Michel Tournier World Literature Analysis
Michel Tournier started writing at a time when the form of the New Novel held sway in French literary circles. The New Novel ignores traditional novelistic techniques and even questions the ability of language to convey meaning; its narration tends to be complex.
Tournier’s works display the elements the New Novel lacks: plot, character, and suspense. Tournier has stated that he has no interest in revolutionizing the form of the novel, but this does not mean that he writes ordinary books. In The Wind Spirit: An Autobiography he states that:My intention was to avoid formal innovation, to use only the most traditional, conservative, and reassuring of forms, but to fill them with a content having none of those qualities.
The result has been that French critics have sometimes been disappointed in Tournier’s works and their lack of verbal experimentation. On the other hand, Tournier is popular with the reading public; each of his novels has been a best seller in France. These same readers, however, have often been upset at the content with which Tournier sometimes fills his conservative forms.
These forms are often versions of preexisting models. The most obvious examples are two pairs of works. One pair consists of Friday: Or, The Other Island and Friday and Robinson: Life on the Esperanza Island, the latter of which is intended for younger readers. The Four Wise Men and the tale Barbedor (1980), the latter of which was published separately for children before its inclusion in the adult work, form another such pair.
The first pair of these titles builds on one of the oldest and most famous novels in English, Robinson Crusoe, which is itself based on the true story of the shipwrecked sailor Alexander Selkirk. Tournier had been struck by the novel’s ethnocentrism (that is, its acceptance of Crusoe’s cultural values as being the only ones worth considering), and rewrote it from a viewpoint including modern psychology and anthropology. In Tournier’s version, it is Friday who chooses to leave aboard the British ship that has chanced upon the island; Crusoe, who has absorbed Friday’s values and come to identify almost literally with the island, remains.
Tournier’s two books about the Magi embellish the account in Matthew of the Wise Men who bring gifts to honor the newborn Christ. Tournier supplemented this account with legends that put the number of Wise Men at four and that make one of them black. Tournier also studied a short novel familiar to American readers, The Story of the Other Wise Man (1896) by Henry Van Dyke.
Tournier’s version of the story has modern social and racial echoes. For example, Gaspar, King of Méroé, states that he is “black but beautiful,” and he is delighted to see that Christ is also black. Tournier enlivens the story with various interpolations and introduces a fourth king, Taor, who achieves an unorthodox state of grace.
As its title in English suggests, the novella Eleazar, Exodus to the West reaches back to yet another Christian source, the book of Exodus, while utilizing a New World setting. Identifying with Moses and his quest for the Promised Land, Eleazar is searching for what the reader recognizes as its mythic nineteenth century equivalent—the American frontier.
Tournier’s most important novel, The Ogre, is also based on an earlier literary model, but one less familiar to American readers. The French title of this work, Le Roi des Aulnes, which means the king of the alders, is a translation of the title of a famous poem by German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Erlkönig” (1782; “The Erlking,” 1853). Goethe’s poem is about an ogre (hence the translation of the title) who steals children’s souls. Tournier also draws on the legend of Saint Christopher, whose practice was to carry travelers on his shoulders across dangerous streams. According to this legend, Christopher once carried Christ, who in gratitude caused Christopher’s staff to bloom. Tournier’s protagonist , Abel Tiffauges,...
(The entire section is 3,256 words.)