Michel Tournier Tournier, Michel (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 seriously it is to be taken, given its many visible inconsistencies and the far-fetched quality of some of its assertions. Though these essays provide information about his novels, they cannot be said to be seamless interpretations of those texts. Tournier tries to place them within a certain esthetic field, to suggest in part what he intended them to do, and to authorize others to offer their interpretations of them. He does the last by asserting that creative works get away from their author's control in order to control him; such an inversion is accompanied by another through which Tournier incorporates aspects of other men's writing in order to put them to better, fuller use in his own. One gathers that if Tournier can manipulate the works of other authors as he says he has done and feel justified in having done so, then a critic, provided he has some weight of evidence, can manipulate Tournier in a like way.

Manipulation may be the wrong word, however, for what may be happening may be nothing more than an examination of ramifications or, in terms of a hoarier critical vocabulary, a search for comparisons and contrasts which, extending in order to compare, produce unexpected revelations. What they reveal may turn out to be a situated body of material (a novel by...

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Barbara Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I find some of [the short stories in Le Coq de bruyère] disturbing, just as I found Michel Tournier's magnificent novel The Erl-King disturbing, and for the same reasons. In The Erl-King, M Tournier's understanding of the spirit of the Teutonic powers of evil underlying the actions and "philosophy" of the Nazis was so complete that it almost seemed legitimate to assume that he felt some obscure complicity with them. Some of the stories in Le Coq de bruyère … are orientated towards the same dark, saturnine forces—and again, with charm and persuasiveness.

"La jeune fille et la mort" is one of the longer stories. Death has always acted as a magnet for Mélanie, ever since she was a "docile, intelligent, hard-working" little schoolgirl. Death, and also sadism and torture, for Mélanie was born bored—bored by everything in life. The way M Tournier treats with such calm, and apparent approval, his protagonist's concept of all life being boring may perhaps disturb others, too….

In "Le Nain rouge", a dwarf takes his revenge on nature in many ways, urged on by his fantasy of being the governor of a women's concentration camp. In the end, however, he finds a less terrible fulfilment as a circus clown: one Christmas Eve he hires the whole circus and gives all the seats, free, to children from schools, reformatories and orphanages, "none of whom was a single centimetre taller than he".

Children play a large part in these stories, some of which were actually written for them…. There are also free fantasias on fairy stories and myths: Tom Thumb trying to run away from his narrow bourgeois home is good, and M Tournier's new version of the story of Adam and Eve is better still, and full of light-hearted humour….

M Tournier has a wide range of subjects, and of course he writes extremely well—but he still frightens me.

Barbara Wright, "Charmingly Unpleasant," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3993, October 13, 1978, p. 1182.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Narrated with subtle variations of tone, the fourteen short stories [in Le Coq de bruyère] are modern parables and fairy tales, a genre natural to Tournier's art, rich in symbols and images. Lucid and realistic in the midst of fantasy, the stories are told from the point of view of the hero, generally a child, an adolescent or an underdog, who encounters a series of dramatic adventures. As in the traditional fairy tale, external events and roles achieve a greater relevancy than their immediate signification in the unfolding of the particular story. Many of the tales which show the protagonist leaving behind a secure and familiar way of life and stepping into a different age—adolescence, adulthood or senescence—may be interpreted as initiations. The development and outcome of the hero's confrontations, however shocking they may be, provide for the reader an aid to find himself, integrate the discordant aspects of his personality and proceed toward the laborious, and impoverished, path of maturity.

Though their quest is not a chivalrous one, the protagonists long for the renewal of a pre-Christian culture. Along with the regret for a golden age, nostalgia for childhood is keenly felt. Exiled into maturity and urbanism, the characters dream of rediscovering the purity, intensity and acuity of a child's experiences. An Orphic vision of the world prevails in Tournier's work, which adds a mystical and lyrical dimension to the tales. (p. 250)

Tournier's tales in their symbolic significance are more convincing than realistic fiction. They represent a poetic rendering of his relationship to the world. Concretizing arcane reality through delusion or enchantment, Tournier is a magician who gives us the reassurance that there is a secret garden next to our backyard, that there is another world behind the mirror and that there is a small island in the Pacific Ocean where we lived happily once upon a time. (p. 251)

Danièle McDowell, "French: 'Le coq de bruyere'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 250-51.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The decision to bring [together the various texts selected for Le Coq de bruyère] was a seriously mistaken one; linked together as a book, they raise a very grave issue: does Michel Tournier himself have the conceptual coherence to convince a reader that the world has points of cohesion and interlinkings which bind its disparate phenomena into a perceptible whole? And one is tempted to reply that Tournier, despite his great gifts and some admirable and durable achievements, is moving closer and closer towards turning his mind into a fun-house where he manipulates those jets of air which amuse some and scandalize others and which, unfortunately, are not to be taken very seriously.

Joseph H. McMahon, "Textbooks and Methodology: 'Le coq de bruyère'," in The French Review (copyright 1979 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. 52, No. 5, April, 1979, p. 801.

John Sturrock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The twelve casual and surprising verses in St Matthew's Gospel which tell the story of the Magi have grown into nearly three hundred pages in Michel Tournier's spectacularly free retelling of it [Gaspard, Melchior & Balthazar]. In the biblical version, and in the vast iconography that is descended from it, the Three Wise Men travel as one, inseparably bound on a common mission. In Tournier's version they become enduringly distinct from one another, assorted victims of fate with very different hopes of what may happen to them in Bethlehem. Each king is a real or metaphorical exile from his country and has his mind fixed more on the distressing past than on the open future. Each in his way finds an answer to...

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The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Gemini] Jean and Paul are twins who grow up to be perfect opposites in mind and manner. Paul believes that the symbiosis they enjoyed as infants … is a paradise they should live in forever, while Jean is tormented by the way everyone mistakes each of them for the other, and he decides to run away from his brother. Most of the novel features Paul's pursuit of Jean around the world, through places that support his theory that mankind has an innate love of mirror images (Venice reflected in its canals; Japan's islands encapsulated in its gardens; Berlin split in two). But before the flight and pursuit begin another narrator is given the floor: the twins' eccentric uncle, the manager of a garbage dump and a homosexual dandy, who delivers orations about the dump as "negative image" of society and about his own narcissistic tastes. Narcissism, in fact, is the novel's undoing; the author reduces his characters to mouthpieces, and so loses any reader who does not share his peculiar views.

"Fiction: 'Gemini'," in The New Yorker (© 1981 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 25, August 10, 1981, p. 106.

Salman Rushdie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the enormous loom of "Gemini," Tournier weaves banalities into wonders: rubbish dumps, a tapeworm, Venetian honeymoons, even the weather are here transmuted into the stuff of marvels.

"Gemini" is about a pair of identical twins, collectively known as Jean-Paul. Saying this, however, is a bit like saying that "Ulysses" is about a man walking around Dublin, because Tournier uses the theme of twinship to explore a near infinity of dualities. In addition to playing with such traditional oppositions as heterosexuality and homosexuality, city and countryside, heaven and hell, Tournier elaborates ingeniously on the profound opposition of chronology and meteorology—the fixed, regulated march of the hours on the one hand and the wild, unpredictable fluctuation of the seasons on the other. And, in a passage of startling metaphysical originality, one of the characters says that "Christ has to be superseded"—not, in Manichaean terms, by Satan, but by the all-encompassing Spirit, the Holy Ghost.

Clearly, "Gemini" is not light reading; and yet, such is the electricity of Tournier's intelligence that for most of this mammoth book the reader is mesmerized by the daring of the conception and the audacity with which the author carries it off. The magic wanes in the last third of the novel, but by then the momentum that has been built up by this unique text is strong enough to sweep us to the superbly right finale. (p. 12)

There is no doubt that "Gemini" … is a book of rare intelligence, originality and that intensity of sight of which Aragon was also a master. Tournier and Aragon are far from being twins, however: "Gemini" is a novel impregnated with theology, after all, and Aragon's view of God was that he was "a disgusting and vulgar idea."

But then again, as this novel amply demonstrates, Michel Tournier can take just about any idea, no matter how vulgar or disgusting, and give it meaning. (p. 32)

Salman Rushdie, "The Stuff of Marvels," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 4, 1981, pp. 12, 31-2.

John Weightman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gemini] is a phenomenological fantasy on the grand scale, since it combines the cosmos, the weather and a great variety of landscapes with a rich commentary on the nature of the human consciousness, particularly in its sexual aspect. The French title is Les Météores, a term which, properly speaking, denotes not only shooting or falling stars but all meterological phenomena, and the translation, Gemini, is to be explained by the fact that a basic theme is the Castor and Pollux myth, at least in Tournier's interpretation of true twinship as a closed duality, complete in itself and cosmically significant.

The narrative, such as it is, runs from 1937 to the building of the Berlin...

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Galen Strawson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gemini reveals] Tournier's astonishing gift for the exact, comprehensive, and economical description of complicated processes and objects….

Tournier exploits his details ceaselessly and explicitly for their symbolic potentialities….

But Tournier also has problems with detail. Vendredi…. reads in places like a repository of more or less bizarre descriptive tours de force. included despite the requirements of narrative cogency. The attempts to tie them in do not convince. The same is true of Gemini. It is arguably too long by a third. There are ingenious things in the last 150 pages, as Paul, seeking to restore the "geminate cell," pursues Jean, who...

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Alan Hollinghurst

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gemini] is the work of a mind expanding under the apparent beneficence of praise, performing with both an obligation to grandeur and a licence to self-indulgence. The grandeur is frequently impressive, the project kept up with remarkable stamina: but the self-indulgence, as well as weakening the structure, also undermines the confidence of the reader. Tournier is not a man to make a point once if he can make it a dozen times, or to use one word if he can use a thousand. Subjected to this immense performance of reiterative loquacity the reader increasingly responds with both 'I know …' and 'What, really, does it mean?'

The novel's meaning emerges from its study of twinship, Jean and Paul...

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Stephen Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michel Tournier's Gaspard, Melchior & Balthazar [classified as a novel] … emerges rather as a series of short stories, linked, albeit tenuously, by their several relations to the iconography and legends of the Christian Nativity. The various adventures of Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar are recounted separately, leading up to the meeting of the three kings just prior to their encounter with Herod. Tournier handles the transitions with such technical perfection that the lack of any essential connection between the stories poses no problem and, in fact, passes virtually unnoticed. Each of the kings functions more as a medium for the author's ideas, or as an excuse for his (sometimes too-great) cleverness,...

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Angela Huth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gemini] is an octopus of a book, and a pretentious octopus at that. Its tentacles thrash in many different directions, getting nowhere: it is unwieldy, slippery—the sort of book that makes you think either you or the author is suffering from some form of mental disorder.

The central 'love story' is of identical twins, a lustreless pair who seem something of a burden to their author once he has begun to grapple with his good idea. The character about whom he really enthuses is their preposterous Uncle Alexandre, 'dandy garbage man', a homosexual in endless pursuit of love. Alexandre runs a successful refuse disposal business which gives the author the opportunity to be literature's Rembrandt...

(The entire section is 281 words.)