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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1069

Michel Édouard Tournier (tewr-nyay) is one of the most widely read, most honored, and certainly most controversial and thought-provoking of contemporary European writers. He was born in Paris on December 19, 1924, the son of Alphonse and Marie-Madeleine (Fournier) Tournier, who had met while studying German at the Sorbonne. Alphonse’s...

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Michel Édouard Tournier (tewr-nyay) is one of the most widely read, most honored, and certainly most controversial and thought-provoking of contemporary European writers. He was born in Paris on December 19, 1924, the son of Alphonse and Marie-Madeleine (Fournier) Tournier, who had met while studying German at the Sorbonne. Alphonse’s educational career was curtailed by World War I; after being wounded, he abandoned professional ambitions and founded an international bureau which dealt with musicians’ copyrights. Tournier’s favorite toy was the phonograph; from childhood on, he enjoyed music but even more the power of the spoken word. Marie-Madeleine’s legacy was equally formative. While she gave up her teaching plans for child-rearing, she never lost her love for Germany, which she passed on to her children. Tournier’s maternal great-uncle, Gustave Fournier, had taught German in Dijon, and tales about Gustave and Edouard, Tournier’s grandfather, during the Prussian occupation of the 1870’s form the basis of some of Tournier’s autobiographical vignettes in The Wind Spirit. His own childhood was laced with train excursions to the Black Forest; these happy occasions took place within the growing shadow of Nazism. Tournier was not a diligent student nor was he a prodigious reader. Yet he was attracted to writers such as Hans Christian Andersen, whose works combine fantasy with reality. Tournier has said that he wishes his own works to be comprehensible to any twelve-year-old child. His stories in The Fetishist, and Other Stories, his rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) in Friday, and the novel The Four Wise Men reflect his early reading.

When he was four years old, Tournier underwent a routine tonsillectomy. To the nervous and hypersensitive young boy, the operation was a nightmare, an invasion. It gave Tournier a sense of alienation and a mistrust of other people. This feeling of solitude and separation was furthered by his experiences during World War II. Too young for active service, Tournier first saw the war from a perspective of youthful exuberance. At the beginning of the Occupation, his family lived in the Parisian suburbs, but their home was soon commandeered by German officers, and the Tourniers were socially categorized by their germanistik sympathies. The family moved to an apartment in Neuilly while Tournier stayed at a summer cottage in Villers-sur-Mer and, later on, in the village of Lusigny. In spring, 1944, by chance he was away from Lusigny when his foster family was deported to Buchenwald for having helped the Maquis. Tournier’s love of German culture made Nazi excesses even more intolerable to him, but he admits that he, like the majority of the French, never considered joining the Resistance. From 1942 to 1945, Tournier studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Gaston Bachelard and Jean-Paul Sartre. He also was influenced by fellow student Gilles Deleuze. In 1946 Tournier went to the university in Tübingen for a proposed three-week study of German philosophers; he stayed there for four years. In July, 1949, however, Tournier suffered the setback which ended his academic career: He failed his Sorbonne doctoral exam. It was a bitter blow, yet it may also be seen as the beginning of his literary vocation.

From 1949 to 1958, Tournier worked in radio and television production, first for a French station, and then as an announcer for Europe No. 1. He lived in a Parisian hotel with other painters and writers. He also worked as a translator of contemporary German texts, most notably those of Erich Maria Remarque, into French, and he took courses from Claude Lévi-Strauss. In 1958, Tournier became head of translation services for Editions Plon, where he worked until 1968. From 1960 to 1965, he also hosted a television series, La Chambre bleue (the darkroom), which dealt with photography. Tournier has been called France’s foremost “amateur” photographer, and the motif of image versus reality undergirds his writings. In 1967, Tournier, who already enjoyed considerable success in intellectual pursuits, published Friday, his flipside version of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A study of human isolation and sensuality, it enjoyed immediate critical success, winning the Grand Prix de Roman of the French Academy. The novel was a popular success as well; in fact, Tournier’s novels generally top the French best-seller lists for weeks, even months.

The 1970’s were a time of artistic development for Tournier. In 1970 The Ogre won the Prix Goncourt. Set against a background of World War II, its portrayal of Fascism, pederasty, and alienation is both repulsive and compelling. Tournier’s personal background has led critics to speculate extensively on the novel’s verisimilitude and roman à clef qualities. Tournier was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1972, and throughout the early 1970’s he traveled extensively; among the places he visited were Japan, Iceland, Canada, and Northern Africa. These trips were reflected in his own favorite work, Gemini, a study of twinship and solitude, sublimation and desire. Unfriendly critics have denounced Gemini as morally reprehensible, but more favorable readers applaud its candid and intellectual approach to questions of sexual identity and power. During the 1970’s, Tournier also devoted time to writing children’s stories and to his hobby of photography. In 1975 Tournier was honored as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

Tournier has frequently remarked upon the importance of rites of passage as are reflected in his novels of the 1980’s such as The Four Wise Men, a recasting of the Nativity story, and Gilles and Jeanne, the account of Bluebeard Gille de Rais’s perverted veneration of Joan of Arc. During this decade, Tournier also developed more fully the motifs of duality, of ethnic and psychological separation. He reveled in challenging mythical and historical “truths.” The Golden Droplet, which was made into a film in 1988, aroused much critical debate with its denunciation of dominant political ideology, popular culture, and racism via the adventures of its neo-Candide Berber protagonist, Idriss. In The Midnight Love Feast Tournier played again with framework tales (The Arabian Nights and The Decameron), blending and contrasting Western and non-Western traditions.

In the 1990’s, Tournier continued to distill his major theme of duality. Le Miroir des idées (the mirror of ideas) contains philosophical essays, dedicated to Gaston Bachelard, which explore polarities. Photography has resurfaced, preeminent and paradoxical, in his study of the works of the controversial Czech photographer Jan Saudek, Le Pied de la lettre (treat as equal). Michel Tournier himself has lived for more than thirty years in a former rectory in the valley of the Chevreuse.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

Michel Édouard Tournier was born in Paris on December 19, 1924, to parents who were both specialists in the German language, a fact that undoubtedly influenced their son’s career. He studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris with well-known thinkers such as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard and the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as at the University of Tübingen in Germany. He earned the equivalent of master’s degrees in both letters and law but failed the enormously difficult agrégation, the examination required for entry into university teaching, in 1949. After this failure, Tournier gave up the idea of an academic career and became a director and producer for the French radio and television network from 1949 to 1954. During those years, he also published the translations from German already mentioned. Beginning in 1955, he spent three years as a journalist and then became the director of literary services for the publishing house Plon. That was to prove to be his last employment in the business world. With the success of Friday in 1967, Tournier left Plon in 1968, after ten years with that firm, to devote himself to full-time writing.

Tournier’s achievements as a novelist are particularly impressive in view of the fact that he published his first novel (actually his fourth, in the order in which he wrote them) at the comparatively late age of forty-three. His novels have continued to intrigue readers, and his reputation seems assured. Tournier resides in the picturesque Chevreuse Valley, a few miles southwest of Paris.

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