Michel Tournier Tournier, Michel (Vol. 6) - Essay

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 Ltd., 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 23, 1970.

Like Grass's, Tournier's imagination is flamboyant, his interests in minutia obsessive (saints' lives, stag antlers, human hair), and his narrative power immense. And if, like Grass, he has not yet hit on the truly great novel [with The Ogre], he too is aiming in exactly the right direction. (p. 496)

The Antioch Review (copyright © 1972 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXII, No. 3, 1972.

Like a good Hegelian, Tournier presents his thesis and antithesis [in The Ogre]. But he is also a good Jungian. Signs, symbols and archetypes are pried from every incident and lofted chaotically into the mythological vacuum of the modern world. The presumption is that these fragments are awaiting a supersign that will unify them into some sort of new mythic order. When this in fact occurs in Tournier's book, the effect is one not of artistic revelation but of melodramatic kitsch: a young Auschwitz refugee turns into a Star of David: the star, in turn, spins off to the heavens as a more generalized mandala symbolizing a harmonious universe.

Without at least a mail-order course in triadic dialectics, it is best to forgo analysis of Tournier's synthesis. Enough said that it has much to do with his notion that symbols have lives of their own and possess a diabolical potential. Yet in The Ogre, in contrast with his last book, Friday, Tournier seems incapable of expressing an idea without sacrificing art to pedagogy. (pp. 68, E4)

R. Z. Sheppard, "Mythomania," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), August 21, 1972, pp. 68, E4.

There are passages of great descriptive beauty [in The Ogre], and Tournier does not artistically shy away from fact. One has no doubt that his Germany—the melancholy lyricism of the Baltic coast, the sweep of great forests—is accurate and true. Tiffauges's innocent complicity would be a mystery without this mastery, but it is easy to see how an anarchic spirit, disgusted by the blood-lust of his own people (there is a beautiful description of a guillotining in Versailles) slipped into another's as if it were the fluid of his birth.

The Ogre can be taken as an explication of the German role in World War II and as a hundred other things as well. The book's French title was that of Goethe's poem the Erl-King—and, though I have also tied it to the Childe Harold legend, it is capable of other interpretations. In its richness and strangeness it encompasses also that other French anarchic misfit, Big Meaulnes, incorporating his loneliness in the Wagnerian webb of Götterdämmerung. As you read the book, you, too, are drawn into that web, an experience that is dangerous and purging….

Abel Tiffauges is as complex and dangerous in English as in French; his themes are eternal and disturbing. To follow his dark path is a magnificent experience. (p. 14)

Marian Engel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 3, 1972.

["The Ogre," a] fine novel, is more likely to be praised than read. A good, demanding fable, a meditative story of unaccustomed viscosity that rewards a second reading, it also seems curiously old-fashioned. In its attention to images of blood and outrage, to the pulse of birds and animals, and to characters who are little more than symbols in a parable, it seems much like Lawrence's "Women in Love." Most of the good fiction we have seen this year has been short, brittle and clever, apparently lacking ambition, but "The Ogre" is built in the way Bach built his fugues; themes and statements are introduced, inverted, tangled and marched past each other, all to be resolved in loud, majestic chords….

Abel is an ogre: tall, fat, obsessive and crouched-over. At a school called St. Christopher's, Abel was carried on the shoulders of a misshapen boy; there, Abel learned the legend of the saint who carried Christ. Later, living alone, he sees everyday reality as a private metaphor. Like most obsessive people, Abel uses other human beings for a purpose, logical and effective, that others cannot understand. In fact, for Abel there is no "other": he is an ogre precisely because everything, every person is reduced to his own use….

Like St. Christopher, Abel searches for the most powerful master to serve. He knows he is a "beast of burden" who will save himself by saving another. Like the Biblical Abel, he is a herder of animals, persecuted by the ground tillers, the sons of Cain. In time, he comes to work for a school run by the SS and collects boys, the most beautiful Aryan stock, with the same fervor that he once used to collect pigeons. Abel finds himself, like the Erl King of Schubert's song, snatching boys from their parents as he rides his dark horse behind dogs that are trained to smell the children out. (In fact, the novel's original title, "Le Roi des Aulnes," should have been translated as "The Erl King." To call it "The Ogre" is both to suppress and distort what the author intended in his fable.)

In time, the symbolic strains converge. The persecuted man, the Christ bearer, stumbles into the holocaust with the burden that may save his soul. And yet the symbols and correspondences of this story, which are far more complex than I have been able to indicate, would be insufficient to sustain it as fiction. Tournier's achievement rests in his remarkable blend of myth with realism. Like the Lawrence of "Women in Love," Tournier offers a succession of scenes—of hunting, wounds and introspection—which, as Abel says, not only decipher the essense of existence, but exalt it.

Peter S. Prescott, "Monsters in Love," in Newsweek (copyright 1972 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 4, 1972, p. 84.

Tournier is the author of the much-admired [Friday], and an English reviewer has now recalled that this "dazzling" novel showed the rational Crusoe of the Enlightenment regressing toward a "truer enlightenment of primitive blood-knowledge": it also ended, like the new one, in the sky, in "solar ecstasy" (Tournier's words). The Ogre is a very clever book in its belletristic way…. It may not be a likely story, but it is an absorbing one. Tiffauges's obsessions—a cornucopia of the ocular, the cloacal, of celibacy, heraldry, therapies, wounds, beasts, boys, and twins—are conveyed in an alliterative rhetoric of rare words and allusions…. Tournier's primitive dumb ox of a hero has been awarded the pen of a French man of letters—the sort that wins the Prix Goncourt, as Tournier has with The Ogre. Tiffauges is rendered as a being who is himself partly malign. He ends in the earth, not in the sky. He possibly corresponds to the Erl-King in Goethe's ballad, which figures in the book, as well as to the equestrian father in the ballad, and he is an Erl-King who comes to a sticky end. All the same, while the novel contains the self-disclosures of a type of erring or aberrant sadomasochistic exalté, it also seems to make sense to read it as a celebration of his fantasies. (I notice that M. Tournier is an enthusiastic photographer.) There is clearly some renewal here of the profundities and affirmations of [Friday], and I imagine that it wouldn't be easy to say why one should be dazzled by the first book and repelled by its successor.

The unsatisfactoriness of The Ogre lies mainly in the weakness of the distinction it draws between the malignity of the Nazis and the comparative benignity of this creature who achieves an apotheosis in the Nazi heartland. And its picture of the malignity of the Nazis is very dubious anyway. Hitler's [Germany] is presented as a country of the mind, a country without politics, tenanted by evil magicians poring over pints of blood and suint and measuring skulls and noses in the interests of purity…. Tournier documents the behavior of his cranks and pedants with reference to the evidence obtained for the Nuremberg Trials: but the evidence submitted there hardly tends to show that the behavior of these cranks was central to the history of the Reich. Admittedly, Tournier is not writing a history of the Reich. But it would appear that he has misrepresented that history while using it as a setting for an account of a fairly exotic psychological state.

In an agony of tenderness, Tiffauges broods over the innocents whom his fellow cranks, who are the wrong sort of cranks, have consigned to a massacre. His madness is full of Deep Meaning; theirs is full of cruelty: yet they have a deep something in common. It is all too mysterious and magical for me. And I doubt whether that something will assist an understanding of German nationalism in the time of Hitler, any more than the prophetic works of Yeats assist an understanding of Irish nationalism. Tournier's imaginings come no closer to the condition of life in Nazi Germany than his Academician's prose does to the delusions of a supposedly ignorant obsessional. (pp. 42-3)

Karl Miller, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), November 30, 1972.

André Gide once said that a novel should be a theorem—or, let us say, a continuous illustration—and … The Ogre is such a book. Like Faulkner's A Fable, it is a parable of the Second World War, in which the Christian hero achieves a vindicating death. The hero is named Abel Tiffauges, but his mistress nicknames him "the ogre," and he accepts the name. He interprets it to mean a good giant, who gets his kicks from a weird benevolence. Having read at school about St. Christopher's bearing Christ on his back, he discovers a similar propensity in himself, and throughout the book carries smaller creatures about. After leaving school he becomes manager of an auto repair shop. An accident to his right hand there starts him on a series of Sinister Writings, which record his bizarre insights and feelings….

Tiffauges's double nature, which allies him with the alder king as well as with St. Christopher, seems to express Tournier's theory of human potentiality. But an element of mystification seems to be doing duty for mysticism. Ponderosities ape grandeurs, obfuscations mimic revelations. Tiffauges is heavily symbolical himself, and in his Sinister Writings keeps reminding himself and us of all the symbolic themes so far mentioned and all their interconnections. Although the book has been greatly praised, its manipulations are conscious, its withholdings are sly. God knows, no one will deny the weight of documentation: to discuss primitivism, Tiffauges must overhear a lecture on the discovery of the remains of a prehistoric man. But in general the rather wooden parallels of incident and meaning give evidence of talent without showing that it has been adequately deployed. (pp. 465-67)

Mary Ellmann, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1973.

Michel Tournier's novel Friday (1967) provides [an] example of the serious artist's use of the popular formula. Tournier uses the ["Robinsonade" or traditional Robinson Crusoe] formula to recall the concept, inherent in it from the beginning, of man as a rational, tool-using creature whose aim was to master his world through the imposition of physical and social order…. Tournier does not ironically invert the formula, but rather, by stressing aspects of the original which suggest alternative ways—non-rational and non-technical—of relating to the environment, develops the plot for the Age of Aquarius. He insists, by recreating the pattern completely, and through authorial commentary, that the reader study the implications of the formulaic story. Tournier's Robinson, like so many before him, is a master tool user. He, like his ancestors, relishes his capacity for dealing with the physical world. He is, according to a Tarot reading by the captain of the ship which, later wrecked, leaves him castaway, "an organizer, one who does battle with a world in disorder which he seeks to master by whatever means come to his hand." The old captain, a rather thinly disguised means for authorial commentary, goes on to describe the young Robinson in terms which we might expect to be applied to many an undergraduate engineer…. Thus it is not surprising, once on the island, and frightened by occasional lapses into the mire (imaged forth exactly in those terms), that Robinson should create storage sheds, a water clock, and a neat home. The water clock becomes a great comfort to him; listening to it "he had the feeling that time could no longer slip away from him, that he had regulated and mastered time—in a word, tamed it, just as the whole island was gradually to be tamed by the strength and resolution of a single man"…. Tournier's Robinson formally divides his activities between home and church. Moreover, like his original, he utilizes a profit and loss method of bookkeeping. He counts his material assets and stores them systematically…. He saves, invests wisely (always retaining more seed than he plants) and prospers.

But even while engaged in his endeavor to rationally structure his world, Tournier's Robinson is aware of another kind of reality, of another kind of 'non-structure' to his life. Whereas breadmaking excites a technological interest in Defoe's hero, who wonders at the numerous aspects of the process, Tournier's Robinson feels that he is "participating in that most material and most spiritual of human activities …" which has "mystical and universal significance …"…. Moreover, he, like Pincher Martin [in William Golding's novel Pincher Martin] begins to see his island, not as an object, but as equal to, or as part of, himself, and happily, neither outer nor inner nature is as harsh as it is seen to be by Golding. Tournier's Robinson forgets, one evening, to fill the water clock, and the ordered, measured, labeled island temporarily vanishes. But instead of madness and despair, which afflict Pincher Martin when he ceases to be able to impose human structure upon nature, it was, for Robinson, "as though in ceasing to be related to each other according to their use—and their abuse—things had returned to their own essence, were flowering in their own right and existing simply for their own sakes"…. Thereafter he tries, at times, to relate to his environment in a non-rational, non-exploitative fashion. He descends into the earth on one occasion where he finds a womb-like cave that nearly leads him to total resignation from the world and, therefore, eventual death, but he returns to the surface renewed and, although he resumes his life with the water clock, his descent has provided him with a heightened understanding of himself and of his world. One might recall at this point that Defoe's Robinson uses his cave largely as a storage shed for his merchandise. Later, Tournier's Robinson comes to see Speranza, his island, as his mistress, and achieves a very physical love for the island soil. During this period he learns, among other things, to copulate with trees and thereby achieves what would seem to be a very real unity with his environment.

To put it briefly, Tournier's Robinson moves away from the rationalism celebrated by the formulaic Robinsonade to a more sensual, immediate kind of response to experience which allows him greater freedom in his behavior. Such freedom is finally achieved when Friday comes to the island…. Of course, Friday merely propels the sophisticated Robinson in the direction he had already begun to take, but … Robinson gives up completely the method he had formerly used to organize his world and begins to learn from Friday. He takes off his clothes, thereby promoting a new tactile awareness of his world. He begins to worship the sun. He no longer works day and night to impose his sense of structure upon his environment, and instead, eats, and sleeps, and works only when he feels like it. He becomes at one with his world, in a union much more perfect than that which he had experienced earlier during his period in the mire, or later, during his period as a technocrat. Ultimately, he stays on the island, even after rescue has come, to live the life Friday has taught him to live. Friday, ironically, decides to join the world of tobacco, machines, and conventional religion….

By utilizing the formula [Tournier] recalls the rationalism associated with it during its long years of popularity. But, through stressing aspects of the formula not usually developed, he directs our attention to his idea of an alternative to that rationalism. He created, then, a Robinsonade for the counter culture by taking it, ideologically, a far cry indeed from the original. (pp. 48-50)

Tom R. Sullivan, in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1974 by Ray B. Browne), Summer, 1974.