Michel Tournier 1924–
French novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Tournier's writing reflects his fascination with mythic structure and symbolism. Friday, which won the Prix du Roman from the Académie Française, is a twentieth-century retelling of Robinson Crusoe in which Tournier uses Freudian and Jungian theory along with anthropology to examine the isolation of individuals in modern society. In Tournier's novel The Erl-King, a French soldier imagines that his personal destiny corresponds to the evolution of the Nazi regime. His recent novel Gemini exemplifies the philosophically speculative nature of his fiction.
(See also CLC, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Something about the Author, Vol. 23.)
Thomas J. Fleming
A rewrite of "Robinson Crusoe?" By a Frenchman, no less? The two ideas are a little staggering at first. Then, before you know what is happening, you are involved in a fascinating, unusual novel [Friday (Vendredi)], reading with amazement page after page of a story that produced nothing but yawns among my schoolmates, when we plowed through the original by ye olde trusty moralist, Daniel Defoe….
Years ago, George Sherburn of Harvard, commenting on Defoe's middle-class masterpiece, remarked, "A modern novelist would focus on the horrors of isolation, the loneliness of Crusoe's island; for Defoe these things hardly existed: his mind as always was on the God-given power of sinful man to win through—and on the human ingenuity that embellishes the effort." This bit of academic prescience does sum up part of what Tournier has done with his Crusoe. But it is only a very small part. In this slim volume, he has attempted nothing less than an exploration of the soul of modern man.
In the beginning of this retelling, the horrors of isolation drive Crusoe to the brink of madness; he becomes an almost primeval creature, wallowing mindlessly in the slimy marshes of his island. Then he gets a grip on himself, begins to read his Bible, creates order in his soul, and starts to civilize his unruly tropic land. He turns the marshes into rice paddies, raises acres of grain, organizes herds of goats.
Meanwhile, there is something profound happening within him, the birth of a new man, a new soul, mysteriously linked to the island, which he names Speranza….
Then comes Friday, rescued in much the same way as the native in Defoe's story. But what a totally different impact the black man has on this Crusoe! The innocent child of nature gradually infuriates the civilized white man. He makes Crusoe feel the arid weight of his daily labor, the futility of his painstaking conquest of Speranza….[Finally] Crusoe no longer cares. He accepts Friday's way of life, and in long dreaming hours devotes himself to exploring the new man and the new vision which begins to flower ever more strongly within him…. The ending is not as convincing as the rest of the book, but it is at least as surprising.
Along the way, Tournier dips into Crusoe's mind—directly, and through a journal the castaway keeps. Again and again, he finds fresh and original ways of viewing primary experiences such as time and work and religious faith, the relationship of men to animals and trees and their own shadowy selves, to civilization and the essential earth.
The telling is intensely French. The focus is on thinking, and thinking about feeling. There is little or no attempt to build up massive amounts of believable detail or anecdote. But it works, because the framework of the classic makes this abracadabra of believability convincing.
Thomas J. Fleming, "A New Man and a New Vision," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1969, p. 47.
JOSEPH H. McMAHON
Le Vent Paraclet —which is about Michel Tournier's life, his books, his esthetic ideas, and his quarrels with French institutions, mankind, history, and the cosmos—is a book that raises problems. The most important is that of how...
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