Michel Tournier Tournier, Michel (Vol. 6)

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Tournier, Michel (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tournier, Michel 1924–

A French novelist, Tournier received the Grand Prix du Roman from the Académie Française for Friday and the Prix Goncourt for The Ogre. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

["Friday," a] new version of the Robinson Crusoe theme written … with implicit comment on Western civilization, past and present, is not a particularly attractive prospect. But M. Tournier is a cultivated and disciplined writer, and his Robinson, the son of a Yorkshire draper, is most likable. Cast up, like his precursor, on an island off the coast of Chile, he labors to build a useless boat, then sinks into animal degradation. Later, like a true colonist, he squares his shoulders, writes himself a charter and a penal code, and generally domesticates his tiny domain. Friday, when he appears, doesn't take kindly to his designated role of subject people; before long, Robinson becomes the black man's eager pupil in the art of living joyfully. When the rescue ship comes, Friday rushes off to join its greedy and arrogant crew, while Robinson lags behind. The castaway has that quaint and peculiarly English stolidity that seems to exist only in the imagination of the French. (p. 115)

The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 14, 1969.

[In Friday] Michel Tournier revamped the story of Robinson Crusoe: the castaway forced to renegotiate his place in the natural world. Crusoe the plucky Anglo-Saxon handyman was shelved and substituted by an altogether more theoretical model of explorer, who was obviously a graduate of the Sorbonne and seemed to have been shipwrecked not in the South Seas but on some atoll in the collective unconscious, down where the myths begin. Le Roi des Aulnes [The Ogre] is a bigger, odder and more enthralling book still. This time, the events which M. Tournier has appropriated and raised to the power of myth are real instead of fictive ones….

The conclusion of Le Roi des Aulnes is visionary and grotesque but the book as a whole is a journey from a contrived surrealism to, as it were, the real thing. The novel is so charged with symbols that it is hard to tell whether it is intended to have one meaning or many, or just how menacing an ogre Tiffauges is. For all his connivance in Nazi bestiality, he is no simple monster. On the contrary, he is a man with a keen and lasting sense of innocence, a primal state which he is fond of distinguishing from its corrupt simulacrum, purity. What is innocent is good, what is pure is merely the false ideal of an impure society.

Tiffauges also has a Manichean obsession with what he calls 'malign inversions', spiritual turning-points at which the white is dyed black with diabolical suddenness; the specific 'malign inversion' for a Christian being that perpetrated on Christ himself, first the cross-bearer and then borne by the cross. Tiffauges himself, the anarchist and solitary, dies equivocally, marching into a bog bearing on his shoulders a Jewish child rescued from the rubble of Kaltenborn. His death identifies him with the King of the Elves in the poem by Goethe from which M. Tournier has taken the title of his novel.

Throughout Le Roi des Aulnes, Tiffauges's most persistent and elegant exercises in the symbolization of reality are concerned with the 'phoric', or the act of carrying. The carriers may be mildly absurd, like the pigeons, or deadly serious, like the figures of Christ and St. Christopher, the Christ-bearer. What M. Tournier is investigating, therefore, is presumably the metaphorical portage of one generation of human beings by the previous one, and the dreadful perversion of innocence which takes place in education. Tiffauges's death, as the saviour turned executioner, is thus itself a 'malign inversion' which not only completes the parable of a rich and complex book but may also resolve, for the novelist, a personal search for what he explicitly invokes as 'the quintessence of the German soul'. (p. 1214)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers...

(The entire section is 3,471 words.)