Michel Tournier Tournier, Michel (Vol. 95) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michel Tournier 1924–

(Full name Michel Edouard Tournier) French novelist, short story writer, author of children's literature, and essayist.

The following entry offers an overview of Tournier's career through 1989. For further information about his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 23, and 36.

One of the most popular novelists in France, Tournier writes provocative fiction that blends myth and symbolism with realistic depictions of character and setting. Noted as one of the first major French novelists to eschew the stylistic complexity characteristic of the post-war nouveau roman, Tournier often updates or adapts old myths and legends to modern circumstances. Due to his examination of Nazism in Le roi des aulnes (1970; The Ogre), and his articulation of such themes as initiation, innocence, and identity through representations of sexual deviance and grotesquerie, Tournier's work has generated considerable debate both in France and abroad. Nevertheless, he was honored by the Académie Française—the highly prestigious French cultural institution established in the 1600s by Cardinal Richelieu for the perfection and preservation of the French language—with the Grand Prix du Roman for his first novel, Vendredi; ou, Les Limbes du Pacifique (1967; Friday). The Ogre, his controversial second novel, received the prestigious Prix Goncourt.

Biographical Information

Tournier was born in Paris to educated, middle-class parents. His father, Alphonse, founder and director of a music copyright company, instilled in his son an abiding love of music. By his own admission, the most decisive event of his childhood was the anaesthesia-less tonsillectomy he endured at the age of four. Tournier views this procedure as a kind of primitive initiation rite, and, consequently, "initiation" is a major theme in many of his works. A sickly child, Tournier favored solitary endeavors and was an inattentive student except in those subjects he enjoyed, namely theology and German. During the Nazi occupation of France in World War II—which Tournier admits he found perversely exciting as an adolescent—his family was forced to billet German soldiers in their house. Eventually conscripted to serve in a labor camp, Tournier was spared by the Allied liberation of France. After the war, from 1946 to 1950, he studied philosophy in French-occupied Germany; he also occasionally returned to France to attend classes in structural anthropology taught by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tournier abandoned his plans for a teaching career when he failed his "agrégation de philosophie," the equivalent of his doctoral dissertation. While working intermittently on various unfinished writing proj-ects, Tournier supported himself first as a translator at the Plon publishing company in Paris, translating into French the original German works of Erich Maria Remarque and other German authors; he then worked as a scriptwriter, announcer, and host for French radio and television broadcasts. After serving as senior literary editor at Plon from 1958 to 1968, he published his first novel, Friday, and has devoted his full time to writing. Appearing frequently on French television talk shows, Tournier is a popular public personality and lectures widely in France and Africa.

Major Works

Friday is a recasting of the story that inspired Daniel Defoe's novel The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner (1719; popularly known as simply Robinson Crusoe). Strongly influenced by the anthropological theories of Lévi-Strauss, which, in part, stress the complexity and cultural fecundity of so-called primitive societies, the novel reverses Defoe's hierarchy by depicting Friday—the island native—acting as savior and teacher of Crusoe. The main character in The Ogre, a French auto mechanic named Abel Tiffauges, is—with his enormous size, poor eyesight, and deceptively malevolent interest in children—a twentieth century version of the ogres of European fairy tales; foremost among the many literary and historical allusions Tournier attaches to Tiffauges is the ogre depicted by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his poem "Erlkönig" ("The Elf King," which in French is le roi des aulnes)—a creature invisible to adults that first terrorizes a young boy, trying to lure him away from his father with fanciful promises, only to finally "take [his soul] by storm," killing him. The story is set in France and Germany prior to and during World War II. Tiffauges, whose supreme pleasure is what he calls "la phorie," the act of carrying a child on his shoulders, is wrongly accused of sexual molestation and is sentenced to prison; the outbreak of war and the need for soldiers, however, enables him to be placed in an army unit. Captured by the Nazis and interned in a prisoner of war camp, Tiffauges soon realizes he loves Nazi Germany, identifying particularly with its obsessive worship of youth. When he is released from prison, Tiffauges collaborates with the Nazis by traveling the northern German countryside—much like Goethe's Elf King—recruiting young boys for an SS officer-training school. Near the end of the war, a Jewish child forces Tiffauges to realize the implications of what he has been doing, and both die in the attempt to escape. Tournier's fourth novel, Les Météores (1975; Gemini), employs varying narrative perspectives and examines the themes of twinship, homosexuality, and the need to make order out of chaos. The protagonists, Jean and Paul, are twins who look so much alike they are often referred to as one person. Conflict ensues when Jean wishes to break from the tight grip of his brother; Paul is determined to maintain their obsessive bond, however, one which he believes makes them a perfect "couple." Tournier's first collection of short stories, Le Coq de bruyere (1978: The Fetishist, and Other Stories) carries on the themes of order, obsessiveness, and sexual ambiguity. Several of the stories, including "Amandine ou les deux jardins" ("Amandine, or The Two Gardens"), "La Fugue du Petit Poucet" ("Tom Thumb's Escape") and "Tupic" ("Prikli") are meant to speak to children about the difficulties of growing up and dealing with the emotional and physical changes that accompany the transition to the adult world. Although raised Roman Catholic, Tournier broke with the Church because he felt it did not meet the needs of modern man. Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar (1982; The Four Wise Men) was his first novel based on a Christian theme, retelling the story of the Magi's journey to Jesus Christ's birthplace. Tournier, however, adds a fourth wise man to the original trio. Tournier continued using religious and mythical themes with Gilles et Jeanne (1983; Gilles and Jeanne), in which he chronicles the relationship of Gilles de Retz and Jeanne d'Arc. La Goutte d'or (1985; The Golden Droplet) focuses on Idriss, a shepherd boy in the North African desert who leaves his home for France to regain his identity—which he believes he lost when a Frenchman took his picture. In Le Medianoche Amoureux (1989; The Midnight Love Feast), Tournier describes an unhappy couple who throw a party for their friends to announce their separation. The friends then recount nineteen stories which lead the couple to reconcile.

Critical Reception

Sven Birkirts asserted: "From one book to the next, [Tournier] has been developing and extending a set of themes that are radically at odds with the common views of Western society…. This is his crime. In another age he would have been burned at the stake." Indeed, Tournier has been scorned by some in France's intellectual literary circles. His reputation is somewhat better internationally, however. Roger Shattuck noted: "Tournier is a writer of superb gifts and major achievements from whom we shall be hearing more." His children's stories are particularly acclaimed, and unlike his adult novels, use themes that teach the importance of human values, of retaining a sense of wonder in the adult world, and how one may live peacefully in a chaotic world. Certainly, his adult fiction is lauded by some as visionary, and shunned by others as perverse, fascist, and immoral. Most critics, however, recognize Tournier's gifts as a prose stylist.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vendredi; ou, Les Limbes du Pacifique [Friday; or, The Other Island] (novel) 1967
Le Roi des aulnes [The Ogre] (novel) 1970
Vendredi; ou, La Vie Sauvage [Friday and Robinson: Life on Esperanza Island] (juvenilia) 1971
Arroyo (portraits) 1974
Les Météores [Gemini] (novel) 1975
Amandine ou Les Deux Jardins (juvenilia) 1977
Canada: Journal du voyage [with Edouard Boubat] (nonfiction) 1977
La Famille des enfants (prose and photos) 1977
Le Vent paraclet [The Wind Spirit: An Autobiography] (autobiography) 1977
Le Coq de bruyere [The Fetishist, and Other Stories] (drama and short stories) 1978
Des clefs et des serrures [with Georges Lemoine] (essays) 1979
Le Fugue du Petit Poucet (juvenilia) 1979
Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit (juvenilia) 1979
Barbedor (juvenilia) 1980
Le Vol du Vampire (essays) 1981
Vues de dos (prose and photos) 1981
L'Aire du muguet (juvenilia) 1982
Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar [The Four Wise Men] (novel) 1982
Francois Mitterand [with Konrad R. Mueller] (biography) 1983
Gilles et Jeanne [Gilles and Jeanne] (novel) 1983
Les Rois Mages (juvenilia) 1983
Sept contes (juvenilia) 1984
Le Vagabond immobile [with Jean-Max Toubeau] (nonfiction) 1984
A Garden at Hammamet [Un Jardin a Hammamet] (novel) 1985
Marseille, or Le Present incertain (prose and photos) 1985
La Goutte d'or [The Golden Droplet] (novel) 1986
Le Medianoche Amoureux [The Midnight Love Feast] (novel) 1989
Le Tabor et le Sinai: Essais sur l'art contemporain (essays) 1989

William Cloonan (essay date Autumn-Winter 1983–1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Spiritual Order of Michel Tournier," in Renascence, Vol. XXXVI, Nos. 1 and 2, Autumn-Winter, 1983–1984, pp. 77-87.

[In the following essay, Cloonan traces Tournier's religious development through the characters in his first four published novels.]

"The whole world is nothing but a stack of keys and a collection of locks."

[Des Clefs et des serrures]

Michel Tournier is a controversial Christian. His religious beliefs frequently appear multiple and contradictory. In an interview accorded to the Australian journal, Meanjin, Tournier...

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Joseph H. McMahon (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Michel Tournier's Texts for Children," in Children's Literature, Vol. 13, 1985, pp. 154-68.

[In the following essay, McMahon examines the themes of Tournier's novels for children and discusses their differences from his adult works.]

I think that a child's readings constitute for him an intangible mine, an unattackable base on which are built, more than his literary culture and judgments, his personal sensitivity and mythology.

Le Vent Paraclet

The texts Michel Tournier—who is thought by some to be France's outstanding living...

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Michel Tournier with Maura A. Daly (interview date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Michel Tournier," in Partisan Review, Vol. LII, No. 4, 1985, pp. 407-13.

[In the following interview, Daly questions Tournier about his novel Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, as well as about the function of myth in his work.]

The following interview with Tournier took place on a sunny summer day in Paris, in the offices of his publisher, Gallimard, after he had just published his seventh major fictional work, Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar (The Four Wise Men).

[Daly]: Why did you choose the three Magi as the subject for Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar?

[Tournier]: I always wanted to do...

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John Updike (essay date 10 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Michel Tournier," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXV, No. 21, July 10, 1989, pp. 92-6.

[Updike is an esteemed American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic whose best-known works include Rabbit, Run (1960), Picked-up Pieces (1975), and Roger's Version (1986). In the following essay, he presents an overview of Tournier's life and career and discusses The Wind Spirit, Gilles & Jeanne, and The Golden Droplet.]

At around the time, in the sixties, when the intellectual innovations of Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss and Fernand Braudel began to achieve international influence, French fiction ceased to export well. Alain...

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Michael Sheringham (essay date 11-17 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Story as Therapy," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4506, August 11-17, 1989, p. 879.

[In the following review, Sheringham examines three works by Tournier—The Wind Spirit, Le Tabor et le Sinaï, and Le Médianoche amoureux—and two books about his work, Colin Davis's Michel Tournier: Philosophy and Fiction and Françoise Merllié's Michel Tournier.]

Paul Klee talked of "taking a line for a walk": Michel Tournier does something similar with themes, playing brilliant variations on the idea of "carrying" ("la phorie") or of twinhood, and exploiting the revelatory energies of those oppositions—nomad and sedentary, image and sign,...

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Susan Petit (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Psychological, Sensual, and Religious Initiation in Tournier's Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit," in Children's Literature, Vol. 18, 1990, pp. 87-100.

[In the following essay, Petit surveys the themes and techniques used by Tournier in his literature for children.]

Michel Tournier frequently writes for children, although he is best known for his adult works, which have received some of the most prestigious French literary prizes, including the Grand Prix du Roman of the French Academy in 1967 for Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique (Friday) and the Prix Goncourt in 1970 for Le Roi des aulnes (The Ogre). The French public has...

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Marina Warner (review date 15 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Happiness and the Daily Round," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4585, February 15, 1991, p. 19.

[Warner is an English novelist, nonfiction writer, and critic vhose scholarly works include Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (1981). In the following, she unfavorably reviews The Midnight Love Feast.]

The lovers sculpted out of sand in the beach below Mont St Michel are lapped by the tide and eventually overwhelmed; their creator dances to the sweet unheard music of the "salty tongues" of the sea and exclaims at the beauty of the French word volubile. Nature abhors silence, he declares, and as they engulf his art, the waves represent new...

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Nancy L. Easterlin (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Initation and Counter-Initiation: Progress Toward Adulthood in the Stories of Michel Tournier," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 151-68.

[In the following essay, Easterlin discusses and praises Tournier's technique of initiating the protagonists of his children's stories—and his young readers—into adulthood.]

In "Michel Tournier's Texts for Children," an article that appeared a few years ago in Children's Literature [No. 13, 1985], Joseph McMahon analyzes some of the differences between Tournier's approach to child and adult audiences. Basing his statements both on Tournier's own remarks about audience and on readings...

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Karen D. Levy (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tournier's Ultimate Perversion: The Historical Manipulation of Gilles et Jeanne," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 72-88.

[In the following essay, Levy discusses Tournier's alteration of historical fact in Gilles et Jeanne, comparing the novel's portrayal of the main characters with scholarly accounts of the historical figures upon which they are based.]

The contemporary French novelist and short story writer Michel Tournier has on numerous occasions stressed the various ways in which his works appropriate material from earlier literary texts, both those of others and his own, and from the multi-layered...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Apter, Emily. "Fore-skin and After-image: Photographic Fetishism in Tournier's Fiction." L'Esprit Createur XXIX, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 72-82.

Examines the role of fetishism in Tournier's works.

Birkirts, Sven. "Michel Tournier." In his An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature, pp. 171-78. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

Praises Tournier's daring and innovation.

Cloonan, William. "Le Roi des aulnes: Myth as Fiction, Fiction as Myth." Romance Languages 3 (1991): 32-6.


(The entire section is 839 words.)