosophical theory nor philosophical therapy. Anyone who has developed a philosopher's nose for the use and misuse of language is in a position to distinguish what Aymé is doing in these tales from fantasy and the marvellous and to note its conceptual nature as well as its kinship with the confusions of traditional philosophical theory. And especially are we now in a position to appreciate how this species of nonsense can be a vehicle for conveying important insights about human beings and their lives and problems.
There may not be enough literary examples of the kind of conceptual nonsense I have been talking about to justify identifying it as a distinct genre, nevertheless there is a significant role for it to play in literature. If this recognition of this role has no other result, it should at least lead us to rethink the spectrum of possible relations between literature and philosophy.
I was born about ten thousand years ago, And there's nothing in this world that I don't know. I saw Peter, Paul, and Moses Playing ring around the roses; I can whip the guy who says it isn't so. (And so on.)
Marcel Schneider, La littérature fantastique en France (Paris: Libraries Arthème Fayard, 1964). Schneider's book is a useful survey of the marvellous in French literature.
In Le passe muraille (Paris: Gallimard, 1943).
In En arrière (Paris: Gallimard, 1950).
La carte and Le décret are both published in Le passe muraille; Rechute is in En arrière.
Jean-Louis Dumont, Marcel Aymé et le merveilleux (Paris: Debresse, 1967), p. 122. (All translations from the French are mine.)
Dumont, p. 177.
Graham Lord, The Short Stories of Marcel Aymé (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1980), p. 48.
Schneider, p. 391.
Jean Cathelin, Marcel Aymé (Paris: Debresse, 1958), p. 145.
Or perhaps he should be understood sometimes as pointing out the mischief that can be occasioned by inattention to sense and conceptual restraint. The White Queen, for example, favours a system of justice in which the punishment, i.e., imprisonment, comes first, followed by the trial, with the crime coming last. And it is all the better if the crime is not committed at all. This, of course, is to make nonsense of the notion of punishment, not to mention the notion of justice, since the concept of punishment is logically linked to that of wrong doing. We can, nevertheless, imagine imprisonment for crimes not committed—actual examples unfortunately abound. This bears a suspicious resemblance to the idea of ‘preventive detention’ advocated by some upholders of the law in the name of justice.
Cathelin, p. 146.
I owe this understanding of the story to Timothy Gould.
Philosophy and the Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 148.
In Philosophical Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5317
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 d'histoires, au kaléidoscope d'images’ which it perceives from cradle to grave. Myth unites story, history and the urge to express some basic truth about humanity. Like Tournier, Marcel Aymé (1902–1967) was a compelling storyteller, whose fictions pleasingly combine the fabulist's art with moral and historical reflexion on his age. With their richly atmospheric evocation of period and place, their grimly humorous depiction of the attempt to hold on to values and identity in a world where the collapse of order and annihilation have become the norm, the works which Aymé wrote about the Second World War illustrate his creative talents at their best. In addition, novels like Le Chemin des écoliers (1946), Uranus (1948) and the story ‘Traversée de Paris’ (1946) have a documentary interest and a strong narrative line which have drawn film-makers as much as readers. Cinematic adaptations of these texts by, respectively, Michel Boisrond (1959), Claude Berri (1990) and Claude Autant-Lara (1956), not only continue to gain Aymé a wider popular audience but also help sustain the never-ending process of interpretation of the Occupation, which is itself a significant phenomenon of post-war French culture. In this respect, one need only recall the latest controversy about President Mitterrand's wartime record as a decorated Vichy turncoat, or the conviction of Paul Touvier earlier in 1994 for crimes against humanity, in a trial that had effectively been drawn out for half a century. For the purposes of this brief discussion of Aymé's literary contribution to the debate, I shall concentrate on the 20,000-word story ‘Traversée de Paris’, together with Autant-Lara's film version, retitled La Traversée de Paris or Pig Across Paris in some English versions.2
K. K. Ruthven suggests that myths contain ‘para-history’, that is what people believe or hope happened in the past. Moreover, ‘to be preoccupied with myth reveals a yearning for order in the midst of upheavals and fragmentariness’.3 While myths as cosmological allegories, esoteric philosophy, eschatological systems, or the devious attempts of the bourgeoisie (as anatomised by Barthes) to maintain cultural hegemony by making ideology into nature, need not concern us here, more useful is the notion of the foundation myth outlined by Henry Tudor, which seeks to (re)explain past events in order to justify and reinforce the authority of those holding power or influence in the present. Myths in this sense may be garbled history, but the shaping of their narrative serves an eminently practical purpose, of effecting or upholding social and political cohesion. Thus, as Tudor observes, there is nothing primitive, rudimentary, or merely literary about myth.4 Consequently, it is as legitimate and fruitful to talk about myth in the context of modern historical events like the Second World War as it is regarding ancient theogonies, medieval legend, or the metamorphoses wrought by the artistic imagination.
Myths are not untruths (except in popular parlance), but rather attempts to locate truths in convenient fictions. Insofar as irony depends on a perceived gap between semblance and reality, along with a position of sceptical detachment on the part of the ironist (and those who share his perspective), one could argue that myth is fundamentally ironic, at least in the historiographical sense which is attached to it in this discussion. To talk, for instance, of the myths of the Occupation and Liberation of France in 1940–44, is to acknowledge that one has seen through them, while perhaps recognising their necessity. The excessively naive or cynical belief that history is either absolute truth or complete bunk can be replaced by a more ironic awareness that historical meaning is constantly constructed and reconstructed, as much by the observer as by the events he records. Ironic detachment can of course easily degenerate into smug condescension. The Times published a leading article on 27 August 1994, entitled ‘La Libération: Paris has been reliving a healing national myth’. The quaint use of the Gallic term and the personification of Paris show the anonymous editorialist lapsing into the clichéd evocation of mythic forces, of which he (or she) was perhaps unaware. The writer goes on to argue that the Parisians ‘Dancing until dawn yesterday on the Place de la Concorde’ were possessed with the mythic spirit summoned up fifty years before by General de Gaulle's famous celebration of ‘la France éternelle’ in the act of self-liberation. That the liberation of Paris was actually due to Allied military dominance and to the restraint of General von Choltitz, rather than to heroic French freedom fighters, was conveniently omitted in the attempt to restore national unity. (A glance at Angus Calder's skilful anatomisation of The Myth of the Blitz (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991) serves as a salutory reminder that the British have no reason to be complacently superior in this domain.)
The novelist who takes his material from historical and social reality can hardly avoid presenting the official version of history in an ironic light in his fiction. For Marcel Aymé's characters, patriotism and honesty are dangerously outmoded values, at least as conventionally accepted. ‘Traversée de Paris’ recounts the attempt by two small-time black-marketeers to smuggle the carcass of a pig across occupied Paris, on foot, in the winter of 1942–43. Central issues in the story are how identity and social responsibility are defined. The reversals and moral ambiguities of Aymé's plot constantly rehearse and ironise some of the key myths of Occupation existence. The film is more overtly comic, attenuating the characters' existential rage in favour of more entertaining, farcical business, and widening out the story's account of period detail. Apart from its conclusion, however, the film remains faithful to Aymé in spirit and tone, matching his verbal shafts in the excellent script of Aurenche and Bost and the memorable central performances by Bourvil and Jean Gabin. In this respect, it is unique among the cinematic adaptations of Aymé's works, which are mostly undistinguished dilutions of his stories.
An early biographer of Aymé, Jean Cathelin, observed that the writer set out in his pre-war essay Silhouette du scandale (1938), stimulated by the repercussions of the Stavisky affair, to ‘décrypter les mythes de la société contemporaine’. At the same time, myth decoded may mean myth reenacted in a new form; hence perhaps the ‘renouveau de littérature mythique et symbolique’ in the decade after 1940.5 Before pursuing this analysis, it would be helpful to recall some of the central myths of Occupation. Unsurprisingly, the founding myth is not that of the débâcle of 1940 or of Pétain the saviour, but that of Resistance, often referred to as ‘résistancilisme’. Obvious literary examples which help elaborate such a myth are Vercors's Le Silence de la mer, Vailland's Drôle de jeu, and, in more allegorical mode, Sartre's Les Mouches and Camus's La Peste. Michel Tournier, to quote him again, exemplifies a common post-1968 urge to demystify the notion of ‘résistancialisme’, when he asserts that ‘En vérité Résistance n'est devenue un phénomène d'ampleur nationale qu'après le départ des Allemands. […] Les authentiques résistants furent souvent noyés, submergés, écœures par l'explosion du mythe de la Résistance après la Libération’.6 According to Tournier, Marcel Ophuls's celebrated documentary film Le Chagrin et la pitié, shown in French cinemas in 1971, helped re-establish a more truthful view of the Occupation. The historian Henry Rousso, author of Le Syndrome de Vichy, a fascinating historiographical study of post-war representations of the Occupation, which he sees as reflecting a national, collective neurosis, reiterates Tournier's critique, albeit more subtly.7 The film certainly enraged the official guardians of memory, whether of left or right, by its insistence on collaboration or compliance with the enemy as the norm, rather than Resistance, but its own partiality runs the risk of replacing the myth of ‘résistancialisme’ with a new one of universal cowardice and abjection.
Rousso sees Autant-Lara's film of ‘La Traversée de Paris’ as an anticipatory gesture of iconoclastic defiance: ‘A sa manière, le film est une première pierre lancée dans le jardin des mythes naissants’.8 In fact, Aymé and Autant-Lara subvert the myth of Resistance, not by frontal assault, but by omission. The heroic resister (a central figure in a novel like Kessel's L'Armée des ombres (1943) and the Melville film which followed the book a generation later in 1969) is replaced by his mercenary counterpart, the profiteer. In one scene in the film (not found in Aymé's story), a young woman shelters Gabin and Bourvil from a German patrol in the hallway of her tenement, on the ingenuous assumption that they are Resistance members on the run. While the sardonic Grandgil plays her along, the hapless Martin soon betrays their real profession. But the idea of fresh pork proves as seductive to the girl as that of ‘parachutage’; while Gabin is as ever willing to offer her ‘une petite côtelette’ as a reward, Bourvil with his petty crook's code of honour refuses to share booty which doesn't belong to him. The message, then, is that even if the French are not united in Resistance, they share the same greed and urge for gain; the virtuous pose of the girl and Martin is undercut by the reality of their behaviour and by Grandgil's more knowing opportunism.
Aymé and Autant-Lara may seem simply to have replaced ‘résistancialisme’ with an early version of the more heretical outlook typical of the so-called ‘mode rétro’ of the 1970s and 1980s. Alan Morris characterises ‘résistancialisme’ as depending on four propositions:9 that there were few real collaborators; that the vast majority of the population were patriotic; that the real interests of France were pursued by an élite of freedom fighters; that de Gaulle led and personified the Resistance. What is significant about the ‘mode rétro’, on the other hand, is not merely that it blurs these categories (implicitly rehabilitating collaboration, say, by equating it with Resistance as an option dictated by chance rather than choice: the theme of Louis Malle's well-known-film, Lacombe Lucien), but also that it makes heresy fashionable; an equivocal nostalgia for period detail and mores replaces condemnation. It is certainly true that Aymé's writings about the Occupation reject the Gaullist legend. While he marginalises Resistance, and dismisses de Gaulle as a dictator, ‘venu de l'autre rive de la Manche se faire le geôlier de la nation’,10 he portrays most French people as self-interested opportunists, reserving his strongest scorn for those who hypocritically adopt ideological allegiances in order to dominate and exploit the uncommitted. Nevertheless, there is nothing nostalgic about the novels and stories written during and just after the war; the world they depict is a bleak one, of deprivation, fear and imminent catastrophe. At the same time, Aymé's fictional universe is sharply delineated and his ironies, however subversive of the official line, point to clear-cut moral options. He is remote from the obsessive cataloguing of period bric-à-brac and oneiric interaction of fact and fancy which one founds in the novels of Patrick Modiano, who is usually held to be the best current practitioner of the ‘mode rétro’.
Jean Dutourd writes in his novel Au bon beurre, ou dix ans de la vie d'un crémier (1952) that ‘Au-dessus de la politique, il y avait les affaires’.11 Aymé shares this perception. In ‘Traversée de Paris’, survival has become a matter of business. Martin trades in black-market meat, Grandgil in paintings, while in the film version the Germans are shown trading off the lives of hostages to pay for Resistance incursions. In any case, politics is only another form of business. In Uranus, the double-dealing of the Communist Party includes the protection of the gross profiteer Monglat, at the expense of lesser fry like the café-owner Léopold or the collaborator Loin. In Le Chemin des écoliers, the protagonist Michaud eventually learns to reject his outmoded humane values and becomes a successful black-marketeer, having followed in the footsteps of his sixteen-year-old son Antoine. More is at stake here than cynical adaptation to changed social conditions. As Dutourd observes in a later passage of his novel, all substance has become illusory under the Occupation, as the ersatz replaces the real:
Les lames de rasoir ne coupaient pas, le savon était une pierre ou du sable, le dentifrice du plâtre, le café de l'orge, le cuir du papier, la toile de la fibre de bois. On était entouré d'apparences, on se mouvait dans des mirages, la vie réelle n'était pas plus véridique que des accessoires de théâtre: poulets de carton, bouteilles d'eau teintée, sabres en fer-blanc.12
Instead of giving the illusion of reality, the novel chronicles the reality of illusion.
Dutourd's characters tend to remain odious stereotypes; when Marshal Pétain appears, he is no longer a saviour but a sort of grotesque doll. Aymé is more successful at taking us beyond caricature and engaging us with the inner world of his central characters The public or political arena is held at a distance, at least in ‘Traversée de Paris’. Is there however a mythologisation or metaphysic of daily living? Like Dutourd's observer, Aymé's Martin (the name of the common man, which is given to many of the protagonists of the author's stories) is aware at times of the flimsiness of his surroundings. Entering a café, its sordid appearance makes him think of ‘un décor de théâtre d'un réalisme indiscret’ (VP, 51). This mise en abyme teasingly reverses the customary referential gesture towards an extra-textual reality: here the world of theatrical illusion again invades the everyday. That the other principal character, Grandgil, is a painter adds of course to the possibilities of such ironic manipulations.
Novelists and film-makers may in practice be better equipped than historians to track down and convey the determinants of ordinary life, which leave few official traces. In this context, the ambiguities of attentisme and the black economy fall into that area between fact and fiction which readily invites the elaboration of new myths.13 Are such marginal figures as the profiteer and wide boy despicable exploiters of others' needs or rather lovable rogues untrammelled by hypocritical convention? When, as the historian Roderick Kedward observes, up to half the food supply was channelled through the black market, it is actually misleading to call them marginal. In Le Chemin des écoliers, the black-marketeering school-boy Antoine controls his circumstances far more effectively than the supposedly dominant adults who surround him. The control of the food supply determines the survival of social bonds as much as that of individuals; as Aymé observes in the allegorical story, ‘La Bonne Peinture’, ‘c'est par le ventre qu'on commence à se sentir avec les autres’ (VP, 188). In an extensive study of Trafics et crimes sous l'Occupation, Jacques Delarue argues that the black market, far from reflecting the spirit of French enterprise or rebelliousness, was in fact largely controlled by the Germans.14 Goods in short supply were often channelled through bureaux d'achat offering higher prices than official ones; these ‘officines allemandes’ were nominally run by French middlemen, who were often convicted felons and Gestapo agents. He cites the extraordinary success of such notorious profiteers as the Russian Szkolnikoff (murdered in June 1945) and the Romanian Joinovici (who was finally incarcerated in 1947).
In effect, a clandestine secondary economy was set up, which outstripped the official one in some sectors such as the leather trade. At the same time, those outside the system suffered increasing hardship. In 1943, the official daily food ration was 1,500 calories—1,000 below the basic requirement; infantile mortality rose by 50 per cent and deaths from tuberculosis by nearly 100 per cent during the Occupation. One of the great merits of Aymé's storytelling is to reveal the practical consequences of such bare facts; he prefers concrete detail and caustic humour to false pity or overblown rhetoric. Most of the characters in ‘Traversée de Paris’ are at the very bottom of the economic ladder, and remote from the large-scale profiteers found in real life or Aymé's other works. The chain of supply and demand portrayed in the story excludes the Germans (unlike Autant-Lara's adaptation, as will be seen). Aymé is less interested in the morality of the black market than in its effect on the behaviour of his characters. Both Grandgil and Martin are offered a sort of freedom in their clandestine venture, which ultimately neither is willing or able to accept. Violence is finally perpetrated by the enraged Martin when he resolves the enigma of Grandgil's identity and kills him; after this cathartic act, he is content to be taken off to prison, having refused the temptations offered by his mysterious partner. In the film, on the other hand, the final act is determined from without by the intrusion of the Germans.
The action of ‘Traversée de Paris’ is motivated partly by the topography of the characters' nocturnal odyssey, and partly by the clash of their antagonistic personalities. Reversal of fortunes and characters is a constant device, reflecting both the upheaval of Occupation and the author's fondness for surprising his readers. In the opening sentence, we read: ‘La victime, déjà dépecée, gisait dans un coin de la cave sous des torchons de grosse toile’ (VP, 27). The false drama of butchery carried out by the quaking grocer Jamblier and the arrival of Martin who resembles ‘un inspecteur de police’ (28), might lead us to assume the existence of a crime worthy of Dr Petiot (the infamous mass murderer of the Occupation) or his acolytes, the ‘faux policiers’ of the rue Lauriston, particularly if we recall the atrocious murders and scenes of cannibalism which Aymé laconically recounts in Le Chemin des écoliers. The victim of course is a pig, whose 100-kilo carcass is to be transported eight kilometres from the rue Poliveau (near the Jardin des Plantes, in the 5ème) to the rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre. These addresses locate the story in a real Paris, whose streets and monuments are carefully indicated to mark the stages of the journey. But the travellers, weighed down by their heavy suitcases, also move across a landscape as equivocal as their business. (Autant-Lara's film was shot entirely on studio sets, without location work, and presents a Paris both realistic and stylised in its obvious markers of Occupation life.)
In the café on the Boulevard de la Bastille where they first meet, Martin and Grandgil contemplate the sunset over the canal. The narrator notes that ‘la lumière du soir durcissait les lignes et les plans’, whereas for Martin, ‘cette agonie lucide du crépuscule’ is a gloomy and chilling symbol of life's shortcomings (32–33); he assumes erroneously that Grandgil shares this perspective. Only towards the end of the story are we shown the urban landscape painting in Grandgil's studio which recalls the opening sunset scene (68). The correspondence which Grandgil finds thus differs radically from Martin's; the painter attempts to possess and dominate the landscape, just as he comes to dominate Martin and finally draws his portrait after he has fallen asleep in exhaustion. Yet Grandgil is not particularly successful in his ventures as a highbrow artist, which he signs with his real name Gilouin. Martin is more impressed by the lurid, erotic drawings which Grandgil exchanges for commodities in the neighbourhood (‘Avant-hier, pour une femme à poil, j'ai eu un jambon’, 67). While Grandgil's commercial art is thus equated with their commerce of the pig (and Grandgil himself is constantly described as having ‘de petits yeux de porc’ and resembling a ‘bélier’), his true vocation leaves him more vulnerable, for in it he surrenders ‘cette ironie un peu distante où le peintre semblait trouver son équilibre le plus sûr’ (69). Overhearing Grandgil boasting contemptuously on the telephone about his black-market exploits (‘Ce sont les mous qui font les durs’, 71), the humiliated and envious Martin attacks Grandgil's ‘proper’ paintings and kills him in the ensuing struggle. After delivering the pig, however, Martin is arrested by the police who have discovered his portrait, incriminatingly signed with the date, in the artist's studio.
Three perspectives run parallel in the story and create its ironic manner: the small-minded survival skills of Martin, the born loser whose judgement invariably falls short of the facts; the ironic pose of Grandgil, who admits to being a painter but proves to be as effective as a petty gangster, and whose insouciance is matched by considerable practical skill; and the judgements of the reader, for whom ‘Traversée de Paris’ is an evocation of occupied Paris as well as a clash of conflicting protagonists. While Martin constantly betrays his flaws and weaknesses in words and deeds to his companion (for instance, his common-law wife Mariette has just left him; Grandgil tells him patronisingly that given her advanced years she'll soon be back), Grandgil witholds his true identity behind his taciturn detachment, while also proving far more effective as a man of action. Typically, Martin assumes that Grandgil is a down-at-heel housepainter. The reader, noting the ‘insolente ironie’ of Grandgil's gaze (31), is unlikely to share this hasty supposition. Consequently, as Grandgil increasingly dominates the situation, both Martin and reader are driven to reinterpret his character, and to question Martin's own ethic, which clings on to a dubious notion of honesty even in flagrantly illegal dealings.
Until the final revelation of Grandgil's true identity, his actions constantly speak louder than Martin's words, despite the latter's naive belief in his own adroitness and experience. When a customer in the first café aggressively denounces the pair as ‘poulets’, policemen or agents provocateurs, Martin protests ineffectually while Grandgil pushes the belligerent man out of the way. On discovering the treasure trove of foodstuffs which Jamblier is hoarding in his cellar, Grandgil extorts 5,000 francs from the grocer instead of the 450 which Martin was content with. The carcass itself is worth 15,000 francs, but Martin refuses Grandgil's suggestion that they dispose of it themselves. Both Jamblier and Martin affect indignation at Grandgil's ‘duplicité monstrueuse’ (42), although the narrator points out the paradox of their convenient expectation of honesty in criminal dealings. Martin attempts to explain Grandgil's extorsion on his own moral terms, as a legitimate desire to receive a better reward for the risks they are taking (whereas it is more probably gratuitous bravado). Nonetheless, ‘Martin, lui, ne voyait rien d'immoral ni de scandaleux dans le trafic clandestin et ses bénéfices réputés exorbitants. Le vol et l'illégalité étaient à ses yeux choses distinctes’ (VP, 45). Grandgil himself imagines that he has captured ‘le personnage moral de Martin’ in his sketch of him, and revealed ‘ce qu'est l'honnêteté d'un homme: un sentiment de fidélité à soi-même, commandé par l'estime qu'il a de sa propre image, telle que la lui renovie le miroir de la vie sociale’ (70).
Grandgil considers himself above this ‘moyenne honorable’ (70); the artist shapes his own image by playing at the role of gangster or contemptor of humanity, while also recording an image of others and their world in his paintings. When they enter another café half-way through their journey, Grandgil intimidates the surly owner and his repulsive wife (who are illegally employing a Jewish girl), with a denunciatory (and anti-Semitic) tirade. He also insults the covetous clients who are measuring up the suitcases with their ‘yeux de demi-affamés’ (51): ‘Foutez-moi le camp, salauds de pauvres […] Allez aboyer contre le marché noir’ (53). The ‘salauds de pauvres’, which the film made famous, and the gold teeth which his disdainful laugh reveals, evidently confirm his status as an antipathetic character, yet also demonstrate a rejection of the myth of solidarity. The weak are in effect shown as envious, contemptible and deserving of being crushed; their complaints rarely lead to action. That both Aymé and Autant-Lara were men of right-wing views, whose non-alignment with Resistance virtues got them into trouble at the Liberation, doubtless helps explain the venom of ‘Traversée de Paris’ in this area.
Nevertheless, the dandyish Grandgil is eventually disposed of by his partner, and a more conventional moral order thereby restored. The opening sunset is further replicated by the blood spreading over his defaced painting of the Boulevard de la Bastille: both the artist and his demonstration of aesthetic superiority have been eradicated. Although art is in a sense avenged when the portrait betrays Martin as the likely killer, Martin in any case is content to surrender to the law since he cannot tolerate the thought of others perceiving him as a murderer. His final act is to drop the envelope containing Grandgil's 5,000 francs in the street, in the hope that a passer-by will post it back to Jamblier. The story concludes: ‘Jamais il n'avait eu une foi aussi entière en la vertu de ses semblables’ (79). There are, it seems, no winners. Both Grandgil and Martin have failed to survive their enterprise, either practically or morally. As a result, the reader is likely once again to regard Martin's faith as entirely misplaced and to draw a more radically pessimistic conclusion.
The ending of ‘Traversée de Paris’ is not altogether satisfactory. The conclusion of Autant-Lara's film is quite different. Aymé nihilistically rejects the morality of the detached artist as much as that of the common man; both are defeated by their own weaknesses rather than circumstance. The film, on the other hand, relies on circumstance (that is, the intrusion of the Germans, whom Aymé largely excludes from his story other than as passing figures). Whereas Aymé's story is more powerful and coherent in relying on ethic rather than event, as far as plot and character are concerned the violent outcome still seems rather contrived. Martin's capacity to kill has been established by recollections of his stabbing a Turkish soldier in the Dardanelles during the First War. Nevertheless, when he attempts to attack Grandgil earlier in the evening, his more powerful companion repels him effortlessly, just as he floors an inquisitive policeman with one blow.
It is the betrayal of Grandgil's double identity, the last of several betrayals of their odyssey, which enrages Martin and which also removes the artist's shield of protective irony. The demands of symbolism over-ride those of verisimilitude, in other words. One could in fact argue that Grandgil has a triple identity, as apprentice gangster, commercial painter, and the budding highbrow artist Gilouin. It is the last who is sacrificed. Similarly, there are three conclusions offered, if one fuses Aymé's story with Autant-Lara's film. This is because the director's wishes were eventually overruled by his producer, who demanded that a supposedly happy ending be grafted on to his existing dénouement.15 In effect, the murder of the pig replaces that of Grandgil; in Aurenche and Bost's script, Martin (now teasingly christened Marcel, though he is called Eugène in the story) plays the accordion in the opening sequence to conceal the fracas caused as Jamblier (played by Louis de Funès) and his family chase the luckless swine round the cellar before finally succeeding in slaughtering it. Aymé's ironies of identity are to a large extent replaced by such farcical albeit macabre interludes. In a later scene, Gabin and Bourvil are joined by a retinue of famished dogs which, like the howling wolves in the Jardin des Plantes, are drawn by the smell of the meat and only dissuaded when bribed with a sample from the suitcase.
Finally, Gabin and Bourvil are arrested as they attempt to deliver the suitcases. A German officer recognises Grandgil and has him released, while the less fortunate Martin is driven off with a lorryload of French hostages. What follows this grim reversal was described by Claude Mauriac as ‘Une fin postiche, anodine et qui sonne faux’. Brief shots of the Liberation, victory parades and the playing of the Marseillaise denote the end of the war (sarcastically echoing the opening shots of German triumph). We move to the post-war Gare de Lyon and discover a wealthy Grandgil boarding a train, assisted by a railway porter, who turns out to be Martin, a survivor after all but still the eternal ‘porteur de valises’. Yet survival hardly betokens optimism. Other reviewers noted that whereas Aymé chose to chastise Grandgil's amoralism, Autant-Lara's production shows him to be a ‘gentil collaborateur’. Claude Mauriac observed that ‘Il fallait aux auteurs le visage humain et sympathique de Gabin pour faire passer l'odieux de certaines de ses paroles et de quelques-uns de ses actes’.16 (Jean Gabin in fact often played the sort of virtuous gangster whose morality Aymé mocked in his story; in addition, he was one of the few major showbusiness figures of the period not to have been compromised under the Occupation.)
Be that as it may, it is hard to avoid concluding that the ironic configurations of both story and film produce a grimly bleak representation of the Occupation. Pierre Ajame asserts that the film is ‘un chef-d'œuvre de méchanceté’; not only do Aymé and Autant-Lara deride the patriotic myths of Resistance and national solidarity, but they demonstrate that ‘L'amitié est une blague, la culture un élément de troc, le dévouement une bêtise, l'héroïsme une foutaise, l'amour une escroquerie’.17 Yet are ‘Traversée de Paris’ and La Traversée de Paris really such destructive, nihilistic exercises in derisive debunking? Their very popularity tends to indicate that this is an overstatement. Both writer and director achieve a comic complicity with their audience, as they subvert the false heroism of official propaganda and the cynical anti-heroism of the black-marketeer. The truth may be unpalatable or intangible, yet the reader and spectator are enabled to observe one possible version of it from an ironic perspective, where recognition and detachment become fully compatible.
M. Tournier, Le Vent Paraclet (Paris: Gallimard, Folio, 1977), pp. 188, 191.
References to ‘Traversée de Paris’ in my text are taken from Le Vin de Paris (Paris: Gallimard 1947) and abbreviated as VP. For the script of the film, see L'Avant-scéne cinéma, 66 (January 1967).
K. K. Ruthven, Myth (London: Methuen, 1976), p. 82.
H. Tudor, Political Myth (London: Pall Mall Press, 1972).
J. Cathelin, Marcel Aymé, ou le paysan de Paris (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Debresse, 1958), p. 170, 211.
Tournier, pp. 79–80.
See H. Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy de 1944 à nos jours (Paris: Seuil, 1990), pp. 127ff. See also G. Kantin and G. Manceron, eds, Les Echos de la mémoire: tabous et enseignement de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Paris: Le Monde-Editions, 1991), and E. Conan and H. Rousso, Vichy: un passé qui ne passe pas (Paris: Fayard, 1994).
Rousso, p. 262.
A. Morris, Collaboration and Resistance Reviewed: Writers and the Mode Rétro in Post-Gaullist France (New York: Berg, 1992).
M. Aymé, Vagabondages, ed. M. Lecureur (Besançon: La Manufacture, 1992), p. 315. For a fuller discussion, see C. Lloyd, Marcel Aymé: ‘Uranus’ and ‘La Tête des autres’ (Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1994).
J. Dutourd, Au bon beurre (Paris: Le Livre de poche, 1958), p. 179.
Dutourd, p. 214.
H. R. Kedward writes: ‘there can be no simple conclusion about the French day-to-day existence under the Occupation, and no single answer to the question of whether or not the severity of the Nazi presence was directly reflected in daily behaviour’. Occupied France: Collaboration and Resistance 1940–1944 (London: Blackwell, 1985), p.14. See also J. Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 1991).
J. Delarue, Trafics et crimes sous l'Occupation (Paris: Fayard, 1968).
See M. Lecureur, ‘Claude Autant-Lara nous a parlé de Marcel Aymé’, Cahiers Marcel Aymé, 1 (1982), pp.134–35.
Quoted in L'Avant-scène cinéma, p. 47.
L'Avant-scène cinèma, p. 47.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119
Brodin, Dorothy. Marcel Aymé. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1968, 48 p.
Critical study of Aymé's life and works.
Grigson, Geoffrey. “Out of the Fashion.” Spectator 206, No. 6931 (28 April 1961): 618.
Highly recommends Aymé's The Proverb and Other Stories, finding the book reminiscent of stories by Maupassant and Turgenev.
Loy, J. Robert. “The Reality of Marcel Aymé's World.” French Review XXVIII, No. 2 (December 1954): 115–27.
Analyzes realistic elements in Aymé's fantasy literature.
Additional coverage of Aymé's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 25; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 89–92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 67; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 11; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 72; and Something about the Author, Vol. 91.