Michel Tournier

Start Free Trial

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 insisted that "God had an undoubted place in my life because I am a Spinozist. That is, I believe that I participate in creation and in the divine spirit when I write and understand" [Meanjin, Vol. XXXVIII, May, 1978]. However, Tournier went on to express surprise that his characters do not share his convictions: "… this belief is not theirs. My novels are rather atheistic." Critical reaction to Tournier's works has often reflected an uneasiness at the seeming disparity between the author's professed beliefs and what occurs in his fiction. To cite but one example, in a review of Les Météores, Robert Poulet claims that,

… the work of Michel Tournier is immoral. Perhaps one should say anti-moral, because of a cunningly aggressive tendency which attempts not so much to erase the distinction between good and evil … as to insidiously reverse moral values so that evil can be taken for good, and vice versa.

         [Poulet, "Tournier, romancier hors de série," Ecrits de Paris, september, 1975]

Yet, in the same article, Poulet manages to assure his readers that Tournier's ideas "… remain open to a kind of abstract and theoretical spiritualism, which he perhaps considers to be a fantasy in his brain." In this climate of confusion and possible annoyance, Pierre Maury's caution, "One must study with great care Michel Tournier's relationship to both God and religion," is well worth heeding [see "Tournier, ou la perversion du mythe," Revue Générale, Bruxelles, janvier, 1977].

The publication in 1980 of Tournier's Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, coupled with the author's statement that this book marks his attempt to write "a Christian novel," have fostered the belief that Tournier has recently converted to some form of orthodox Christianity. This is not the case. Michel Tournier is no latter-day Saul/Paul, and in fact no writer is more a stranger to abrupt transitions than he. Despite the variety of his characters, fictional settings and philosophical enquiries, consistency has accompanied every step of Tournier's artistic and religious development. The key that unlocks the secrets of Tournier's universe is found as early as the opening pages of his first novel, Vendredi, ou les Limbes du Pacifique (1967). Captain Pieter Van Deyssel is reading Robinson's fortune from the Tarot deck. The card Robinson chooses is the buffoon:

… this means that there is an organizer in you who struggles against a universe in disorder that he attempts to dominate with the tools provided by fortune. He seems to succeed, but let's not forget that this demiurge is also a buffoon: both his creation and its ordering are illusory. But unfortunately, he doesn't know this. Skepticism is not his strong suit.

The struggle for all of Tournier's heroes is to wrest order out of chaos. This is what prompts Abel Tiffauges in Le Roi des Aulnes (1970) to fabricate his miniature and terrifying version of the Third Reich; it leads Paul to chase his brother Jean in Les Météores (1975) around the world in a futile effort to restore the harmony of perfect twinship. To take but...

(This entire section contains 4031 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

two examples fromLe Coq de Bruyère (1978), what makes a radio star of the ridiculous M. Robinet in "Tristan Vox" is his melancholy voice, which somehow manages to reassure an army of lonely listeners; the hero of "Le Fétischiste" protects himself against life's uncertainties by collecting ladies' underwear. Troubling personal contradictions set three kings on the road to Bethlehem in Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, and, lest we forget, the autobiographical essay, Le Vent Paraclet (1977), informs us that the perfection of the ontological argument first turned Michel Tournier toward the consolations of philosophy.

The problem for Tournier's characters, a problem already mentioned by Captain Van Deyssel, is that too often they are content with false or superficial orderings. During the early years on his island, Robinson can only survive by creating an elaborate and complicated series of laws by which he governs his non-existent kingdom; even at the novel's end Robinson must remain on his aptly named island, Speranza, if he hopes to maintain his fragile victory over chaos. Abel Tiffauges constructs and elaborate and obfuscating mythology replete with "signs" and cipher stencils that prevent this myopic giant from seeing the real cause of the torment within him: a sexual identity that eludes the traditional categories of homosexual or heterosexual. That dangerous notion, sublimation, is the final word in Les Météores, a word that the mutilated Paul proclaims as a cry of victory, but which is nothing other than the ultimate indication of his rapidly encroaching insanity. In "Tupic" (Le Coq de Bruyère), which is Tournier's ghastliest example of a false harmony, a young boy, jealous of the privileges he associates with femininity, cuts off his phallus in an attempt to become a girl.

Alexandre Surin is, according to his creator, a secondary character in Les Météores. Yet if readers frequently think otherwise, it is not just because of Alexandre's flamboyance. In a novel flawed by the murkiness of Paul's philosophic ramblings, Alexandre is a figure of clarity, and, within the limits of his own beliefs, of good sense. He is the lone character in Tournier's fiction before Gaspard who both experiences the need for order and appreciates that any order he creates will necessarily be artificial. An atheist without guilt, he does the only thing an inhabitant of a Godless, meaningless universe can do: he invents a coherent, totally contrived world which is the perfect expression of his fantasies:

… I have constructed my own universe: maybe it's a bit crazy, but at least it's coherent and it bears a strong resemblance to me. Just like certain molluscs that secrete around their bodies an outlandish but perfectly tailored shell.

Alexandre Surin is Tournier's metaphysician, whose ideas, like his actions, do not hesitate before extremes: "The idea is more than the thing itself, and the idea of the idea is more than the idea." In a world deprived of objective meaning, where all orderings are contrived, the more artificial a structuring of experience is, the closer it will be to the way things really are. All meanings are make-believe, man-made fabrications (Alexandre dislikes women) whose cleverness and complicated illusions protect us from despair.

Without the artificiality that Alexandre champions, there is only what Tournier in Le Vent Paraclet calls le rire blanc which is what results from taking an honest examination of human experience to its logical limits. It is the experience of the rire blanc which leads Alexandre Surin, "a dandy of the manure piles," and apostle of all that is artificial and transient, to a suicidal encounter on a dock in Casablanca. There is, however, another possible effect that ensues when exhausted human reason finally yields to the rire blanc: "You experience le rire blanc when you touch on something fundamental, when you meet God" [Jean Prasteav, "Tournier et l'ogre de Romiten," Figaro Littéraire, 28 Septembre, 1970]. In Les Météores, Thomas Koussek, who has also experienced the rire blanc, plays theologian to Alexandre Surin's metaphysician. Tournier had originally projected Koussek as a main character in this novel, as a "prophet of the Holy Spirit," but the task proved too difficult and eventually Thomas became, like Alexandre, a secondary personage. Nonetheless, Thomas Koussek represents an important stage in Tournier's religious development. In Les Météores Koussek adumbrates a theology of the Holy Spirit which lies at the center of Tournier's religious thought but which does not reach its full development until Gaspard.

Thomas Koussek describes his spiritual growth to Alexandre Surin in an early section of Les Météores. What stands out from the beginning is that Thomas, unlike other Tournier characters, was seeking a means of ordering experience that stems from something other than his personal fantasies, although fantasies he certainly had. As a young man he rather easily reconciled his homosexuality and love for Jesus by sleeping with a life-size statue of the crucified Christ. Later, after becoming a Catholic priest, Thomas realized that this particular way of ordering experience was inadequate because it was at once too fantastic and too literal—too fantastic because it was excessively controlled by his sexual reveries, and too literal because it paid too much attention to the figure of Christ. Thomas's reflections took him beyond Christ and toward l'Esprit whose original manifestation was a sacred wind, the ruah, which, "… indicates something vast, large and open, but also the idea of odor, or perfume. Sometimes it is also a light contact, a gentle caress, or even a feeling of well being."

In the Christian era the ruah achieved its highest expression in l'Esprit, a word that has traditionally been given a too ethereal definition. For Koussek l'Esprit never loses its concreteness; it is "… wind, storm, breath, it has a meteorological dimension." Later he speaks of l'Esprit as "loaded with seed and moods." When Tournier has Koussek say that in relation to l'Esprit, "… meteors are sacred," the author is referring to Aristotle's understanding of meteors: "… their providence is everything that happens naturally, but with regularity" [Meteorologica, translated by H.D.P. Lee, 1962]. L'Esprit passes over and through all aspects of experience and sanctifies everything it touches. L'Esprit proclaims that life's fearful complexity is nothing other than the expression of its richness, and in doing so, renders the majority of distinctions that human beings make otiose. Principal among these distinctions is the one between clock time (temps de l'horloge) and meteoric time (temps des météores). Tournier's characters can be divided according to whether they adhere to clock time or meteoric time. Clock time bespeaks control at any price; those who espouse it tend to be sedentary. Robinson, fearful of leaving his island; Paul, attached literally and emotionally to his birthplace in Britanny; and Abel, to the extent he is imprisoned by his myths, are all sedentaries. Those who respond to meteoric time are wanderers: Alexandre in constant pursuit of l'idée de l'idée, and Jean in flight from his brother, are governed by meteoric time. However, their meteors are not Aristotle's. Meteoric time for Tournier's characters most often means a rejection of one form of control for what amounts to chaos. Alexandre essentially kills himself and Jean disappears from the face of the earth. Deprived of a knowledge of l'Esprit, they are victims, as are the sedentaries, of a false dichotomy.

An awareness of l'Esprit helps explain the significance Tournier ascribes to the myth of twinship that figures in all his novels. In "La Famille Adam," the first story in Le Coq de Bruyère and a Christian version of Plato's Symposium, Tournier suggests that all human beings were originally androgynous. As such, they were made in the image of God: "Jehovah is neither a man nor a woman. He is both at the same time. The first man was therefore also a woman." One day God explained to Adam that his nature, human nature, was two-fold: "… there are contained within you both sedentary and nomadic elements." Shortly thereafter, in a decision which Tournier implies God might have had cause to regret, He made Eve out of Adam. The problem was not that there was now a man and a woman, but that each creature opted for one role or the other. Eve took the sedentary and Adam the nomadic, but neither God nor Tournier ever said that was the intention. Indeed, the only explanation God gives for his action is quite different: "From now on, when you want to make love, go find Eve."

For Michel Tournier, the conflict between Adam and Eve, between the nomad and the sedentary, is contrived, the product of humans' fear of their own complexity, reinforced by historical events and puritanical religions. The misunderstanding of what constitutes a human being, coupled with individuals' demands for order, has led to the formation of a political and moral universe replete with false distinctions: male roles versus female roles, heterosexuality versus homosexuality, and all forms of racism. Nevertheless, according to Tournier, the myth of twinship, the reconciliation of opposite but not contradictory tendencies, has lingered in the human psyche. Its theological expression is l'Esprit, which promises the union of idea and act, word and flesh.

It is tempting to see Thomas Koussek, whose radical theology in Les Météores appears to constitute a voice crying out in the wilderness, as Tournier's John the Baptist—tempting, but misleading. Thomas can be no John the Baptist since the fidelity to l'Esprit that he preaches involves going beyond Christ. In Michel Tournier's latest novel, his personal version of the Journey of the Magi, Christ never really appears. The novel manages to be deeply religious while eschewing theological discussion; yet, at the same time, it reflects most clearly what Tournier understands by the word "Christian." Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar deals with four men's efforts to discover what they are, and then, (the more difficult task) to accept what they find.

As is typical with Tournier's characters, false contradictions plague each of the Magi. "I am black, but I am a king," are Gaspard's words to open the novel. Melchior's problem is that "I am a king, but I am poor." Most complex of the three is Balthazar, an aging esthete whose love of physical beauty puts him at odds with his nation's religious leaders, who abhor the flesh and graven images of any sort. The journey of the kings is a quest to resolve these contradictions.

In Bethlehem the kings discover that their contradictions are merely apparent. Gaspard's racial shame dissolves as he gazes at the child in the manger—who is black. This is the only physical description of Christ in the novel. Melchior learns that there are kingdoms to be had that require no earthly riches; this leads him to renounce his temporal ambitions and choose the life of an anchorite. Balthazar perceives that earthly beauty is an emanation of God's ineffable beauty. Thus, to love what the world offers and artists produce, is a means of worshipping the Divine Creator of all. Yet aside from each king's personal revelation, the fundamental illumination of Bethlehem is that the Godhead, the Supreme Ordering, is an assemblage of seemingly insoluble contradictions: "… this Heir to the kingdom combines incompatible attributes, the gigantic and the infinitesimal, power and innocence, wealth and poverty."

For Michel Tournier, the complexity of God's creation frightens as much as it fascinates; too often human problems emerge from a refusal to accept the richness and variety of the universe. What the Magi learn is not to live with contradiction, but to acknowledge instead that frequently the dichotomies people invent are forms of self-torture that have no existence outside of their own imaginings; they are products of human beings' inability to accept and delight in themselves and the world they inhabit. What provokes the Slaughter of the Innocents and damns Herod is not what the old king thinks: "I am a king,… but I am dying." His error, which is typical of Tournier's characters, is to want life to conform to the narrow categories he has constructed. Herod cannot accept human destiny and understand that transience is part of the Eternal Plan.

The story of the Three Kings is the culmination of the reflections on the ordering of experience and the role of contradiction that have marked Tournier's writings from the beginning. There is, however, a fourth king:

I had been working … for a year on my Kings … One day, by chance, I heard a program on a German radio station during which the writer Edward Schaper mentions a fourth King, the one who left too late, who did not get to Bethelem on time … On that day, I had found the subject of my novel.

Taor is a king who likes candy. Specifically, a concoction called rahat loukoum. His voyage is, in a sense, the reverse of that of his fellow kings. He departs in a state of perfect harmony to plunge into a world of contradiction. His quest for a sweet leads him from his sun-filled land into the darkened city of the Sodomites where, although by nature a hedonist, he consents to assume the place of a poor convict and spends 33 years at forced labor in a salt mine. If the other kings had to struggle to accept what they were, Taor had to learn that what he was at the outset, an indolent, pampered heir to a throne, was not the limit of what he could be. The Magi started and stopped before he did; for them the revelation of Christ was sufficient. For Taor, like Thomas Koussek, Christ would not be enough. In fact, Taor would never see Him.

The rumor of the sweet that surpasses all understanding inspired the sedentary Taor to become a nomad. In prison he is once again sedentary, but it is here that his true wandering begins. From a fellow prisoner he learns the secret of rahat loukoum, but this knowledge can no longer satisfy him. The thirst that plagues him constantly in the mine cannot be quenched by anything purely physical. What Taor comes to seek is something beyond the physical, but this "something beyond" does not conform to the traditional understanding of the word "spiritual." For Tournier, "physical versus spiritual" is one more false dichotomy. The beauty of the Incarnation was in its union of Word and Flesh, and Taor's voyage of self-discovery, replete as it is with temporary denials of the body, leads not to the rejection of the physical, but to its transformation. Another prisoner tells Taor of Christ's miracles, and when, as an old, broken man, Taor is finally released from the mine, he sets out to find the Savior in Jerusalem. He arrives too late for the Last Supper. Christ has already departed, but He is no longer what Taor needs. All the famished man wants is what he sees before him on a table: some bread and wine. Taor partakes of these seemingly modest foods, and for the first time in his life he is truly sated:

The two angels, who had been watching over him since his liberation, gathered him in their large wings and … transported the man who, after having been the one who was perpetually late for everything, would become the first to receive the eucharist.

The Eucharist, the transformation of the physical into the divine without the loss of physicality, represents for Michel Tournier the essential insight of Christianity:

… I think I've understood the meaning of the sacred … I live in the realm of the absolute, in a totally vertical world in which each being, like a tree, plunges its roots deeply into the mud while, at the same time, it rises on the other end to ethereal heights. ["Tournier répond aux critiques: Les Météores, chef d'oeuvre ou provocation?," Figaro Littéraire, 19 décembre, 1975]

Tournier altered the story of the Last Supper by making Taor the first communicant, and kept Christ in the background throughout the novel, because what interests him is not the particular facts and dogmatic niceties of Christianity. What Tournier discovered in transubstantiation was the confirmation of his belief in transformation: that everything which exists, be it as humble as bread or wine, has the potential to become sacred, a process which occurs when people learn to perceive themselves and the objects which surround them as sources of comfort, beauty and joy. Michel Tournier was not fooling when he said that Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar "will be my Salammbô" [see Xavier Delcourt, "Tournier, dans le mythe se conjuguent roman et philosophie," Quinzaine Litteraire, 1 mars, 1977]. While the differences between these two novels are easily ascertained, what they share, and what Tournier's comment alludes to, is a celebration of the lushness and wonder of the universe.

Tournier's Christianity calls to mind the pantheism of the philosopher he claims to follow, Spinoza. Throughout his career Tournier has insisted upon his philosophical orientation ("One must not forget that I was trained as a philosopher") [see Alain Poirson, "Une logique contre vents et marées: entretien avec Michel Tournier," La Norvelle Critique, juin-juillet, 1977], and in Le Vent Paraclet he mentions that Spinoza's l'Ethique "… is the most important book that exists after the gospels." What separates Tournier from the pantheism that Spinoza espoused, is that the former's position is not as rigorously developed as the latter's. Tournier, the philosopher of the sacred, tends to yield to Tournier the novelist, who becomes ill at ease when the elaboration of abstract principles moves him too far from the concrete: "I am unable to disincarnate the sacred and to isolate it in the world of the abstract" [Figaro Littéraire, 19 décembre, 1975]. It may be useful to recall here that Tournier's Esprit, which traverses the world, transforming and sanctifying all it touches, is eternally "loaded with seeds."

If the world is, as Tournier says, filled with keys and keyholes, it remains nonetheless important not to try to force the locks. Tournier is no more a true decadent than he is a consistent Spinozist, although any reader of his autobiography and fiction can find numerous reasons to place him within the decadent tradition. Certainly, an artist who tells us that he lives in a former rectory, who delights in arcane knowledge, who puzzles over the differences—real or imagined—between the natural and the unnatural realms, and whose religious references tend to emphasize the aesthetic dimension, particularly of Roman Catholicism ("Gold, incense and the organ reflect our heartfelt need for jubilation"), would appear to be something of a contemporary Des Esseintes. Also, the shadow of Gilles de Rais, which hovers over Abel Tiffauges in Le Roi des Aulnes conjures up memories of Huysman's Là-bas. Finally, Tournier does share with the decadents the notion that a conscious violation of a Christian dictum can serve as a paradoxical testament of faith: "If I have a taste for blasphemy, at least that proves that I have faith" [Figaro Littéraire, 19 décembre, 1975].

There is, nevertheless, an important practical difference between Tournier and the decadents, and it concerns the precise nature of faith. Most important French writers normally associated with decadence, artists like Verlaine, Huysmans, Baudelaire and even Rimbaud, have made some sort of peace with Roman Catholicism. They have used Catholicism for various aesthetic purposes and then usually managed to die within the fold. Tournier does more than play with the rites and beauty of this religion. He evolves a heretical, albeit consistent, theology that separates him from the Church's thinking, and then bluntly distances himself from the Church's practice:

The Church … serving only the institution of bourgeois society and claiming to teach the Gospel while in fact teaching the opposite … the Church teaches the respect for property, hatred of the flesh and the respect for existing power (the Gospel despises money, loves the flesh and is revolutionary). We are approaching the only solution … a Church restricted to true Christians. Instead of ten million Catholics in France, there will be perhaps only five thousand true Christians.

                [Meanjin, Vol. XXXVIII, May, 1978]

The revolutionary, flesh-loving Christian Church that Tournier envisions is not a decadent fantasy and does not have its seat in Rome. As an institution it exists nowhere and perhaps never will. Its text, the Bible, and especially the Gospels, has too radical a message. No institution, no hierarchy, no power structure can be comfortable with it. Francis of Assisi discovered that centuries ago when he first tried to have his new order chartered from Rome. Michel Tournier is no Francis of Assisi, but he does participate in the saint's tradition-shattering belief that the Good News of the Gospel was intended not to alter people's conceptions of heaven, but their understanding of, and love for, God's earth.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Joseph H. McMahon (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 novelist—has written for children are for the most part strikingly different from those he has written for adults. In the latter, he has purposefully played with his readers in an effort to force them to ask themselves questions about the attitudes they bring to reading. He has found other ways of being provocative by enunciating in Le Vent Paraclet, where he writes mainly about his own works, elaborate defenses of forms of human behavior which many believe to be aberrant. It is as though he wants, through strident notes, to force his readers to hear a subtler tone.

The same is not true of the works he has written for children, where his purposes are, on the whole, clear; there he often defends the kinds of values he ridicules in the works he has addressed to an adult audience, in which, as he himself has said, "I find myself pawing the ground of taboos" [See Escoffier-Lambiotte, "L'Ecrivain et la société," Le Monde, October 8-9, 1978]. The different narrative stances produce a situation in which the texts for children can be used to illuminate those written for grownups. The stances may also be related to some sharp distinctions he draws in Le Vent Paraclet about the intentions which lurk behind particular literary forms. Literature has power to influence the ways in which individuals see the world about them. They never shake off the influence of those works which have shaped their views at an early age. That assertion is of great pertinence to his interest in writing for children; it sheds light on the way in which he writes for adults. Implicit in his discussion of reading is a contradiction. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that there comes a moment when one no longer reads as a child does, for various kinds of distances are eventually created between texts and readers, who become wary. On the other hand, much of what Tournier writes seems to suggest his belief that today's readers are willing to look at and even believe almost anything; and, in that sense, they have never ceased being children.

That apparent contradiction may help to explain Tournier's two manners of writing and suggests that, whatever it is he is trying to do in writing for children, what he is doing when he writes for adults is trying to make them read as grownups. He would not put it that way, for he claims, "I never deliberately write children's books but sometimes I write so well that what I've written can also be read by children. When I'm less lucky, what I come up with is only good enough for adults" [Mary Blume, "A Laughing Provocateur Is Launched in Britain," Herald-Tribune (Paris), December 30, 1983]. Earlier, in 1979, he had told an interviewer from Le Monde that "a work can be addressed to a young public only when it is perfect. Every weakness reduces it to the level of adults alone. The writer who takes up his pen with that high aim in mind is obeying an immeasurable ambition" ["Comment écrire pour les enfants," Le Monde, December 21, 1979].

Those sentiments, as we shall see in one case, do not conform to Tournier's own practice. His first work for children was a revision of a novel published for adults; he has announced his intention of rewriting for a younger public, when he finds the time, two of his other novels. What Tournier seems to espy is a complex situation: children, up to a certain time, bring to their reading a limited amount of experience and many look upon reading as a way of understanding and adding to that experience. What adults bring to reading is an indefinable attitude which in many cases may make reading an act adjacent to their experience, with the consequence that it may or may not become part of their experience. Those different degrees of susceptibility may demand the use of deliberate, alternate strategies on the part of the writer, strategies designed to give him the chance of having the greatest amount of impact on each of the two audiences he addresses.

Obviously, when he is writing for children, Tournier is under several influences. One is the memory of his own childhood, which he says was miserable, and that may perhaps help to determine the subjects he chooses to explore. Another is his appreciation of what he sees as the needs of today's young reader in the industrialized world. In a number of articles and interviews, he has discussed the rebelliousness and boredom of today's youth and its historical causes.

If the child is the favorite prey of that gloomy void, of that bleak anguish, of that nothingness colored in dust, it is doubtless the result of a lack of roots in the course of things, the result of an excess of availability. It is in the nature of his age to await the unexpected arrival of something or someone extraordinary who is going to renew everything, overturn everything, even if that entails a planetary catastrophe.

                              [Des clefs et des serrures]

Complicating that condition is the absence, in the life of the adolescent, of clearly identified, permissible ways of orienting his affectivity and sexuality. Today, Tournier says,

they continue, in official circles at least, to consider that the absolute evil for the child is his sexuality…. If I say that eroticism has never done any harm to anyone, and especially not to children, and that there is no reason why one shouldn't show pornographic films on television on Wednesday afternoons, I am expressing something that is evident; but it runs up against a wall.

                        [Le Monde, October 8-9, 1978]

A third influence on Tournier's intentions is a desire to get away from his own solitude through contact with readers.

A final influence on his intentions is his own experience with children. Though he has never married and has no children, Tournier has been intimately involved in the rearing of at least two youngsters. He told Theodore Zeldin:

The ideal companion for me is a boy because I can do things with him that I cannot do alone: go to the zoo, walk in the woods, light a fire, read books with him, rediscover literature: we are both initiators and initiated to each other. It could equally be a girl, except parents don't trust little girls with bachelors. I do not have sexual relations with my boys. But I like to hold a child in my arms, I like to serve a child, to give him food, to wash him, to put him to bed. It's my maternal side….

When I look at a man of 20, and think of the boy of 10 he used to be, I feel a lump in my throat: it's like a death. I prefer to have not my own children, but all the children of the world.

               ["The Prophet of Unisex," The Observer (London), January 30, 1983]

In the context of the intentions I am discussing, those final observations, which recall some of the judgments made by the narrator of André Gide's L'Immoraliste as well as many made by the narrator of Le Roi des Aulnes, cause problems mainly because they suggest a futile exploitation of children: one takes them through initiatory procedures over the years only to produce, it seems, a condition of being one does not like. A further suggestion is that there is no remedy; accession to adulthood can only be calibrated in losses; to become an adult is to live as a defeated child, unless one associates with youngsters in order to repeat with them the games and other adventures of one's own disappeared childhood. That is the situation which confronts Robinson Crusoe at the conclusion of Vendredi ou la vie sauvage.

Initially, the children's version follows closely the story of the adult version, as its story follows closely the story-line of Defoe's novel. Robinson is shipwrecked and finds himself alone on a deserted, verdant island. Gradually, he overcomes his desolation, resists his temptation to wallow in the parental comfort he claims to find in the mud; he makes a commitment to work and eventually recreates on his island a solid bourgeois world. He names it Speranza and writes a constitution for its governance. After the first intrusion on what he considers his space by Indians, who use the island for their sacrificial rites, he begins to fortify it. All these events, and the pattern of life they create, reinforce in the child who reads about them the value of the deeds brought about through resolve and resoluteness.

In the adult version, those events are interlarded with excerpts from Robinson's Logbook where he meditates about and comes to appreciate some of the basic values of the West and where he also explores the relationship between sexuality and death. Indeed, after assuming a fetal position in one of the island's coombs, he initiates a sexual and fecund union with one of her flowers. Tournier excises that last event from the children's version in much the same way he says society bans sex from the eyes of the young.

Friday's arrival on the island is the occasion of another discrepancy between the two versions, apparently to spare children what they might find to be unsettling behavior by Robinson. In the adult version it is his intention to kill the fleeing Friday in order to avoid the eventual wrath of his pursuers; in the children's version, he aims his gun at one of the pursuers. In both texts, Friday's ensuing time on the island is spent being submitted to the ways of Robinson's civilization. As in Defoe's novel, he is sometimes recalcitrant; but in both of Tournier's texts his obduracy leads to disaster, for, fearful of being discovered smoking Robinson's treasured pipe, Friday tosses it behind him. It lands in the powder magazine; the resultant explosions bring down everything Robinson has constructed on the island and also cause his dog to die of fright.

From this point on, though the basic story remains the same in both, the two versions begin to differ in profoundly significant ways. In the original, Robinson's temptation not to start all over again is at first presented in a vocabulary which suggests that to succumb would be retrogression; he would thereby rid himself of the burden of an administered life and island. Gradually, however, Robinson's decision to embrace Friday's way of life becomes a transformation, a purgation, rather than a retrogression; it is not a question of having exchanged a laboriously established civilized life for a savage condition, but rather of having acceded to a higher perception of and participation in the universe, more particularly in the reign of the sun.

In the derivative version, Robinson makes the decision immediately and confesses that he is happy to be rid of a routine which at bottom bored him; once the decision has been made, he asserts that they are now free and moves on to become an attentive witness of Friday's existence. The subtitles clearly point to this difference; the "limbos" of the first version imply that Robinson has moved beyond civilization, the "savage life" of the second that he has reverted to a precivilized state. That variation in ideological tone continues until the very end of the book. Yet both texts invite the reader to consider a form of existence that is better than the repugnant ways characteristic of civilization; it is a condition which, when internalized, leads Robinson to stay on the island.

Friday's decision to abandon the island, without telling Robinson beforehand, is shattering in several ways. In the original text, no explanation is given for it, probably because it raises questions that are too unsettling. In the second version, Robinson says that Friday has seen the frigate, which could have carried both of them back to England, as a novel, irresistible toy, thereby using a child's instinctive reaction to the enchantingly new to explain a catastrophic event. In both texts, its arrival causes Robinson to think about moving swiftly to his death. But, in the first version, before doing so, he ruminates at length over the several stages of his existence on Speranza; death becomes the path to follow only when he finds he has neither the emotional nor psychological strength to pursue some other recourse. Oddly, he never raises, as many readers must, the matter of the meaning of Friday's decision to abandon him and thus to become a part of the civilized world. The child reader is given a cause, if not a reason; the adult reader is given nothing, and so is left to his own speculations. That is a challenge Tournier will repeat more than once in later texts.

The final event in the story, Robinson's discovery of the ship's cabin boy who has sought refuge on the island from his unhappy maritime existence, is presented in remarkably different ways in the two texts. In the children's version, Robinson is extraordinarily happy:

He now had this little brother whose hair—as red as his own—was beginning to blaze in the sun. They would invent new games, new adventures, new victories. A new life was going to begin, as beautiful as the island which was waking up in the mist at their feet.

Since Friday's life consisted of more than games, adventures, and victories, one can reasonably say that Robinson's vision of the future is the second step in his retrogression. Because the cabin boy has never seen him in the role of an adult, Robinson can recreate daily with the youth a child's world. Growing and aging will, until debility sets in, have no meaning. One can say that the child's version of his novel represents Tournier's description of a world in which the differences between children and adults no longer matter. We are not told what the cabin boy thinks about a life devoted to devising new games.

The original text offers a much more unsettling ending, unsettling because it is really a beginning whose outcome we cannot reliably predict. When Robinson sees the child he has an epiphany: the boy is a postulant from the solar realm, sent to allow Robinson to initiate him into the ways of that form of existence. In the face of that challenge, he feels himself assuming gigantic proportions. The scene is not unlike that of Bacchus arriving on Ariadne's island. Robinson tells the boy, "Henceforth, you will be called Thursday. That is Jupiter's day, the god of the Heaven. It is also the children's Sunday." That announcement is fraught with meaning. For years, Thursday was a half-holiday for French schoolchildren, and many of them devoted it to receiving religious instruction, overwhelmingly in Christian religions. Robinson is thereby announcing a new dispensation and incorporating the boy into it by baptizing him with a new name, chosen for him by Robinson. The lessons contained in Friday's departure no longer count now that Robinson can play the role of God. One of the ways in which that role can be carried out is described in Tournier's next novel, Le Roi des Aulnes, where the protagonist, moved by a belief that he is called to serve children, ends up witlessly participating in the slaughter of some of them.

Tournier's later and shorter works for young readers are more directly related to the experience of children and are presented through their eyes. In "La Fugue du petit Poucet" (Tom Thumb's Escape) [in Le Coq de bruyère], we follow the adventures of a young Parisian boy who is disturbed by his father's desire to be thoroughly abreast of modern ways of living; the father is an advocate of shopping malls, car parks, and tall buildings. Indeed, as head of the tree-cutters of Paris, he makes a steady contribution to the creation of those spaces and is proud of his participation. When he announces his intention of moving his family to the twenty-third floor of a building whose climate is completely controlled and where the family can profit from the joys of color television, Pierre rebels, gathers his rabbits together, and runs away from the family abode in the direction of some milieu better suited to his vague aspirations. Warmed by wine he receives from a truckdriver, who has given him a lift out of the city, the boy finds himself in a forest where he is soon surrounded by enchanting young girls.

They lead him off to their home, where he finds a world quite different from that enjoyed by his father. Here he finds a place of marvels, where the father stays home and the mother goes to work; here he sees a poster on the wall which urges its viewers to make love instead of war; here he meets the girls' father, Logre, who turns out to be a more genial ogre than others in some of Tournier's works. Indeed, unlike Robinson, and unlike the main character of Le Roi des Aulnes, he acts as a source of counsel for the young rather than serving as the provider of diversions and dangers. From him, Pierre learns that the grand curse of men is that "they have left the vegetable kingdom. They have fallen into the animal kingdom…. What you find there is hunting, violence, murder, fear. In the vegetable kingdom … you find the calm growth in the union between the earth and the sun." The idea recalls some of Robinson's thoughts in Vendredi, especially in the version for adults. Logre goes on to say that a good example of that union is a tree: it needs sunlight in order to grow and raise its branches toward the heavens, but it also needs to be ever more deeply rooted in the earth in order to remain sturdy. He derives a counsel from the tree's example: "The more you want to raise yourself up, the more is it necessary to have your feet on the ground. Every tree tells you that."

The authorities do not approve of such sentiments; they approve even less of trying to indoctrinate young, impressionable children with them; and so they come to charge Logre with corruption of youth and to take him off to jail. Before being carried off, he tells Pierre to take a gift from the house. The boy chooses a pair of oversized boots like those his father had promised but failed to give him. Obliged to return to his parents' newfound high-rise flat, Pierre is not completely discouraged, for he has learned, as did Rousseau two centuries earlier, to have recourse to his imagination. While his parents watch television in an adjacent room, he stretches out on his bed, his newly acquired boots close by him; and there he dreams of being an immense tree and also, probably, of growing tall enough to fit into those boots.

"La Fugue du petit Poucet" recalls Tournier's detestation of his own childhood years in Paris, his belief that Paris is not a city for children, and his suggestion that a history of cities would be also the history of the possibilities of growth they have made available to the young, and of the good and the harm they have done.

Tournier's next tale, Amandine ou les deux jardins (Amandine, or the Two Gardens) has a similar didactic cast. As its subtitle indicates, it is meant to be a story about initiation, one of Tournier's recurrent preoccupations in those interviews where he has discussed the formation of children; it is such, though, only by way of absence. Initiations suggest rites and ceremonies, carefully prepared by someone, so that their intent will be known and eventually assumed by those being initiated. What happens to Amandine is that she makes a series of discoveries and undergoes a few events which lead her toward evidence of another world from that she has known—a world she must try to put together on the basis of the new data she has acquired. In the absence of established initiation procedures, she must assume the initiative in putting things together.

She lives comfortably enough in the two realms represented by her parents. Her mother's world is inside, in the house she keeps; her father's is outside, in the garden he patiently tends. In her diary, where she writes entries only on Sundays and Wednesdays, Amandine inserts descriptions of novel events in her life. Her cat has kittens. Amandine is able to give the male kittens away, but no one wants the sole female. The mother cat begins to show a certain distance from the girl; the remaining kitten is indifferent to Amandine as it goes about exploring the precincts. The child eventually perceives that the kitten's explorations lead it away from Amandine's sphere and into stretches she has never examined; she concludes that the kitten is living in two worlds, the domesticated world of Amandine's home and the wild world found in the other garden.

When Amandine finally climbs over the wall, she finds a space entirely the opposite of the one her father tends—it is a virgin forest, no garden at all, really. On her return to her garden, she exclaims: "How clear and well-ordered everything is here!" Some hours later, having cried long and hard over nothing, she discovers some drops of blood on her leg; when she looks into the mirror, she notices that she no longer looks like the young ten-year-old she had been. In the entry for the following Wednesday, she tells us that she has discovered that her kitten has become a full-fledged cat and is expecting a litter of its own.

Tournier's points are all clear enough; they profit from being stated mutely, by which I mean that he presents the phenomena of the onset of puberty in ways which would not upset those who had not made Amandine's observations and which might help those who had, but who had been baffled by their meaning. Even the implicit criticism of an order which tends its homes and gardens better than its children is presented indirectly. In a way, that criticism is not present until the reader makes it and derives some wisdom from it, which may lead to more attentive ways of helping children understand more clearly what they see all around them.

"La Mère Noel" (Mother Christmas) [in Le Coq de bruyère] is little more than an anecdote with ambition. It tells of the Christmas-time rivalry between secular and religious forces in a small French village who conduct competing ceremonies at the same time. For years the local curé has been celebrating a vigil Mass at 6 p. m. on Christmas Eve; its highlight is a live Nativity scene. For years, at the same time, the local schoolteacher has been impersonating Father Christmas and distributing gifts to the schoolchildren. When the teacher retires and is replaced by a divorced woman with two children, the villagers begin to wonder if the longstanding rivalry will now come to an end. It does not. The woman announces her intention to continue the tradition and to take the part of Father Christmas. She also agrees to have her baby play the role of the Christ Child in the Nativity scene. There is some perplexity in the village over the situation, and there is consternation when the baby begins to cry, as the Mass gets underway, and cannot be satisfied except by the arrival of his mother, summoned from her distribution of gifts in order to nurse her hungry child and thereby to add another vital element to the live tableau. With the hindsight provided by one of his later novels [Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar], one can discern larger reaches in this brief tale, for the infant's need of his mother and the instant response on the part of both congregation and mother to that need point to the power of a child to effect harmonies and perhaps to remind rivals of what the coming of Christ was for a long time taken to mean: the establishment of peace on earth as an ideal worthy of being pursued by human beings.

Tournier's next book, Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit (Pierrot, or the Secrets of the Night), is, he says, his favorite book, and one which he worked on for six or seven years…. He says it is an example of what he would have liked to do had he continued with his early career in philosophy. "I would have liked to teach philosophy to children of 10, and that is what I am now trying to do in my books for children." [Zeldin, "The Prophet of Unisex"]. He told another interviewer that the teaching of philosophy to the young "is not done and that's a shame. My little book Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit is metaphysics for 10-year-olds" [Blume, "A Laughing Provocateur"].

What is often made deliberately obscure or ambiguous in Tournier's writings for adults is presented straightforwardly here as a matter of choices and values. The story is also an extension of the concerns expressed in Amandine, for here it is a question of how couples are formed in social partnerships and of the information which guides the decisions by which those partnerships are set up.

Tournier's story deals with a Pierrot who succeeds, not only in drawing Columbine back from Harlequin and vagabondage, but also in bringing about a victory for his own stable and domestic values. When he writes to the absent Columbine in his effort to win her back, he tries to explain the meaning of the colors of his world in order to allay her belief that they are sinister hues.

Columbine inspires Pierrot to create a lifesized brioche in her image, which reveals to her other dimensions of her being. Before 1979, Tournier had not written anything so forthright in defense of the values and continuities of the domestic order. In fact his Météores, published four years earlier in 1975, had raised serious questions about the attractiveness and viability of that order. Yet this apparent defense of the domestic life—of the washing of linen and the baking of bread—does not go as far as the reader might have expected—though it may go further. We do not read at the end of a marriage between Pierrot and Columbine. Instead we have what appears to be a reconciliation of all the opposed elements in the story. Harlequin returns to ask for the warmth and the hospitality of Pierrot's hearth; his request is honored; the two men watch with fascination as Columbine touches the breasts of the brioche portrait of herself and then invites them to join her in tasting and eating the good Columbine. The text tells us at its conclusion: "They are happy. They would like to laugh, but how can you do that with your cheeks swollen with brioche?"

Tournier is settling a number of matters in this tale which he has not settled as assuredly in his adult texts: the pacification of the nomad as a result of admiration for the security and strength of the sedentary baker, the celebration of the domestic and admiration for the maternal, the union of opposites which is often expressed in the difference between night and day, the absorption of cannibal instincts, whether physical or psychological, in eucharistic ceremony. But he sidesteps one of the main problems he has seen to be of central importance in the world of his readers—their initiation into sexual understanding and performance. What does a young reader make of this conclusion, which either suggests a union of the three or leaves unresolved Harlequin's more distant future? There is something of Marie Antoinette's alleged indifference to the people's hunger in a conclusion which suggests that youthful sexual rivalries can be satisfied by proximity to hot ovens and by the joyous consumption of tasty brioche. In Plato's world, one was encouraged to move from image to form; the same can be said of the world of sex; and Tournier chooses to remain silent about how that passage will occur and whether what it leads to will last.

What Tournier is trying to do in Barbedor (Goldenbeard) his recent book for children, puzzles me, though, as we shall see, it has some direct ties to the conclusion of the adult version of Vendredi. It is an oriental tale about a not too earnest king who sports a luxuriant golden beard, which each day is brushed and waved by a woman barber; male barbers have been excluded from service because their manner of care involves trimming and cutting. One day the king discovers a single silver whisker in his beard; it is a sign of his age which reminds him that, after two infertile marriages, there is no heir to his throne, and that he has not paid adequate attention to that matter. He thinks of adopting a little heir "who will look strikingly like me … like a little twin brother." During his siesta, he feels something like a bite and, on awakening from his nap, discovers that his silver hair has been plucked. The same event happens day after day, reducing the richness of his beard and serving to remind him that his life is passing by. Eventually, he discovers that a bird is the ravisher of his beard. When the last hair has been taken, the bird leaves behind a feather from its plumage; it turns out to have the properties of a compass and leads Barbedor to the nest the bird has made from his beard. There he finds a beautiful gilded egg which he takes from the nest with the intention of bringing it back to the seat of his kingdom. He is stopped by one of his own foresters, who accuses him of a form of poaching. Barbedor discovers at that moment that he has become quite little and is easily able to elude his accuser. He continues on his journey and, as he nears the city, takes note of a great funeral procession in an outlying cemetery. When he arrives at the gates of the city he finds them closed. As he stands before them, the egg begins to open, and a white bird flies out, singing: "Long live the king! Long live our new king!" The transformed Barbedor thus becomes his own successor and repeats fully the events of his earlier reign, even in the matter of marrying the two barren women. At the point in his second reign where his golden beard begins to sprout, he forgets the history of the boy before the gates, the bird flying up from the egg, and the ensuing cry of "Long live the king!"

There were traces of that kind of longing in Robinson's aspiration to become part of the solar reign, to introduce the cabin boy to it, and thus to find a line leading toward immortality. A similar hankering led Paul, one of the narrators of Les Météores, to spin out extravagant theories in an attempt to project himself as an integral part of meteorological events. Here Tournier is going even further in his description of the process whereby an undeserving man is visited by renewal and restoration; here he allows for the possibility of a cyclical return of youth. He does not at the same time resolve the problem of how youth can move on to a purposeful, energetic adult life. One ought not to push that reading too far. Perhaps one should assume that what Tournier wanted was something simpler: to turn his hand to the creation of a magical, languorous world where troubling events become marvels, even for those who have not taken full advantage of their own promise and who have not wholly met their responsibilities.

There is a progression discernible in Tournier's works for children and an ever more visible commitment to particular values which are not as certainly appreciated in his writings for adults: sane integration into the natural world, the reconciliation of adversaries who need not be in conflict, the celebration of routines and rituals which enrich understanding of the worth of a serene life, an appreciation of enchantment as opposed to insanity. When Tournier writes about children, rather than for them, he depicts a world in which such values are absent or have been set seriously askew. Fortunately, one has the children's works as the assurance of Tournier's belief that those absences and dislocations are the results of abuses and that the child's world does not have to be a place of suffering and confusion, especially if adults attend to their obligations and writers attend to filling in whatever gaps may be created by negligence of those duties.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 something with my Christian background which is very important to me because I was brought up in Christian schools. Consequently, it was one of the things I wanted to talk about. I think that the choice of the three wise men was a particularly appropriate subject for me. First of all, no one had ever talked about it; second, on the contrary, there is an immense iconographical wealth concerning the three kings. The paintings are wonderful, aren't they?

In The Four Wise Men, did you try to relate the Christian philosophical system to any other philosophical system?

No. There is only one thing that is very modern in The Four Wise Men; it is the idea of image and likeness which is Balthazar's problem. As you know, I am preoccupied with photography; I am very interested it. That's very modern and is, at the same time, biblical because the question of image and likeness is in the beginning of the Bible. The political problem of Melchior is also very modern; in the problem of Herod's tyranny, there are characteristics that bring Stalin to mind: the idea of killing anyone however little he may be suspected. The person is destroyed, that's Stalin. The idea of telling the story of one's life at the end of a meal during the last courses—that was Hitler—he did it all the time. The portraits [in The Four Wise Men] are of rather modern tyrants, but there isn't any philosophy.

Nonetheless, concerning what you said, I think that perhaps one can make a connection between The Four Wise Men and Heidegger's essay "Das Ding" ["The Thing"] which speaks of pouring oneself out in order to attain a sort of immortality, to attain a fully human status. Couldn't one make an analogy between that idea and the life of Taor, the fourth king in The Four Wise Men?

I agree completely, but I didn't make the analogy; however, I think that you have the right—completely—to do it. At the moment, I have just submitted to Mercure de France [a French publisher] an anthology of literary studies with a preface about reading. It will come out at the end of the year and will be entitled Le Vol du Vampire. I think that it would interest you because it is literature once removed. For the same reason it won't interest many people. You will see that I defend the idea of a reading as an act of possession, so the reader is also the author, a coauthor. There is still something that I would like to say about the Magi. There are two things that I like about them. The first is that they are foreigners: they are people who came from far away who are not part of the "family"; I like that very much; they are travelers who arrive, who learn things that they didn't know; who make grotesque errors, for example, as does the one who arrives with his rahat loukoum [a pistachio-flavored dessert found in Arabic countries that is the raison d'etre of the quest of the fourth wise man]. The second thing is wealth, because the wise men are rich. In Christianity there is a sort of heretical idealization of poverty that I detest because Jesus always defended himself against misconceptions concerning poverty; for example, when Mary Magdalene poured out a very, very expensive perfume on his feet, the disciples were indignant and said, "But that's idiotic, with all that money we could have done …" etcetera, and He said, "So then, I have no right to precious ointment? I like nard!" Then, there is the parable of the talents which is a banking parable…. There is also the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor where Christ's beauty was resplendent—a divine beauty. It was not a humble beauty; it was shattering, awe-inspiring: He very much resembled the sun. That is how I conceive of Christianity; I envision a solar Christ, not a mendicant Christ.

Why then does Christ appear only in an oblique fashion in The Four Wise Men? Was it a political question?

No. It was simply a matter of my inability as a novelist. You know that depicting Christ is overwhelming. It is terribly difficult…. Who can allow himself to do it? First of all, I have a model—Flaubert's Herodiade—Christ is in it too … but He is far off—on the horizon—you know? Everything goes on more or less behind His back.

You employ myths very often in your novels. For you, what is the importance of myth in twentieth-century literature, not only in your works, but in literature in general?

Well, I'll tell you, that doesn't really interest me very much. What interests me a lot is the role of myth in the daily life of people. For example, if you watch advertisements on television, you see myths appear: the myth of purity, everything that concerns cleanliness, etcetera … the myth of nature; the myth of Robinson Crusoe who appears everywhere—doesn't he? The desert island, the Club Med, vacations, tans, fixing things—all that is summarized by Robinson Crusoe.

In the history and the literature of the twentieth century one sees a sort of progressive atomization (perhaps related to the discovery of the atomic structure itself). Novels have moved from the interior monologue to those displaying a totally fragmented psyche. Don't you think that myth attempts to put man back into a sort of unified framework and by means of myth man is able to unify his experiences? That view is, however, from a critical perspective.

That seems a very, very good idea to me, because there are unifying myths. In general, however, myths are rather destructive. I mean, myth is almost always the exaltation of an antisocial hero—on the order of Don Juan. Don Juan is antisocial; Tristan is antisocial. Nonetheless, you can still have unifying myths: in France, that of Joan of Arc. So, the national myth, the national hero, which are unifying, those belong to another category. As for me, I am struck by the antisocial function of myth. I have the impression that everything in society tends toward order and that myth is a means for the individual to escape from an order that suffocates him, by means of a hero who is revolting against the established order. For example, the wife who cheats on her husband can think of Isolde. Tristan and Isolde is a story of a woman who deceives her husband, isn't it?

That is the question that Denis de Rougemont deals with in Love and the Occident.

Yes, exactly. So, the woman feels exalted because she experiences passion [of mythic proportions]. She can do nothing against it. She is consumed by passion for someone besides her husband; she is even exalted because of it. As for her husband, he doesn't understand—he is King Mark [Isolde's cuckolded husband].

He is overwhelmed by the events.


How do you see the literary hero of the twentieth century?

He doesn't really interest me enormously. I'm interested in the mythological hero. There is a big difference. The mythological hero exceeds the work and is more famous than his author. Don Juan, for example, is more famous than Tirso da Molina; Robinson Crusoe is more famous than Daniel Defoe, whereas the literary hero remains a prisoner of the work. That is the case of Balzac's Vautrin [in Le Pere Goriot] or Proust's Charlus [in Remembrance of Things Past]. The hero must not dominate the literary work, but he must have an organic place; in the last analysis, I conceive of the novel as a hero. My novel develops, it resembles a tree, and I am nothing but the gardener; I water it; I take care of it; I hope that it will grow—and it grows a little bit outside of me. For example, the three Magi who had been sleeping for years in my drawer suddenly sprang to life. I can explain it a little, but in the end, it is still bizarre. I'm explaining it after the fact—you know?

Was your conception of myth influenced by the structuralism of Levi-Strauss?

Yes, I was a student of Levi-Strauss's.

At the College de France?

No, at the Museum of Man. I was at the Museum of Man during the years 1950–1952 and I had Levi-Strauss as a professor.

Did you study the works of the great ethnologists, for example, Boas, Malinowski, and Durkheim?

As for Malinowski, yes. When I was at the Museum of Man, Levi-Strauss told me, "Listen, since you read German, there is a gentleman whose name is Guisinde, a German who has devoted his whole life to a tribe of Fuegians, the Selknams. You are going to study that and then give an oral report about it." Consequently, I became the "Selknam man." Malinowski is a marvel. The Trobriand Islands—an archipelago—are fabulous. The Trobrianders are extraordinary. They do not make the connection between intercourse and the birth of a child—that's wonderful. Nine months separate the two events—there is no relationship between them. It is the rain that makes the woman fertile. The gentleman who sleeps with her is not the father, but the uncle—he's a lover and a friend. It is a magnificent social structure, much more attractive than ours. It is the mother's brother who lives with the children, who brings them up … etcetera.

You use fairy tales as well as myths in your works. What is the difference between the fairy tale and the myth?

The fairy tale—you will see in Le Vol du Vampire—I have a chapter on fairy tales—for me, they are broken and diminished myths—little myths. Fairy tales have an effect on us because we do not recognize the myth, but it is there…. For example, Charles Perrault's Bluebeard is full of unlikely events, and we accept these events because underneath there is a great myth, but we don't recognize it. Bluebeard leaves, saying to his wife, "I'm leaving on a trip, here are the keys to the house. You can use all the keys except the one that opens this chamber. If you open it, you will die." It is a crazy way to act. He is courting disaster, but he does it anyway, and we accept it. Why do we accept it? Because we recognize, without realizing it—it is a matter of remembering—Yaweh's saying to Adam and Eve, "You can eat of all the fruits of Paradise except that one, and if you eat from it, you will die." And Yaweh goes away. It is that memory that is at work—that explains why we accept Bluebeard's pronouncement. Naturally, the wife opens the chamber door and drops the key on the ground. The key is stained and she cannot get the stain out. In that respect too, the myth of the indelible spot is very much established, very profound—the anguish of the small stain and then besmirched honor, and then virginity…. There is a whole mythology of the indelible spot which makes us accept this story but which doesn't hold up apart from it. For me, that is what a story is, but not necessarily a fairy tale.

Which of your novels do you prefer, and why?

I prefer Gemini. Simply because it is the most my novel … it is the one that (but these are purely personal considerations) is based on nothing. Vendredi is based upon Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe;The Four Wise Men is based upon the Scriptures; The Ogre, although it is less obvious, is based upon Nazism; there is the war, etcetera…. These are ways of treating, of retreating those things, whereas with Gemini there is nothing. It is a thick book based upon nothing. It is I.

A personal invention?

Yes, that's right—and then, it is also the one that is the most ambitious.

How would you describe your literary style?

I was watching a television show the other day—a literary show, Apostrophes with Bernard Pivot. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Déon, and Robert Kanters were on. There were two novelists with opposing points of view: Robbe-Grillet and Michel Déon, and two literary critics: Kanters and Poirot-Delpech. They were arguing about how one should write, etcetera. If I had been there and somebody had asked me: "And you, where do you stand in all of this?" I would have said, "Me, I'm not part of all that, I don't understand anything about everything you are saying because I"—what I am going to say is horrible—I wouldn't have told them, but I'll tell you—"I have something to say!" For example, in The Four Wise Men, I have Christianity, all of Christianity to discuss, you know? So, I am not going to ask myself questions about rhetoric. I have a huge subject matter, a tremendous amount of work to do, and I choose the literary form that is the easiest, the most obvious for me, and the closest to the Scriptures since I have a model. I would have told them, "You have questions that you ask yourselves about construction, all the problems of the nouveau roman." As for me, in the last analysis, I am not really literary. I don't have much of a literary bent, I think.

If you were a critic, what would be the aspect of your work that would fascinate you the most?

First, I want to say that there are things that I would criticize. For example, in The Ogre, I am sorry that there is only one character who dominates the whole. In my opinion, that isn't a novel. In a novel, there have to be several characters—all of them important and all different from the author. But there is only one of him. Then, there is much too much philosophy.

In The Ogre?

Not in The Ogre, but in Vendredi. It crops up everywhere.

If you'll permit me to say so, I think that Vendredi is a great success in the line of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet. Vendredi is a totally abstract work, but you have succeeded in putting enormous charm, lyricism, and a certain exotic spirit into it.

Thank you. Something that I prefer, perhaps over Gemini, is Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit, because there, really, I succeeded in infusing the story with the maximum amount of philosophy, ontology, Bachelard, matter, color, solidity, smell, biological mechanisms, and nonetheless, it remains a story for children.

Yes, it is a lovely story; that is irrefutable. Now that you have published several very successful books, do you still see your work as an author the same way?

Let's say that formerly I had material concerns which I no longer have, and I also had worries about a public that I don't have anymore. So, now I can really say what I want to—no matter to whom, even to the Pope or to the President of the Republic; they would hesitate to throw me out the door!

Finally, the next-to-last question: in which philosophical current would you place yourself?

In what philosophical current would I place myself? But I abandoned philosophy twenty-five years ago! I no longer have a philosophical leaning.

The last question: Sartre, in his autobiography, The Words, says that for him language is a kind of absolute. Do you agree?

He is right. A novel is a thing that is produced with words, and words have a value in themselves. Absolute means cut off from the rest, doesn't it? And it is a verbal construction.

I would say that for Sartre it is not absolutely true, but that language acquires a transcendent aspect.

You are right. It is much truer of other writers; it is actually less true of Sartre.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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.

Studies the role of myth in The Ogre, drawing on Roland Barthes' definition of myth.

Davis, Colin. "Art and the Refusal of Mourning: The Aesthetics of Michel Tournier." Paragraph 10 (October 1987): 29-44.

Discusses Tournier's use of artistic themes.

――――――. "Michel Tournier's Vendredi; ou, Les Limbes du Pacifique: A Novel of Beginnings." Neophilologues LXXIII, No. 3 (July 1989): 373-82.

Studies Tournier's themes and literary style.

Edwards, Rachel. "Myth, Allegory and Michel Tournier." Journal of European Studies XIX, No. 74, part 2 (June 1989): 99-121.

Provides an in-depth study of Tournier's many definitions and uses of myth and allegory.

Higonnet, Margaret R. "Marguerite Yourcenar and Michel Tournier: The Arts of the Heart." In Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature, edited by Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert, pp. 151-58. Hamden: Library Professionals Publication, 1986.

Praises the thematic portrayals in Tournier's literature for children.

Hueston, Penny. "An Interview with Michel Tournier." Meanjin 38, No. 3 (September 1979): 400-05.

Interview in which Tournier discusses what he considers the most important French novels of the twentieth century.

Ladimer, Bethany. "Overcoming Original Difference: Sexuality in the Work of Michel Tournier." Modern Language Studies XXI, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 76-91.

Discusses the roles that sexuality and perversion play in Tournier's fiction.

Levy, Karen D. "Le Grand Meaulnes and Le Roi des aulnes: Counterpointed Echoes from a Distant Past." Romance Notes XXIX, No. 2 (Winter 1988): 107-18.

Discusses intertexuality in Tournier's novels. Compares Le Roi des aulnes with Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (1913).

――――――. "The Fatal Temptation of the Image: Specular Fascination in Tournier's Le Roi des aulnes." The International Fiction Review 19, No. 2 (1992): 76-87.

Focuses on Tournier's use of signs and images in his fiction.

Maclean, Mairi. "Michel Tournier as Misogynist (or Not?): An Assessment of the Author's View of Femininity." The Modern Language Review 83, No. 2 (April 1988): 322-31.

Discusses Tournier's representation of women and the hostility his male characters have for them.

Petit, Susan. "Sexualite Alimentaire or Elementaire: Michel Tournier's Answer to Freud." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 24, Nos. 3-4 (Summer/Fall 1991): 163-77.

Focuses on the sexual themes in Friday and The Ogre.

Platten, David. "Terms of Reference: Michel Tournier's Le Roi des aulnes." Journal of European Studies 21, No. 84 (December 1991): 281-302.

Offers an in-depth study of The Ogre.

Quinones, Ricardo J. "Twinning the Twain." In his The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature, pp. 229-37. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Examines the Cain and Abel themes in Tournier's Le Roi des aulnes and Les Météores.

Robinson, Christopher. "Philosophical Dilemmas." In his French Literature in the Twentieth Century, pp. 170-77. London: David & Charles, 1980.

Discusses the role of myth in Tournier's first three published novels.

Rushdie, Salman. "Michel Tournier." In Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991, pp. 249-253. London: Granta Books, 1991.

Praises Gemini, stating that Tournier "weaves banalities into wonders."

Sankey, Margaret. "Parody, History and Myth in Le Roi des aulnes. Australian Journal of French Studies XXVII, No. 1 (January-April 1990): 73-82.

Defends Tournier's use of myth and intertexuality in Le Roi des aulnes.

Schehr, Lawrence R. "Tournier's Theoretical Pretext Works Like a Charm." Studies in Twentieth-century Literature 12, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 221-38.

Reviews La Goutte d'or and discusses the use of the photograph theme throughout the text.

Shattuck, Roger. "Locating Michel Tournier." In his The Innocent Eye on Modern Literature and the Arts, pp. 205-18. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1984.

Examines Tournier's status among twentieth-century French novelists.

Shryock, Richard. "Reading Models: Embedded Narrative and Ideology in La goutte d'or." Modern Language Studies XXI, No. 3 (Summer 1991): 65-75.

Focuses on the narrative techniques in La goutte d'or, examining the ways in which they influence the development of the protagonist and affect the novel's ideological and pedagogical content.

Strauss, Walter A. "Tournier's Quest for Sophia." In Literature as Philosophy, Philosophy as Literature, edited by Donald G. Marshall, pp. 306-16. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.

Lauds Tournier's depiction of the pursuit of wisdom in his novels.

Worton, Michael J. "Myth-Reference in Le Roi des aulnes." Stanford French Review VI, Nos. 2-3 (Fall-Winter 1982): 299-310.

Examines the function of myth in Tournier's Le Roi des aulnes.

――――――. "Use and Abuse of Metaphor in Tournier's Le Vol du Vampire." Paragraph 10 (October 1987): 13-28.

Examines the function of the vampire metaphor as it relates to the text-reader relationship in Tournier's fiction.

York, R. A. "Thematic Construction in Le Roi des aulnes." Orbis Litterarum 36, No. 1 (1981): 76-91.

Focuses on the thematic progression of obsession, possessiveness, service, sacrifice, and apocalyptic triumph in Le Roi des aulnes.

John Updike (essay date 10 July 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Robbe-Grillet and his nouveau roman suddenly seemed just another idea, and a superficial one at that, producing novels as depthless as movies but on a much smaller screen; simultaneously, it began to appear that Francoise Sagan was not quite another Colette. Though the French literary industry has kept humming away, pining prizes on itself and generating fodder for the wildly popular book chat show "Apostrophes," the reverberations carry but feebly across the Atlantic. Perhaps, having so heavily imported the ideas of Braudel and Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, we have no spare change for the light goods of fiction. It is symptomatic of a depressed market, in any case, that Michel Tournier, arguably France's foremost living novelist ("France has produced no novelist of real importance in twenty years, except Michel Tournier," quoth Raymond Sokolov in the Wall Street Journal), has come to be published so marginally here. The English version of his autobiography, The Wind Spirit, has been brought out by Boston's little Unitarian publishing house, Beacon Press (translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer), and Grove Press has performed a very skittish dance with Alan Sheridan's English translation of a 1983 novella, Gilles & Jeanne, which appeared in England in 1987: Grove sent bound galleys to prospective American reviewers, then cancelled publication, on the ground that the translation was riddled with errors, and now announces that a revised text will be issued in 1990. Quelle tournure!

The Wind Spirit, prettily printed, and jacketed with a nineteenth-century German painting of a little shepherd lying on a dune stargazing, would be a good book for the stranger to Tournier to start with. In six lively, digressive, aphoristic chapters, the author presents his life mostly in terms of his opinions and inspirations; only in the first chapter, which sketches his origins and childhood, do biographical facts dominate. This chapter is titled "Born Under a Lucky Star," Mr. Goldhammer's rendition of "L'Enfant Coiffé"; he explains that coiffé means to be born with a caul, a piece of luck equivalent to being born with a silver spoon in one's mouth, and that the word ties into the epigraph, by Saint-John Perse, which runs, "When you stop grooming me / I'll stop hating you." Throughout, the translator has added explanatory footnotes to the footnotes provided by Tournier, intensifying the somewhat stern pedagogic atmosphere of The Wind Spirit. It appeared in France in 1977, when Tournier was fifty-three years old. The curious but widespread autobiographical impulse in men still enjoying middle age possibly stems from a desire to set the record straight before senility muddles it, and a hope of lightening the ballast for the homeward leg of life's voyage.

Tournier was born in 1924 in Paris, in the comfortable upper reaches of the bourgeoisie. His father was "the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie. His father was "the founder and director of something called the BIEM," the Bureau International des Éditions Musico-Mécaniques, which "orchestrated the complexities of rights and contracts pertaining to recorded music sold outside the right-holder's country of origin." The business was lucrative and complex, involving branches in many countries and feeding with many spare records a small boy's phonograph. Well-off, immersed in music, and further blessed with "an old-fashioned apothecary" for a grandfather, in the friendly village of Bligny-sur-Ouche, the little boy gathered a surprisingly grim impression of life:

Stripped from his mother's womb like a fox cub from its lair, the child finds tenuous and temporary shelter in his mother's arms, nourished by capricious and parsimonious breasts. Subsequently he must abandon this refuge as well, after which he will be allowed only a few minutes a day in that last haven, his mother's bed, a vast ship, white and shadowy, in which for the briefest of intervals his body again clings to the body from which it sprang. Then comes the final expulsion. Grown "too big," the child can no longer "decently" lie in its parents' bed. There-upon begins a long trek across a vast and terrifying desert.

At the age of four, Michel was "an extremely nervous child, subject to convulsions, hypersensitive, and perpetually ill." One morning, two white-coated strangers burst into his room and pulled out his tonsils, a bloody deed he has never forgiven: "During the last war prepubescent girls were raped by soldiers. I maintain that they were less traumatized than I was by having my throat slit at the age of four." The doctor became "the only man in the world whom I have ever hated without reservation, because he did me incalculable harm, having branded my heart at the most tender age with an incurable distrust of my fellow human beings, even those nearest and dearest to me." By the age of six, Michel had become "a child with an enormous head upon a sparrowlike body, and I neither slept nor ate." Nor was his physical frailty made up in mental brilliance: "I was an execrable student, and rarely did I finish a school year in the same institution in which I began … I read little and late." And yet at some point in his resisted education he took a shine to the rarefied "Monadology" of Leibniz and to Anselm's ontological proof of God's existence: "From earliest childhood I had a yen for the constructs of the mind, for subtle proofs, for a rare and technical vocabulary."

The other unusual yen in Tournier's developing mind was his Germanistik, a fascination with German culture inherited from both parents: "My father and mother met at the Sorbonne when he was studying for a doctorate in German and she for a master's." His father's qualifying exam had been scheduled for August, 1914, and he went to war against the Germans instead, incurring serious facial wounds. But Tournier's mother—whose uncle, a priest, taught German—"kept faith with her family tradition, and we grew up with one foot in Germany." As a child, Tournier went on Black Forest vacations with his family. As an adolescent, he improved his German while living with twenty-two German soldiers in his parents' occupied house in Saint-Germain—"I will never forget the smell of the Wehrmacht, a compound of tobacco and boot polish. For me this was the fragrance of happiness." As a young postgraduate student, he studied for four years (1946–50) at the University of Tübingen, in the French Occupied Zone of what is now West Germany. At the age of twenty, he translated Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and did not scruple to improve passages of it. Remarque, meeting him, said, "This is the first time that I have been able to converse in my own language with any of my translators. The others … spoke German as though it were a dead language, like Latin or Greek." Tournier's enthusiasm for things German is, of course, the animating passion behind his best-known novel, The Ogre (1970), which tells the tale of a French automobile mechanic who finds fulfillment and doom as a German prisoner of war in East Prussia. In his own persona Tournier can seem an alarmingly fervid Germanophile:

Dream a little: had there been no Nazi madness, no war and no defeat, Germany and its outposts in Vienna, Zurich, and Prague would have formed an economic and cultural unit comparable in power and influence to France in the seventeenth or England in the nineteenth century. With the barbarians of the East and West held at bay, the world would have continued to be European, and it would have been German…. Because the Americans had won the war, it was their language that one had to speak to become a hotel porter or an airline pilot. But we were not really cheated, for the twentieth century was still built upon a German foundation, or at any rate upon works written in the German language…. There are few places where one can scratch the earth without coming upon the soil of old Germany…. "Old Germany, mother of us all!"

One could almost resent being called a barbarian while the perpetrators of Buchenwald are so lovingly extolled.

Tournier's chapter on The Ogre is the second and longest, and in the four remaining chapters he discusses his early professional years as translator and radio broadcaster; his growing determination to write apparently naturalistic stories that "would secretly be set in motion by ontology and logic"; his belief that humor and celebration are essential to literature; his first published novel, Friday (1967), "into which I hoped to pour the essence of what I had learned while employed at the Musée de l'Homme, especially under the tutelage of Claude Lévi-Strauss"; his novel Les Météores (1975; translated into English as Gemini), a tangled tale "inspired by a fascination with the super-flesh of twins" and crowned by the formula "twinship untwinned = ubiquity"; and the topic of wisdom itself. These connected autobiographical essays are brilliant and possibly wise, though a certain dark and teasingly perverse streak beclouds the even illumination we expect from wisdom. We cannot ignore the saturnine personality projecting itself in such epithets as "that whining female monster, the crowd," such epigrams as "ontology when tossed into the crucible of fiction undergoes a partial metamorphosis into scatology," and such assertions as the one that circumcision keratinizes the glans and makes fellatio "so laborious that it loses all its charm."

Like Pangloss and Candide, Tournier ends up cultivating his garden, which he describes in grand terms:

Every summer morning, as I toast my bread and steep my tea by an open window through which I can smell the grass and hear the wind in the linden branches, I suddenly become aware that time has been compressed, that space has shrunk to those few square feet enclosed by a stone wall, and that a single living thing—my garden—flourishes in the exorbitant immobility of the absolute…. The present lingers on eternally in a divine improvidence and amnesia.

There is no chasing all the hares that Tournier's energetic mind starts during the survey of his personal garden. His theories have a glittering laciness alongside which any actual creative production must look coarsely woven. He works slowly, he tells us, devoting four or more years to a book, and lets the work in progress send him upon mysterious errands of research. "The writer who labors on a book for four years becomes that book and assimilates all its alien elements, which add up to a structure far more impressive, vast, complex, and learned than their author…. The work produces itself and the author is only its byproduct." The author and his work exist within a matrix of large and ancient forces: "Man is nothing but a mythical animal. He becomes man—he acquires a human being's sexuality and heart and imagination—only by virtue of the murmur of stories and kaleidoscope of images that surround him in the cradle and accompany him all the way to the grave…. That being the case, it becomes easy to describe the social—one might even say biological—function of the creative artist. The artist's ambition is to add to or at any rate modify the 'murmur' of myth that surrounds the child, the pool of images in which his contemporaries move—in short, the oxygen of the soul."

After formulations so spacious and humane, the actual work risks seeming minor. A glance at Tournier's recent fiction does suggest the limits of determined mythicization, of ontology and logic as prime aesthetic movers. Gilles & Jeanne sets itself to construct a connection between the two apparently diverse aspects of Gilles de Rais's fame: as the devoted comrade-in-arms and royally appointed protector of the saintly Joan of Arc, and as the Black Mass orgiast and sodomizing slaughterer of children whom legend has transmuted into Bluebeard, slaughterer of wives. A premise of structuralist thought is that opposites (black-white, good-bad, up-down) share the identity of the conceptual structure that holds them and hence are basically aspects of the same thing. It is, for the adroit and learned Tournier, a matter of little more than a hundred pages to demonstrate that Gilles, possessed by the vision of simple goodness embodied in Joan and revolted by her body's horrible end at the stake in Rouen, logically seeks her and the absolute in satanism. As Joan, burning at the stake for witchcraft, cries out "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!," so Gilles, burning for sorcery nine years later, calls out, "Jeanne! Jeanne! Jeanne!"

This stylized equation—Jeanne / Jesus = Gilles / Jeanne—forms the bare bones of the novel. What is its meat? The era and its cosmology offer many convenient ambiguities: Joan's voices might be angels or devils, Satan is "the image of God," a town square contains "a statue that was in such a sorry state that it would have been difficult to tell whether it was a Virgin or a Venus," alchemical experiments are conducted on "the fundamental ambiguity of fire, which is both life and death, purity and passion, sanctity and damnation." The book's alchemist, the Tuscan abbé Francesco Prelati (a historical figure, de Rais's assistant in his diabolical dabblings), construes his master's psychology in terms of "inversions." Prelati testifies to the court that a "malign inversion" occurred when Joan was captured and condemned, and then a satanist antidote: "To drive the Sire de Rais to the blackest edge of wickedness, then, by the igneous operation, to subject him to a benign inversion, like the one that transmutes ignoble lead into gold. He was becoming a saint of life!" Prelati's fancy thinking and talking rather sap Gilles and Jeanne's tale of human interest. The little novel becomes, atrocious as the facts behind it are, bloodless, with nothing in its arch paradoxes as visceral and memorable as Lucifer's blunt pentameters in Paradise Lost:

      So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,       Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;       Evil be thou my Good.

Along with Milton's epic of elected sin, the English language holds a play, Shaw's Saint Joan, that juggles ideas at the fifteenth-century crossroads with an impudent facility that makes Tournier seem relatively hard breathing. Shaw's drama includes, amid its abundance of historical sidelights, a small part for Gilles de Rais, whom he calls Bluebeard and decorates to suit the name. He characterizes him thus: "Gilles de Rais, a young man of 25, very smart and self-possessed, and sporting the extravagance of a little curled beard dyed blue at a clean-shaven court, comes in. He is determined to make himself agreeable, but lacks natural joyousness, and is not really pleasant." The mild suggestion, regarding this legendary sadist, that he lacked "natural joyousness" brings us closer to the mass murderer than Tournier's schematic religious pathology. But as a cultural critic the French author can be dazzling. Here, for instance, is what perspective in drawing and painting meant to a French priest travelling for the first time in Italy:

It seemed to him that the flat, edifying, worthy image of his pious childhood was suddenly exploding under the impetus of some magic force, was being undermined, distorted, thrown beyond its own limits, as if possessed by some evil spirit. When he stood in front of certain frescoes or pored over certain engravings, he thought he could see opening up in front of his eyes a vertiginous depth that was sucking him in, an imaginary abyss into which he felt a terrifying temptation to dive, headfirst.

Our modern abyss, as experienced by another unfortified sensibility, is the subject of Tournier's The Golden Droplet (translated from the French by Barbara Wright). Published in France two years later than Gilles & Jeanne, it tells of Idris, a fifteen-year-old Berber dwelling in the Algerian oasis of Tabelbala, who is one day suddenly photographed by a scantily dressed blonde who leaps out of a desert-cruising Land Rover. In pursuit of the photograph, Idris travels to Paris. If psychological structuralism shaped Gilles & Jeanne, semiology is the name of the game here. On all sides Idris is confronted by images and signs—which are not, it develops, the same thing. Images—"the opium of the Occident"—bind us to the world, and signs release us from it:

These Moslem adolescents, submerged in the big occidental city, were subjected to all the assaults of the effigy, the idol, and the figure. Three words to designate the same servitude. The effigy is a door bolt, the idol a prison, the figure a lock. Only one key can remove these chains: the sign…. The sign is spirit, the image is matter. Calligraphy is the algebra of the soul craved by the most spiritualized organ of the body, its right hand. It is the celebration of the invisible by the visible. The arabesque manifests the presence of the desert in the mosque. Through the arabesque, the infinite is deployed in the finite. For the desert is pure space, freed from the vicissitudes of time. It is God without man.

Calligraphy lessons form the happy ending of The Golden Droplet: the child of the desert, lost in the evil land of images, of cinema and advertising and hair dyed blond, reclaims his semiotic heritage of pure emptiness. A complicated fable of the "Blond Queen," whereby a bewitching human portrait is reduced to a salutary pattern of calligraphed quotations, cinches the moral, which would seem to be that words are better than things.

The Golden Droplet has a denser texture than Gilles & Jeanne: the oasis, the trip north through progressively larger and more Westernized cities to Oran, the boat trip to Marseilles, the African quarter of Marseilles, and then the Maghrebi worker environment in Paris are all conscientiously presented. So conscientiously, indeed, that each chapter feels like a discrete essay. In a postscript the author acknowledges his many sources, from Dominique Champault's study Tabelbala—"a model of what the ethnological monograph should be"—to Hassan Massoudy, the author of Calligraphie Arabe Vivante and a "master calligrapher … who enabled me to approach a traditional art whose beauty is indistinguishable from truth and wisdom." It is edifying and pleasing, of course, to be guided by Tournier from one oasis of research to the next, and to view, on our tour, sights that range from a traditional Berber wedding, complete with "a troupe of dancers and musicians from the High Atlas Mountains," to the grisly, exotic insides of a Parisian sex shop, peepshow, pinball palace, mannequin factory, and abattoir. As so often on an educational tour, though, the sights pile up but do not accumulate into an adventure. Idris, our Berber Candide, remains innocent and blank throughout—himself a mere sign, with a significance special to France, where a long involvement with North Africa and a large immigrant population of North Africans form a hot, recurrent issue. Like William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner, Tournier's book is a bold attempt to empathize with an underclass, but it is carried out (unlike Styron's) behind an impervious screen of intellectual play.

There are, in the stretches of description and sociology, few events in the sense of happenings that invite suspense and pose an outcome that can grieve or gratify us—few moments when the narrative acquires a mind of its own. In one of them, Idris's nomad friend Ibrahim abruptly falls into an old well, which collapses and buries him alive: this sudden nonacademic development startles us, and breaks Idris's last emotional link with his desert life. In another, Idris, having fallen under the spell of the filmmaking magus Achille Mage, is stuck with a camel used in a television commercial for a beverage called Palm Grove, and wanders Paris with the signal creature. In the fashionable districts, people pretend not to see him; only the lower classes allow themselves to express curiosity—"Once again, as the tissue of social relationships became less compact, the camel had become visible." The animal finally, to the reader's considerable relief, finds a haven in the zoo, a collection of living emblems, where it is greeted by a female of its species ("Their morose, disdainful heads met very high up in the sky, and their big, pendulous lips touched") and is outfitted for children's rides by "adolescents dressed as Turks." In general, however, even mild emotional involvement is forestalled by the bristle of forked signifiers, and Tournier's pageant of incidents seems not so much a novel as a cunningly wrought image of one—calligraphy aping portraiture aping appearances.

These books made out of other books—are they what the future holds? To "read up" on an area of geography or history and then be clever and cool about it—is this all the postmodern novelist can do? Italo Calvino managed to include something of himself in the intricate package, a self that in his last novel, Mr. Palomar, became poignant, almost pleading. But of Michel Tournier, or of Patrick Süskind, the author of the much admired Perfume, or of Julian Barnes, the concocter of such elegancies as Flaubert's Parrot and Staring at the Sun, we can guess a little but have, as it were, nothing. Joyce and Mann did their research also, but left a palpable weight of personal impulse if not confession in their constructions, whether as elaborate as Finnegans Wake or as limpid and light as Royal Highness. Their fictions have a presence and voice that are humbly human; their books give off the warmth of a proximate body. To be fair, Tournier did show warmth in such earlier novels as Friday, his anticolonialist gloss on the Robinson Crusoe story, and The Ogre, generally considered his masterpiece and hailed in these pages by L. E. Sissman, in 1972, as "quite simply, a great novel." The Ogre is a thick outpouring of arcane facts and involved feelings, a complex but sensual fable of loneliness and desire and perception which seems, as Roland Barthes said of classic literature, "replete"—a book saturated in its own completely fulfilled tendencies. Like Gilles & Jeanne, it is concerned with inversion and pedophilia; like The Golden Droplet, it equates purity with nothingness and points out that "the human soul is made of paper." Unlike both these flimsy fictions, it compels interest and arouses dread and pity. But how much of its engaging warmth, I wonder, derives from the entwinement of its intricate parable (a gloss of Goethe's poem "The ErlKing") with its fascinating facts about the Second World War? This war, at least for Europeans and North Americans, has become the century's central myth, a vast imaging of a primal time when good and evil contended for the planet, a tale of Troy whose angles are infinite and whose central figures never fail to amaze us with their size, their theatricality, their sweep. Göring's sybaritic hunting lodge in The Ogre, and the four hundred child-warriors martyred to Hitler's fanaticism, and the East Prussian mud that the Ogre treads belong to an epic we never weary of hearing. Tournier's peculiarly intense mental inhabitation of both France and Germany enabled his matter, for once, to make an equal contest with his mind. The trouble with the French love of pure thought is that thought must operate upon something—the world as it impurely exists, an apparently ill-thought-out congeries of contradictory indications and arbitrary facts. The novelist must be thoughtless, to some degree, in submitting to the world's facts: he must be naïve enough, as it were, to let the facts flow through him and unreflectingly quicken recognition and emotion in his readers. And this the French find difficult to do.

Michael Sheringham (essay date 11-17 August 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, instruction and initiation—which he calls "clefs binaires". In The Wind Spirit, an intellectual autobiography originally published as Le Vent paraclet …, Tournier applies some of these keys to himself.

The account of his childhood is dominated by meditation on a quality it for the most part lacked, the sense of initiation which, since the Enlightenment, has been progressively banished from education, along with physical contact and any sense of ritual. Metaphysics, into which he was initiated by an inspiring prof de philo, opened up vistas he has ardently surveyed ever since; philosophical systems, those of Spinoza, Leibniz, Sartre, have long held more interest for him than the "comic-strip" efforts of most littérateurs. Tournier was slow to find his métier as a novelist, but when he did, after a spell in post-war Germany that fuelled his enthusiasm for its cultural heritage, his ambition was to blend the abstract harmonies of the metaphysical systems he so admired with the forward thrust and dynamism of the pre-modernist novel. The basis of this alliance would be myths, those fundamental stories amid whose murmurs we spend our lives. The novelist's task, Tournier decided, was to contribute to this mythological "bruissement", and much of The Wind Spirit is concerned with the ways he has set about it: rewriting Robinson Crusoe as a fable about identity; fusing the most abstruse details about the Third Reich with a welter of public and private myths in Le Roi des Aulnes; combining lore culled from psychology, meteorology, sexual pathology, and the socio-politics of waste-disposal in such a way as to make Les Météores a novel about fate and destiny, heredity and environment, knowledge and reality.

All this makes excellent reading and stands up well in an able translation, though British readers may be taken aback by some of the Americanisms, for example the description of Hitler as "the man with the bangs [for "la mèche"] and the little mustache," or the choice of "the SOB's" for Sartre's "les salauds". Like one of his own characters Tournier is flamboyantly opinionated, proudly eccentric and doughtily at odds with the orthodoxies of his society; what is more, this theorist of "le rire blanc", a metaphysical laughter he identifies in the noblest products of the human spirit, writes with an amusing verve which sometimes verges on facetiousness. But where the novels are ironically multi-layered, and refuse to privilege a single narrative voice, The Wind Spirit brashly lays down the law, pinioning fictional incident to anecdotal antecedent, blurring the distinction between the thematic obsessions of the writer and the hobby-horses of the man in the street. Oddly, though, the overall effect is less reductive than one might expect. If Tournier's readers and critics cannot sidestep this authorized version, its whole tone and manner encourage one to question many of its more dogmatic assertions.

Accordingly, throughout his fresh and stimulating study of Tournier's novels [Michel Tournier: Philosophy and Fiction, 1989] Colin Davis argues that they are less reassuringly traditional than the author of The Wind Spirit tends to imply. Furthermore, it is from the tension between a traditional metaphysics and a generally unacknowledged sympathy for a post-Nietzschean acceptance of fragmentation, difference and the lack of absolute truths, that Tournier's fictions derive much of their energy. Each major novel features a protagonist who tries to impose coherence on his world, creating "self-legitimating spirals of interpretation which seek to exclude the human possibility of doubt". In Le Roi des Aulnes Tiffauges's seductively cranky delusions thrive on the hermeneutic zeal with which he greets each day's fresh crop of signs. By imposing a grid on what he sees, Tournier's mild-mannered ogre, gluttonous for meaning, blinds himself to what is really happening. His complicity with the terrible violence of the Nazi regime, which surprises and engulfs him at the end, stems from his unshakeable belief in an absolute order revealed by symbols. Davis justly sees the novel as a cautionary allegory of interpretation. This does tend, however, to reduce its scale and to play down the text's moral ambiguity and its post-modern (intertextual scrambling of fact and fiction) as against its modernist aspects.

In an amusing passage in The Wind Spirit Tournier wryly alludes to "the danger of letting loose flamboyant homosexual geniuses in novels". Like Vautrin and Charlus, Alexandre in Les Météores slipped the author's leash and took on an unanticipated importance. Appropriately, Davis devotes considerable attention to this "gay deconstructor" whose caustic strictures on heterosexuality, gender roles, and indeed any fixity in the sphere of identity, constitute a disruptive force in the novel, albeit one which is repeatedly subject to containment, as more traditional ideas, regarding women for instance, reassert themselves.

Since Les Météores (1975) Tournier has largely abandoned the full-scale novel for other forms. In treating this period thematically, concentrating on Tournier's attitudes to meaning, language and art, Davis somewhat exaggerates the novelist's concern for purely philosophical questions. The chapter on "Art and Truth" works best, no doubt because the metaphysics of vision, and the visual arts generally, have come to play a commanding role in Tournier's fiction. These concerns dominated his last novel, La Goutte d'or, where the pure sign, associated with Islamic calligraphy, was set against the imaginary plentitude with which the Christian, and now the commercialized, West has invested its images. And they are also prominent in Le Tabor et le Sinaï (the Biblical mountains reproducing the same opposition), a collection of brief texts on contemporary artists, written mainly for exhibition catalogues, where we can see Tournier elaborating ideas he will use in his fiction.

In a very different vein from Davis, Françoise Merllié's Michel Tournier provides an up-to-date, enthusiastic, not to say hagiographic, presentation of the novelist's accomplishments. A lengthy essay, which lays the pop psychoanalysis on a bit thick but ranges fluently across the canon, is followed by copious bibliographical and biographical supplements, and by a concluding essay on Tournier's conception of "le métier d'écrivain". It is interesting to learn that President Mitterrand now pays Tournier an annual visit, usually in August.

Tournier's latest fictional work, Le Médianoche amoureux, is a collection of "contes et nouvelles". The distinction is important. A few years ago, in an essay on Perrault's "Barbe-bleu", Tournier situated the conte half-way between the opaque realism of the short story, which resists the liberating quality of philosophical speculation, and the crystalline transparency of the fable, which allows ideas a ready, and thus altogether hollow, triumph. In the best stories of Le Coq de bruyère (1978), an earlier collection, Tournier scored some notable successes in this mode. By comparison the new book, while containing much to admire, succeeds less well. One explanation is perhaps an excess of self-consciousness on the part of one whose self-image as a writer has come to be that of a conteur. In Le Médianoche amoureux the ethos of the conte actually becomes a protagonist in a narrative which frames the very diverse stories in the book.

Yves and Nadège are an unhappy couple: they don't talk any more. Having made up their minds to separate they lay on a great feast at which they plan to announce the sad news to their friends. But in the course of this "médianoche" each of the friends, as in the Decameron, tells a story, and it is these stories which make up the book. Some are nouvelles and these, we are told, aggravate the couple's discord. But some are contes and these prove so therapeutic that they are reunited.

It is easier to credit the divisive quality of the former than the epithalamic properties of the latter. States of affective isolation and the sometimes bizarre and inventive ways in which the solitary individual seeks to break out of them, have long been a dominant theme of Tournier's and The Wind Spirit had some profound reflections on the curse of solitude. The nouvelles in Le Médianoche are monopolized by the voices of first-person narrators whose own solitude is often reflected in the stories they tell. One story features a consmopolitan business man who revisits his childhood village on impulse and, after catching up with the (usually dreadful) news of his contemporaries from an old school buddy, botches an attempt to buy a house in the neighbourhood. Two stories involve people who devote their entire lives to complicated and rather pathetic acts of vengeance. Another is about a teacher whose own memory of childhood trauma helps her to understand children's needs, but who loses this gift when circumstances force her to undergo psychotherapy: restored to psychic "health" she becomes "une femme sans ombre".

If the symbolic realm is in bad shape in the nouvelles, the contes amply make up the deficit; here vengeance is sumptuous, commemoration—a central theme of the book—is enriching, colours and shadows abound. What is more, where the nouvelles, in spite of the fulsome tones Tournier lends most of his narrators, have the authentic thinness of the fait divers, the contes are enhanced by the stereophonic effects provided by intertextuality. "Angus" rewrites an episode from Hugo's La Légende des siècles; "Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit" (originally published as a children's book) explores the narrative potential (such as it is) of the words to "Au clair de la lune"; "Les deux banquets ou la commémoration", like the two very fine contes interpolated in La Goutte d'or, is pure Arabian Nights.

Glad as one is to see Nadège and Yves reunited, it is hard not to have some reservations about these rather whimsical performances. In the days of The Wind Spirit Tournier used to extol the virtues of myths: "stories everyone knows". The message now, it seems, is that stories tout court can restore us to the amniotic environment from which we are severed by our solitary lives. This is certainly worth thinking about, but it would be worrying to feel that henceforth the main concern of this often controversial writer is to do us good. Perhaps it is a sign of decadence to crave provocation, but Tournier has in the past ensured that we expect nothing less of him.

Susan Petit (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 accepted enthusiastically both his adult and his children's fiction: his novels always make the best-seller lists, and Vendredi ou la vie sauvage (Friday and Robinson: Life on Speranza Island), a short version of Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique, seems to have become a staple in French elementary schools. Although success has been slower to come in America, ever since Roger Shattuck called Tournier "the most exciting novelist now writing in French" ["Why Not the Best?" The New York Review of Books, April, 1983], American critics have begun to give Tournier's adult works the attention they deserve. However, his children's fiction is still largely neglected by American and French critics, mirroring the initial difficulty Tournier had publishing it in France, a problem he attributes to conservatism on the part of children's editors. Now, however, his juvenile works have sold so well that Gallimard publishes them in several formats, including tape cassettes on which Tournier himself reads the stories.

Despite the greater acclaim his adult fiction has received, Tournier's fiction for children is no sideline. The greatest literature, he contends, is that which both children and adults can enjoy; therefore, he refuses to divide his work into adult and juvenile fiction. When he is "tired, lazy, not visited by the Holy Spirit, [he writes] books which unfortunately only adults can read" [Sandra Joxe, "Michel Tournier: 'Je Suis un Monstre qui a réussi,'" Autre Journal, November, 1985], but when he is inspired, he writes books accessible to all. Given Tournier's desire to write such fiction, it is perhaps not surprising that he says he "would exchange all [his] other work" for a short tale he first published in 1979, Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit (Pierrot, or The Secrets of the Night), which he says is "the best thing [he has] ever written" ["Writing for Children Is No Child's Play," UNESCO Courier, June, 1982]. Although much of his juvenile fiction is based on his adult novels, he wrote this brief story in a very accessible form to begin with, and though it contains his essential moral and philosophical ideas, it can be understood even by very young children.

Tournier writes to promote his ideas, many of which are unconventional enough to have provoked a few critics into calling certain of his books subversive [Robert Poulet, "Michel Tournier, romancier hors série," Ecrits de Paris, September, 1975], obscene [Robert Kanters, "Creux et plein d'ordures," Figaro Littéraire, April 5, 1975], and even fascistic [Saul Friedländer, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, 1984]. His children's fiction, having more overt "commitment to particular values" than his adult works, has encountered less resistance, but Tournier has told me that conservative magazines regularly accuse him of "perverting" youth because he writes about children doing things society disapproves of. For example, in "La Fugue du petit Poucet" ("Tom Thumb Runs Away") a little boy drinks, smokes marijuana, and shares a bed with some little girls. Tournier added, "I never said that I recommended doing that. But I talk about it. And one doesn't have a right to do that in children's literature" [Petit adds in an endnote that "these and all other undocumented statements by Tournier come from an unpublished interview he gave me on July 11, 1987"]. More important than such criticism is the difficulty Tournier has had in finding a publisher outside of France for his children's fiction. The Fetishist (the translation of Le Coq de bruyère) includes six of Tournier's children's stories, and this journal published Pierrot, or The Secrets of the Night. But Friday and Robinson is the only one of Tournier's books for children published in English in a juvenile format, and it did not sell well in America, despite its great success in France. Tournier says his children's books have not found a market abroad partly because each country imposes its own type of conformity on children's literature (the United States insisting on a "Walt Disney conformity"), whereas publishers everywhere welcome nonconformist adult fiction.

Tournier's fiction for children is far from conformist. As he explained in Le Vent paraclet (The Wind Spirit: An Autobiography), when he gave up preparing for a career as a professional philosopher, he turned to literature as a substitute, wanting to write stories "set in motion by ontology and logic." Because Tournier is interested in ethics, his fiction shows how one should live; because he loves metaphysics, his fiction explores the ultimate nature of life. A major ethical concern for him is always sexuality, which he believes should include all sensual aspects of life—except perhaps genital sexuality itself, which usually leads to disaster in his fiction. He says that we must "escape from the sinister alternative of procreation-abortion" by "inventing new erotic paths, cerebral, no longer genital but genial" ["Lewis Carroll au pays des petites Filles," Point, January, 1976]. This view explains his criticism of the Freudian theory that sexuality underlies physical attachment to the mother: Tournier believes the opposite, that love "prepares the way for sexuality" (Wind) and that something is deeply wrong with Western society because it is anti-sensual, "without smell, without taste, without physical contact" [Guitta Pessis Pasternak, "Tournier le sensuel," Monde, August, 1984]. As to the metaphysical, it is virtually fused to the physical in his thinking, for since his childhood he has found in both religion and metaphysics "concrete speculation inextricably intertwined with powerful and brilliant imagery" (Wind). The imagery of Christianity remains powerful for him, but he has come to believe that true Christianity must center on the Holy Spirit, representing divine inspiration, rather than Christ, whom Tournier associates with suffering and death.

In his juvenile as well as his adult fiction, Tournier develops unconventional ideas through traditional fictional forms. Whereas most modern children's fiction in France is realistic, Tournier's stories take their inspiration from fairy tales and myths, the form used by Charles Perrault in his Contes de ma mère l'oie. Even when Tournier modernizes, localizes, and rationalizes fairy-tale elements, he imitates Perrault. And like characters in fairy tales and myths—but unlike the protagonists of most children's literature—Tournier's main characters are not necessarily children, nor do they generally confront "realistic" problems of everyday modern life. Instead, his young protagonists often find themselves at the threshold of maturity, coping with archetypal problems. Tournier uses the fairytale form because he believes children should be initiated into adulthood through a "moral, emotional, indeed magical" education using techniques of myth that appeal to a child's "heart and sensibility" rather than through modern formal education, which he says aims merely at providing a child with information (Wind). Through his fiction for children, Tournier hopes to initiate them into his view of the world by awakening their sensibilities with concrete symbols.

To understand Tournier's approach one must know how myths and fairy tales work for children. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the heroes of myth help develop a child's superego, whereas the ordinary, unheroic people in fairy tales help children find full ego integration [Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, 1976]. The characters in Tournier's children's fiction fulfill both functions, falling somewhere between the anonymous fairy-tale figures whom Bettelheim calls "people very much like us" and the "obviously superhuman" heroes of myth, but the characters in Pierrot are most like those in fairy tales in their quest for ego integration. Bettelheim insists that the message of a fairy tale will not be effective unless the child receives it unconsciously, and Tournier conceives the tale similarly; he believes that it should neither reflect everyday life in a realistic way nor provide too explicit a moral, comparing the tale to a "translucent medium … in which the reader sees figures appear which he can never entirely comprehend," a story with a meaning "which touches and enriches us but does not enlighten us" ["Barbe-Bleue ou le secret du conte," in Le vol du vampire]. Despite these warnings that we should not try to understand everything, Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit gives an excellent picture of what Tournier wants children to feel.

All the key elements of his children's fiction—strong plot, simple characters, whimsical humor, psychological complexity, and a religious theme—are present in this short tale. Like nearly all of Tournier's fiction, it has a literary ancestor: the first stanza of a song all French children know, "Au clair de la lune," in which Harlequin (Arlequin in French) asks to borrow Pierrot's pen in the middle of the night, saying that his candle is dead and his fire has gone out. Once Tournier realized that Harlequin and Pierrot both came from the Italian commedia dell' arte, he could develop the song into a narrative by adding a third character from the same source, Columbine, to create a "perfect adventure-story, with a powerful metaphysical foundation" ("Writing").

Tournier's characteristic whimsy leavens a simple plot. Pierrot and Columbine, a baker and a laundress, have grown up together in the Breton town of Powdersnap (Pouldreuzic). Everyone expects that they will marry, but their occupations keep them apart, for Pierrot works at night to have bread ready in the morning, and Columbine does her washing in the day to bleach and dry it in the sun. These different actions reflect different attitudes to life, for Columbine fears the basement where Pierrot bakes bread and the night when he works. She loves the sun, but he loves the moon, and he can express his emotions only at night, when he walks about the sleeping town while his dough rises, becoming the "watchman of the village, the guardian of Columbine." In the course of the story, Columbine runs away with Harlequin, an itinerant house-painter; then, when winter comes and their love fades, she returns to Pierrot. To celebrate her return, he shapes some of his brioche dough into Columbine's form, and at the story's end the reunited pair share the freshly baked loaf with Harlequin, who has returned to Powdersnap searching for Columbine. Near the end of the story, Harlequin sings "Au clair de la lune" at Pierrot's door.

Like a fairy tale or myth, the story lends itself to a number of symbolic readings. If it is read as a psychological parable designed to help children integrate their personalities, Pierrot and Columbine can be seen as two parts of a single personality, a common pattern in fairy tales about two siblings, such as Hansel and Gretel [see Bettelheim; and Julius E. Heuscher, A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales: Their Origin, Meaning and Usefulness, 2nd. ed., 1974]. Although Pierrot and Columbine are not brother and sister, the closeness of their relationship is shown by the fact that they grew up together and wear similar floating white clothes. They represent complementary desires in the same personality: Columbine the desire for summer and light, joy and rationality, and Pierrot the desire for winter and night, peace and emotionality. Only when Columbine begins to realize that night is not black but blue and that Pierrot's oven glows with golden fire can she accept the Pierrot side of herself—the hidden, secret, emotional part.

If Columbine and Pierrot complement each other, Harlequin and Pierrot are opposites. Harlequin represents pleasure based on appearance (as suggested by his multicolored outfit which fades with exposure to the sun); Pierrot stands for inner qualities hidden by an unprepossessing appearance. Harlequin's housepainting merely covers the outside; Pierrot's baked goods comfort the inner self. Harlequin is a nomad; Pierrot is sedentary. Harlequin acts; Pierrot waits. Harlequin loves to speak; Pierrot expresses himself best in writing, particularly in letters to Columbine which he does not dare send. At the end, Pierrot apparently wins: when Harlequin asks for Pierrot's pen and eats Pierrot's bread, his requests imply the baker's superiority to the painter and the writer's superiority to the speaker. But the fact that Columbine becomes for a while a female Harlequin, a "Harlequinette," shows that the choice between the two is not absolute. By welcoming Harlequin into his bakery and gladly sharing the Columbine-loaf with him, Pierrot reconciles the seemingly irreconcilable. Life includes speech and writing, painting and baking, just as it includes Columbine's sunshine and Pierrot's moonlight. Similarly, although Columbine has returned to Pierrot, she does not reject Harlequin, for she invites him to share the bread shaped in her form.

Given this reconciliation, one can read all three characters, and not just Columbine and Pierrot, as representing complementary parts of the same personality. In a Freudian view the dutiful, serious Pierrot would represent the superego, the pleasure-loving Harlequin the id, and the changeable, immature, flighty Columbine the ego, perhaps an unstable adolescent one. Read this way, the story, like some fairy tales, shows a successful personality integration when Columbine, or the ego, symbolically reconciles the superego with the id by sharing the bread with both men.

More interesting, in a Jungian reading, the three figures again represent parts of an entire self, but Pierrot assumes the central role. Despite his association with night and the basement, he is called "the clear consciousness of the village" [in an endnote, Petit adds: "This is my translation of 'la conscience claire du village.' Margaret Higonnet translates conscience as the English 'conscience,' but I believe that the passage stresses Pierrot's awareness, or consciousness, rather than his moral values"] and may be taken as the conscious self, or ego, but one which is at first unaware of the other elements of the Jungian self, the shadow and the anima. In Jung's theory the shadow, a same-sex figure in the personal unconscious, carries the "dark aspects of the personality" and is represented here by Harlequin [see Carl G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, 2nd. ed., translated by R.F.C. Hull, 1970]. Representing the dark side of the self by a character associated with sunlight is the sort of inversion Tournier delights in, but this inversion goes further: he makes us see that Harlequin's day is dreary, if not actually dark, in contrast to Pierrot's night, which "shimmers with thousands and thousands of silvery scales" and "sparkles with stars," while the moon looks down like a smiling face. Pierrot's night is luminous; Harlequin's day is merely bright. As one would expect of a Jungian shadow, Harlequin is an inverted Pierrot, the contrast being mainly to Pierrot's advantage. Pierrot is repelled by the chemical colors in Harlequin's housepaints, which he says "are toxic, smell bad, and peel," unlike the gold of his own glowing oven and of his fresh-baked bread and the "living blue" of his night. In his role as Jungian shadow, vigorous, demanding, nomadic Harlequin incorporates all the repressed sides of shy, gentle, sedentary Pierrot, who would like to chase Columbine but does not dare. Significantly, Jung describes the shadow as having emotional qualities and thus an "obsessive or, better, possessive quality"—a description that fits Harlequin exactly.

In this same Jungian reading, Columbine is the anima, a projection of the female side of the self which Jung calls both "the solace for all the bitterness of life" and "the great illusionist, the seductress." The anima, a "spontaneous product of the unconscious" of a man, is personified as a woman and represents the "feminine element" in a man (Jung). (Jung says a woman has not an anima but an animus, which has a different though related function.) Unlike Harlequin, who represents a rejected, unconscious side of the self of which Pierrot is the conscious ego, Columbine embodies feminine elements which Pierrot admires and desires, even as he unconsciously projects them onto the anima. Like any anima, Columbine includes elements of mother, child, and lover. She shows her maternal side in feeding the men from the "soft gold of her neck"—really, that of the brioche-figure that represents her. She acts like a child when she returns, exhausted, to Powdersnap and falls asleep in the bakery. And, obviously, she is both the lover of Harlequin and the beloved of Pierrot.

The self is unified when consciousness, or Pierrot, inspired by the anima, feeds the shadow. Pierrot first has to accept Columbine, whom he welcomes as soon as she reappears at his bakery; this act represents accepting the anima by dissolving the projection that is its common form and recognizing it as a part of the self. Accepting Harlequin is harder, for, as Jung says, "no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort" because to do so means accepting the hidden side as "present and real"; nevertheless, accepting the shadow is essential to arriving at self-knowledge. Pierrot's suffering earlier in the story when he was abandoned has given him the strength to accept his shadow. So both Freudian and Jungian readings find psychological wholeness at the story's conclusion.

Related to the theme of psychological wholeness is the story's presentation of sexuality. Conventional sexuality helps motivate Columbine's flight with Harlequin, but Pierrot's sexuality is more mystical; he imagines the full moon as a woman revealing through the mist the roundness of "a cheek, a breast, or even better, a bottom." More symbolic is Pierrot's occupation as a baker; kneading bread is deeply sensual to Tournier, who says that in our antiseptic and deodorized society, of all shops "only the bakery still has smells" (Pasternak). In Tournier's first novel, Robinson Crusoe remembers that as a child he had been fascinated by a baker's boy kneading dough, "that headless body of warm and sensuous matter submitting to the plunging caresses of a half-naked man" (Friday; italics in original), and much the same equation applies to Pierrot, another mitron or baker's boy: his "hands would like to caress the sleeping girl, of course, but it is almost as much fun to pat and make a Columbine out of dough," and the finished bread has "her round cheeks, her pouterpigeon chest, and her cute little round bottom." This sort of sensual writing is unusual in children's fiction, but it could be a welcome "challenge [to] our conceptions of children's self-image" [Margaret R. Higonnert, "Marguerite Yourcenar and Michel Tournier: The Arts of the Heart," in Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature, edited by Francelia Butter and Richard Robert, 1986].

Still, as sensual as the writing is, it is not sexual in the usual sense. The three characters' happiness in sharing the just-backed bread surpasses any sexual pleasure Columbine and Harlequin could have found together, and the trio of friends has replaced the exclusive couple. Tournier calls Pierrot a "hymn to physical contact" (Pasternak), but it is contact in which "genial" sexuality (represented by the baker's craft shown in the Columbine-loaf) has replaced "genital" sexuality (the relations between Harlequin and Columbine). Readers may not prefer "genial" over "genital" sexuality, and some may even charge Tournier with "sidestepping" the issue of sexuality by presenting it so indirectly, but this theme is a constant in his fiction [see Joseph H. McMahon, "Michel Tournier's Texts for children," in Children's Literature 13, 1985].

Bread, however, is not only sensual; as Tournier's Crusoe also knows, it is "food of the soul, according to the Christian tradition" (Friday; italics in original); that is how Tournier can consider Pierrot "a treatise on ontology" as well as on "morality, and a lesson in loving" (Pasternak). Pierrot owes its "powerful metaphysical foundation" ("Writing") to being a "reflection on the idea of dough, of substance. Bread has a color, a softness, a smell: that's ontology" (Joxe). Like C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this story is a religious parable; it reflects Tournier's heterodox version of Christianity and suggests his ideal church, which he has called "sumptuous, subtle, and erotic" (Wind). To make the parable work, he uses the same device that he finds in Perrault's "Bluebeard": an "archetypal mechanism," a symbolism which the reader may not see consciously ("Barbe-Bleue"). Perrault uses Adam's fall in "Bluebeard," and Tournier uses the Last Supper in Pierrot.

As Jean-Bernard Vray has pointed out [in "L'Habit d'Arlequin," Sud, 1980], the Eucharist is suggested when Columbine says, "come taste, eat this good Columbine! Eat me!" The bread representing her body corresponds to the Host, the bread of the Last Supper which is Jesus' body (Matthew 26:26). Catholics consider the Host "an antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and preserved from deadly sin" ("Holy Communion"). Similarly, it is through sharing the Columbine-brioche that the three characters symbolize their reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. In this reading, Columbine stands for one of the three persons of the Trinity. She is not Christ, as one might expect from the fact that the bread represents (or is) her body; other elements in the story make it clear that she must be the Holy Spirit. The most obvious indication is her name: "everyone called her Columbine the White Dove"—colombe meaning "dove," the usual symbol for the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16).

To understand why Tournier associates communion with the Holy Spirit and to discover what Pierrot and Harlequin represent in this reading, we need to know Tournier's view of the Trinity, which he presents in greatest detail in Les Météores (Gemini). In that novel, the central theological argument is made by a heterodox Catholic priest called Thomas Koussek, whose ideas, Tournier says, he originally intended to make central to the book (Wind). Koussek insists that to be saved "Christ has to be superseded" by the Holy Spirit (italics in original). He describes Christ as having "died on the cross, mutilated and despairing," and concludes that a Christ-centered religion is necessarily a "religion of suffering, of agony and death"; by contrast, the true church will center on the Holy Spirit. Although Koussek identifies the Holy Spirit, quite orthodoxy, with a divine wind—the ruach mentioned in the Old Testament—he draws the heretical conclusion that Christ is unnecessary for salvation, and he decries the doctrine of Filioque, which assert that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. For Koussek, Christ's incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection serve primarily to provide a "certain depth of color, warmth, and grief" without which we would lack religious art, forbidden by the Mosaic law; they are otherwise not important.

Although one cannot always ascribe the views of a fictional character to the author, the working out of the plot of Les Météores justifies Koussek's theology, for Paul Surin, theoretically the book's main character, finds happiness through post-Christian revelation, whereas his uncle Alexandre, a much more interesting character, suffers because the Catholic beliefs he rebels against dominate and constrain him. Besides the evidence in Les Météores, it is clear that Tournier agrees at least in part with what Koussek says, for he has often attacked Catholicism in much the same way. Not only did he name his spiritual autobiography for the ruach when he called it Le Vent paraclet (literally, The Paraclete Wind), but he too wants to banish the crucifix from the church (Wind). He has said that a "morbid taste for suffering" fuels the cult of the crucifix [Des Clefs et des serrures], that Christ on the cross was "deserted by the Word" to the benefit of the Holy Spirit and the apostles (Clefs), and that Catholicism in France was "a false Church serving only the institution of bourgeois society" (Hueston).

Keeping in mind Tournier's conception of Christ, we see that the brightly dressed Harlequin, like Alexandre in Les Météores, provides the story's "color, warmth, and grief"—the qualities that Koussek associates with Christ (Gemini). Like Koussek's version of Christ, who figuratively brings "color" to the world, Harlequin literally brings colors. Not only does he repaint Columbine's house in bright tones, but the story says whimsically that colored linens have invaded the white goods market only since Harlequin inspired Columbine to be not just a laundress (in French, a blanchisseuse, literally a woman who bleaches), but a dyer also: Harlequin's romance with Columbine has brightened the whole world. And in token of the idea that Christianity abrogated Mosaic law and thus permitted representational art, a theme Tournier has treated most fully in Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar (The Four Wise Men), Harlequin paints a life-size portrait of Columbine on the facade of her building. If Harlequin, then, represents Christ, Pierrot represents God the Father. Not only does he give the town its daily bread, but his creating of a Columbine from dough imitates God's molding of Adam from clay, a theme Tournier has often returned to, most recently in his novel of the magi (Four Wise Men). Significantly, Pierrot and Columbine are present from the start, like God the Father and the Holy Spirit (in the form of the ruach) in the Old Testament; the absence of Harlequin implicitly denies Filioque, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father.

The importance of the Holy Spirit to Tournier's theology explains why the bread represents Columbine, who stands for the Holy Spirit, rather than Harlequin, the Christ figure. Tournier had previously suggested communion with the Holy Spirit in Le Roi des aulnes when Abel Tiffauges, a colombophile or pigeon fancier, believed that he fed "his soul through intimate communion" with three of his pigeons when he ate them (Ogre). Although that act is perverse—Tiffauges eats his beloved pigeons to satisfy the ogre side of his personality—it does anticipate Tiffagues's ultimate salvation, which is sealed in part by his eating a Seder with a Jewish refugee from Auschwitz. Another Seder, the Last Supper, is crucial to Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar. The main character, Taor, arrives late at the Last Supper, but he eats the crumbs and drinks the leftover wine, thus becoming the first communicant (Four Wise Men). Because angels carry him to heaven immediately thereafter, he is saved before (and therefore not by) Christ's death on the cross; it must be the Holy Spirit that has saved him. Tournier's association of communion with the Holy Spirit underscores the centrality of the Holy Spirit in his theology, just as Columbine's role as savior explains why she is a laundress: to Tournier, it is the Holy Spirit that washes away sins.

Pierrot ou les Secrets de la nuit seems simple, but its psychological and religious subtexts give it the depth of the best fairy tales. Tournier could have summarized it much as he did his story "Le Coq de bruyère" ("The Woodcock"): "A gentleman and a lady … fight, and reconcile, which makes children yawn with boredom. Me too, in fact. But I take the subject as a challenge" [Jean-Jacques Brochier, "Dix-huit questions à Michel Tournier," Magazine Littéraire, June, 1978]. Rising to this challenge in Pierrot, Tournier has written a story of psychic unification and non-genital sexuality. Also, by bringing together sensual and religious meanings in the communion scene, Tournier anticipated a major theme of Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, the relationship between food and Christianity. Pierrot represents a major stage in the development of Tournier's fiction, not only reflecting ideas from Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique, Le Roi des aulnes, and Les Météores but preparing for the concerns of Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar. It is also a major step in his stylistic development, for his subsequent fiction shows greater simplicity and limpidity and a reduction in authorial comment: Tournier increasingly lets plot, character, and symbol present his ideas. La Goutte d'or (The Golden Droplet), his most recent novel, is a major breakthrough for Tournier, for it is a long book which both young people and adults can read and enjoy. Tournier achieved this goal first, and perhaps best, in the very short Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit.

Marina Warner (review date 15 February 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 life, "a baby burbling in its cradle". [In The Midnight Love Feast] Yves and Nadège, who come across the sculptor on the shore, are long married and afflicted with silence; they feel the time has come to separate, and they decide to hold a farewell symposium for all their friends, at which everyone will tell a story. This "Midnight Love Feast", this rising tide of language, does not sweep them away, but unexpectedly restores them to happiness. "Literature as a panacea for couples in distress", comments Nadège on the happy outcome.

The controlled cleverness of this schema encloses many Tournier themes: the rivalry between nature and artifice for the golden apple labelled "for the most beautiful", the power of story to shape reality in its image, the decadent raptures over destruction and life-in-death. The main theme belongs to fairy-tales, of course, though in The Arabian Nights Scheherazade invents her stories to save herself, and in Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti, the narrators uncover, detective-style, a culprit in their midst. By contrast, Tournier's protagonists are passive recipients of their guests' nineteen healing parables, and the shift reflects the author's perception of literature as liturgy and himself as a modern hierophant in an ancient storytelling freemasonry. The formulae he uses are Christian: Yves's last supper of fish gathered by himself and one or two others, the Mass, the vigil, the eucharistic sharing of food. Reconciled, Nadège explicitly invests Yves with sacerdotal powers in the high-flown language that Tournier affects: "You shall be the high priest of my kitchens and the guardian of the culinary and manducatory rites that invest a meal with its spiritual dimension."

The imagery may be sacramental, the desire to instruct, to perform miracles and uphold the power of the Word may be all of a piece with a Christian outlook, but Tournier's content famously does not conform to traditional piety, stories in The Midnight Love Feast would make Don Giovanni falter on his way to a tryst; far from reaffirming a marriage, they might help convince a suicide she was in her right mind. The realist nouvelles are filled with ugly acts of greed, pandering, revenge, in the lurid tradition of Maupassant or even Sue; some of the concise "legends" or fables that follow introduce a new, sunnier, charming tone more congruent with a happy ending, but they are distressingly feeble: an arch little conceit on the names of French perfumes, a winsome just-so story about the invention of petits-pains au chocolat, a plot to explain the nursery rhyme "Au clair de la lune". Not a single marked female voice enters the chorus, though two male narrators remember how women lured and trapped them, while another uncovers a squalid story of a wartime collaborator and her public degradation. A memory lapse on Tournier's part is perhaps significant: when someone mentions Ulysses' descent into the underworld, he says that Ulysses' mother did not dare drink the sacrificial blood that would enable her to speak to her son. In Tournier, mothers do not give voice; though in Homer, Anticleia drinks and speaks to Ulysses, at some length.

Tournier's message seems to be that the daily round, ceremonially performed, holds the secret of happiness, and his final parable, the most satisfying in the collection, teaches that by repetition, daily tasks are ritualized into art—the tired married couple can become the superb lovers on the beach. (In the photograph on the dust-jacket, of an actual sculpture by Patricio Lagos, who is a real-life sand artist, the bodies are in point of fact male.)

Tournier's highly wrought prose suffers seriously in translation. Michael Sheringham, reviewing the French version Le Médianoche amoureux (TLS August 11-17, 1989), described the style as "fulsome". Whoever is speaking, the tone is equally lofty, learned, and richly classical; "halieutic", "gangue", "olfactory", "manducatory" and even, "paludal mucosae" fall from the lips of storytellers of every condition. In French this has a quality of the seventeenth-century précieux about it, and doesn't become outlandish. In English, however, it veers dangerously into the wind of ridicule, all show-off airs and graces and mock portentousness. Barbara Wright's method is to forge ahead, ignoring the silly sniggerers in the congregation, and to stay with the nearest English phonetic equivalent; she also does this, less understandably, with common words, keeping "lamentable", "mutism", or even "puerile" (giving the odd "my puerile madonna" instead of "my child madonna"); she sometimes prefers not to translate at all, as with Numéro 5, when Chanel Number 5 must be one of the most familiar things French this side of the Channel, unlike Tournier's quotidian epiphany of halieutic comestibles: the fishy fare of the daily round made plain.

Nancy L. Easterlin (essay date Spring 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of the fictions, McMahon says:

What Tournier seems to espy is a complex situation: children, up to a certain time, bring to their reading a limited amount of experience and many look upon reading as a way of understanding and adding to that experience. What adults bring to reading is an indefinable attitude which in many cases may make reading an act adjacent to their experience, with the consequence that it may or may not become part of their experience. Those different degrees of susceptibility may demand the use of deliberate, alternate strategies on the part of the writer, strategies designed to give him the chance of having the greatest amount of impact on each of the above audiences he addresses.

Since several of Tournier's stories blur the boundary of audience appeal between child and adult, McMahon's definition, although helpful and essentially accurate, is a little too general. It seems to me that a useful way of testing McMahon's definition is to look at a few of Tournier's stories about children and to determine how his technique varies depending on the audience he is addressing. While some stories have been reordered between Le Coq de bruyère, the French edition of the stories, and its English equivalent, The Fetishist, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the three stories about children—"Amandine, or The Two Gardens"; "Tom Thumb Runs Away"; and "Prikli"—are grouped in that sequence and placed in the early part of both texts. McMahon identifies the first two of these as childrens' stories, for so Tournier intended them; but I know at least one adult who finds them well worth reading. Like "Prikli," a tale clearly not to be recommended for the impressionable young mind, "Tom Thumb" and "Amandine" focus on the children's efforts to form suitable responses as they discover aspects of their own sexuality or psychology against the conflicting, or indifferent, or imponderable restrictions of the adult, world. "Amandine" is subtitled "An initiatory story," and "Tom Thumb" "A Christmas Story," but insofar as both stories gently dramatize an aspect of the experience of growing up and offer advice on how to cope with it, they are both, to some extent, initiatory stories. Prikli's tale, by contrast, is one of gruesome counter-initiation. The adults in his life perpetuate a sentimental romanticism that dichotomizes sexual identities, representing woman as an idealized object and man as a debased physical brute. For a small boy of aesthetic sensitivities, the inevitable self-identification with masculinity is traumatic and, once subjected to the vagaries of childish logic, ultimately tragic: Prikli tries to correct the injustice of his sexual fate by self-castration. Hence, for Prikli, formative experiences that should result in psychological and social adaption become the vehicle for regression to primitive mental conceptualization and behavior.

Tournier himself, often ironically evasive, is quite explicit about the child's need for guidance via initiation in his or her "transition from a biological state to a social status" [The Wind Spirit]:

Education in the broad sense of the word prepares a child to enter society and to occupy his place in it. In all times and places it appears to come in two forms, one moral, emotional, indeed magical, the other purely intellectual and rational. The first is called initiation, the second instruction. We have this equation:

education = initiation + instruction.

Of course these two components of education assume many guises, and their importance varies. My view is quite simply that, historically, the relative importance of initiation has been diminishing compared with that of instruction and that for some time now this has passed the point of being harmful.


To some extent, then, Tournier certainly strives to correct the deficiency of contemporary education through fiction writing. Thus, while the stories are initiatory in their focus on the maturation of young child-characters, they are initiatory in another sense, too, for as Tournier initiates his characters, he simultaneously initiates his readers. In the first two tales, he shows his readers (whether children or adults), how maturation can be a means of self-discovery and a progress through new experiences, an occasion for joy and even wonder at life; in "Prikli," he initiates his readers into the literally and permanently dehumanizing result of outmoded sexual attitudes and of general insensitivity to the child's developmental experience. "Prikli" is additionally horrifying to the reader who has read the stories in sequence, invited at first to read "Amandine" and "Tom Thumb" as McMahon says the child reads, by incorporating them into his own experience and thus reawakening with Amandine and Tom to the ineluctable mystery of life. After this, the damaging nightmare that is realized in Prikli's self-mutilation is all the more perverse and shocking.

Probably Tournier expects his adult readers, whether they have the experience of reading the stories sequentially or not, to note the contrasting treatments of child-characters. As Roger Shattuck, who admires Tournier and deplores his neglect by American critics, nonetheless notes, "Tournier is an incorrigible pedagogue and, having decided not to innovate or experiment with the traditional form of the novel and to maintain the advantages of clear language, falls occasionally into excessive didacticism" ["Locating Michel Tournier," in The Innocent Eye, 1986]. The lessons Tournier teaches stand out dramatically in the short stories, which center on well-defined themes and unfold with great economy. But I think Tournier earns his didacticism in these stories for two reasons. First, Tournier sympathizes with childhood experience without sentimentalizing it, thus demonstrating his genuine concern for children as well as his psychological insight into developing human consciousness. If ignorance and innocence are the standard terms for defining the child's mental state, they are clearly inadequate to the fundamentally dynamic nature of childhood experience as Tournier delineates it. By portraying the child's effort to process information and thus come to grips with the bewildering world around him or her, Tournier implicitly defines the child, given his or her physical and emotional immaturity and lack of logical and analytical skills, as dependent even while striving for self-reliance. Again, Tournier's insistence that the child's emotional and physical dependence on adults not be neglected is hardly whimsical, but stems from an informed psychological perspective; in The Wind Spirit, he points out that:

Freudian psychoanalysis has long persisted in viewing the need for physical contact simply as a libidinal impulse given concrete form by the desire of the newborn for its mother's breast or, later, by genital sexuality. But recently several psychologists have more or less simultaneously proposed a new idea, which, though seemingly of modest import, nevertheless profoundly alters the very foundations of psychoanalysis, namely, the idea of attachment as a primary and irreducible drive.

For Tournier, in short, the adult's obligation to the child is not simply the result of social convention or convenience, but rather stems from a biological imperative. Finally, in addition to the psychological understanding that partially justifies Tournier's pedagogical agenda, his literary artistry makes these stories a success. In all three, he eschews dogmatism, focusing instead on literary technique. Throughout the stories, Tournier manipulates a variety of materials, including: narrative tone; representation of the adult world; man's relation to the animal world; and the destructive and creative potential of myth and ritual.

Of the three stories, "Amandine" is written in the first person and is hence the closest to the child's experience. Told in the form of a ten-year-old's entries into her diary, the story relates Amandine's observations of her cat, Claude, and her curiosity about the mysterious arrival of four kittens. Over a period of several months, the growth of one of the kittens, Kamikat, parallels Amandine's own tentative sexual awakening.

Since it is told in the first person, the story is not only free of adult self-consciousness, but also perhaps of the self-consciousness of the child who knows she has an audience. Amandine sometimes takes up the role of storyteller, but she tends to collapse her own constructions as quickly as she creates them. For instance, she begins like this:

Sunday I have blue eyes, cherry red lips, plump pink cheeks, and wavy blond hair. My name is Amandine. When I look at myself in the mirror, I think I look a little girl of ten. Which isn't surprising. I am a little girl, and I am ten.

From the beginning, the chattering, spontaneous little girl overtakes the more orderly one, who is more interested in factual information than exploration and speculation. In the second paragraph, Amandine dutifully announces, "I have a papa, a mama, a doll called Amanda, and also a cat." But her interest immediately moves away from what are the conventionally appropriate high-priority beings in her life, a mama and a papa, to those that interest her, Claude and the kittens. Catalogued along with her doll and then dropped, Amandine's parents are quickly reduced in status in accordance with her reigning passion.

That Amandine's inattention to her parents may be motivated by more than childish impetuosity, however, becomes evident a little further into the tale. After another few weeks, Amandine describes the world of her parents:

Wednesday I like Mama's house and Papa's garden. In the house, it's always the same temperature, summer and winter alike. And no matter what the season, the lawns are always green and well kept. You might think that Mama in her house, and Papa in his garden, are having a competition to see who can be the neatest and tidiest … I think they're right. Things are more reassuring like that. But sometimes they're also a little bit boring.

Amandine accepts the ordered world of her parents, beginning her diary entry by conferring approval to their domain. In addition, after describing her parents' world, she iterates the propriety of the manicured and static house and garden. As a result, her admission that this order fails to hold her constant interest is thus slightly tinged with guilt, even though Amandine is not apologizing for her own failure of enthusiasm. Yet despite Amandine's personal conflict between tolerance for and boredom with the well-regulated adult world, what is most striking about her parents is their pervasive absence from the story, which attests to their rather negligible participation in her life. As McMahon has noted, Tournier's "implicit criticism of an order which tends its homes and gardens better than its children is presented indirectly"; and it is perhaps Amandine's current absorption in her cats that relegates her parents to a very secondary existence yet, to the adult reader, they seem unaccountably absent. But at the same time, the absence of the parents from the story contributes to its initiatory function for the child reader: in both this story and "Tom Thumb," with parents only vaguely in evidence, the child characters' resourcefulness and self-discovery are positively emphasized. Thus, the absence of parents functions as a social criticism for adult readers while it simultaneously—if somewhat contradictorily—reinforces the self-esteem of the child reader who is invited to participate in the thoughts and actions of a strong, independent child character.

With her parents in the background—either because that is where Amandine leaves them or that is where they choose to be—Amandine must find other beings on whom to focus her inquisitive mind and to serve as the initiators into her sexual self-awareness. Luckily, Amandine is attuned to the animal world, as she indicates when she explains the relationship between the night animals and the day animals:

The owl is in a hurry to go home before the sun comes up and dazzles her, and she brushes up against the blackbird that's just coming out of the lilac tree. The hedgehog rolls itself up in a ball in the depths of the heather just at the moment when the squirrel pokes its head out of the hole in the old oak tree to see what sort of a day it is.

The world Amandine describes is the reverse of her parents' predictably ordered house and garden: between the night animals and the day animals, the natural world is continually in motion, whereas the world of Amandine's parents is static and actually ceases to exist when they are asleep. In the absence of her parents, then, Amandine turns her attention to the dynamism of nature, which both reflects and complements her own curiosity.

Amandine's cats, tied to the natural order that so enthralls her, thus become the agents of her initiation into puberty. The mystery of sexual identity, symbolized in the cats' androgynous names, Claude and Kamikat, intrigues Amandine from the beginning of the story, when she discovers the kittens around Claude. The end of the story mirrors this beginning, as Amandine watches Kamikat grow plumper and guesses that "he" is a female, but the conclusion also marks the progress of her sexual knowledge. In the beginning she says of Claude, as though such a proposition is entirely ridiculous, "anyone might think the four little kittens had been shut up in [Claude's stomach] and just got out!" By the end of the story she understands that Kamikat is pregnant before she sees kittens, partly because she has learned from Claude but also because she has experienced for the first time, with the onset of menstruation, the meaning of her own sexuality.

Because this is a story for children, Tournier presents sexual realities indirectly and emphasizes the pleasure and knowledge the child can glean from observing nature. For instance, Amandine's first menstrual period is described thus:

I go upstairs to my little room. I cry for a long time, very hard, for no reason, just like that. And then I sleep for a while. When I wake up, I look at myself in the mirror. My clothes aren't dirty. There's nothing wrong with me. Oh yes there is, though, there's a little blood. A trickle of blood along my leg. That's odd, I don't have any scratches anywhere. Why, then? Never mind. I go over to the mirror and examine my face from really close up.

Only a child who is emotionally prepared to read the clues in this paragraph will do so; in this way, Tournier carefully avoids alarming his small reader. Likewise, the positive representation of the natural world is intended to offer the adult guidance that the author generally finds wanting in contemporary society. Once again, though, Tournier is elsewhere quite pointed about the insufficiency of this kind of instruction:

Everyone says that young children like to play with dolls and teddy bears, and sometimes they are permitted to play with small animals. It is also commonly said, however, that dogs like bones. The truth is that dogs gnaw on bones when they have nothing else, but you can take my world for it, they would prefer a good cut of steak or a nice veal cutlet. As for children, it is quite simply a dreadful thing that we toss them dolls and animals in order to assuage their need for a warm, loving body. Of course sailors on long voyages sometimes avail themselves of inflatable rubber females, and lonely shepherds in the mountains have been known to mount a lamb or goat. But children are neither sailors nor shepherds and do not lack for human company. Their distress is the invention of a fiercely anti-physical society, of a mutilating, castrating culture, and there is no question that many character disorders, violent outbursts, and cases of juvenile drug addiction are consequences of the physical desert into which the child and adolescent are customarily banished in our society.


If, then, the child reader has been encouraged to open his or her eyes to nature by "Amandine," perhaps the adult reader has been asked to consider whether Amandine's initiation, its charm notwithstanding, is as complete as it should be by the end of the story. It seems unlikely that she understands her own menstruation, much less makes the connection between this phenomenon and pregnancy. Her realization that the kittens are inside Kamikat is, happily, a correct intuition, but it is not the accurate biological knowledge that, at this point, she might have.

"Amandine" is the most realistic of these three stories, and as such does not make much use of mythic materials. The overrun garden stands in obvious contrast to the ordered garden of Amandine's parents, and consequently Amandine's adventure there symbolizes her confrontation with a new and mysterious aspect of herself. Likewise, the statue of Cupid, the boy-messenger of love, is a kind of double for her, as she attempts to overreach her still-childish interpretations of experience in the effort to confront adult sexuality. "Tom Thumb Runs Away," as its title suggests, is less realistic than "Amandine," incorporating motifs, plot devices, and a narrative tone borrowed from fairy tale into the life of an apparently average young boy. In this story, Tom's father, the captain of the Paris woodcutters, moves his wife and child from a small villa to a Paris high-rise. Tom decides to run away, and during his brief adventure in the woods he meets the magical Mr. Ogre and his daughters. He returns home with the pair of "dream boots" given him by Mr. Ogre.

Even though the tale is told by a third-person narrator who employs more elevated diction than Amandine in her diary, Tournier once again draws a sympathetic child-hero. Like Amandine, Tom is a take-charge sort of child, one that any reader little or big is invited to identify with. Even when Tournier directs irony at his hero, as he does just before Tom runs away, he only makes Tom more attractive. And in this particular instance, Barbara Wright contributes another deft touch, exploiting the phonetic similarity between "o" and "u" in English to underscore the keen but intermittent logic of the child's mind:

They'll say my writing's still babyish, thought Tom in some mortification, reading over his farewell note. What about the spelling? There's nothing like one really stupid, big mistake to rob even a pathetic message of all its dignity. Boots. Should it be u, like in "brutes"? Or does it really have two o's? Yes, it must, because there're two boots.

["Ils vont encore dire que j'ai une écriture de bébé", pense Pierre avec dépit, en relisant son billet d'adieu. Et l'orthographe? Rien de tel qu'une grosse faute bien ridicule pour enlever toute dignité à un message, fût-il pathétique. Bottes. Cela prend-il bien deux t? Oui sans doute puisqu'il y a deux bottes.]

Tom's logic is amusing and of course the reader is invited to laugh at him for a moment but, however faulty, his reasoning does lead him to the right conclusion. Moreover, Tom's concern for expressing himself correctly, his desire to carry out what he realizes is a modest task with dignity, makes him more endearing than his lack of knowledge makes him foolish.

Irony, besides, is an extraordinary relative technique, and it is in comparison to the representations of Tom's parents that the irony directed against him loses any edge of serious criticism. The parent world is more fully dramatized in this story than in "Amandine," but the purpose of dramatizing it seems to be to expose its ridiculousness and thus discount it. The exaggerated portrait of Tom's father as a self-important incompetent once again obliquely contributes to the instructive function of the story by strengthening the child reader's identification with Tom. In his or her identification with the story's unequivocal hero, the child reader imaginatively experiences Tom's temporary independence, and thus anticipates his or her own eventual self-reliance.

Just before Tom's struggle with spelling during the composition of his farewell note, Tom's father has shown himself to be an indubitable boob. Thumb explains the value of a walled-up modern life:

"… anyway, as the President of the Republic himself said: 'Paris must adapt itself to the motorcar, even at the expense of a certain aestheticism.'"

"'A certain aestheticism'—what's that?" asked Tom.

Thumb ran his short fingers through his black, close-cropped hair. These kids, eh—always asking stupid questions!

"Aestheticism, aestheticism … er, um … well, it's trees!" he finally came out with, to his relief. "'Even at the expense of'—that means that they have to be cut down…."

Whereas anyone can sympathize with Tom's effort to penetrate the perplexing rules of orthography, his father's glib disregard for logic exposes him as a know-nothing. Thumb digs a nice hole for himself, first using words he does not understand and then grossly misinterpreting them to suit his purpose. In addition, the narrator certainly helps to tip the scale in Tom's favor with the remark about "stupid questions": obviously, the question here is not at all stupid—only the answer is. As in "Amandine," Thumb's dismissiveness should suggest to the adult reader that a child's questions deserve complete, accurate answers, even while it gives the child reader a much-needed opportunity to laugh at a silly adult.

Tom's father proves himself insensitive as well as ignorant when Tom asks if he will still be getting his boots for Christmas. "Here, I'll make you an offer," says his father. "Instead of boots, I'll buy you a color television." First of all, a television is a rather incongruous substitute for a pair of boots, and secondly, Thumb's "offer" seems rather selfish upon later reflection. At the end of the story, Captain and Mrs. Thumb watch Christmas Eve festivities on "their color television set" in their new apartment. Is this the set they bought for Tom? Whether it is or not, Tom evidently does not need the mass-produced fantasies available there: Ogre's boots, outwardly of more limited value and use than a TV, have for him a power far more significant than the prepackaged fantasies of television programs.

The Paris highrise apartment where Thumb moves his family parallels the perfect order of Amandine's parents' house and lawn in its artificiality and sterility and, like Amandine, Tom has the good sense to know a life closer to nature is more meaningful and lots more fun. Amandine can conveniently ignore the adult world, while Tom must run away from it. Just as Amandine's cats assist her in her discovery of sexuality, Tom's pet rabbits prove immediately useful. While Tom is on the run, a truck driver stops, and "the rabbits [have] a brilliant idea. One after the other, they [poke] their heads out of the hamper. Do you take live rabbits in a hamper with you if you're running away? The driver [is] reassured." Tournier's assumption of a rabbit consciousness commensurate with human consciousness implies a tacit conspiracy between the boy and his pets, as though the animals know Tom is in a quandary and purposely reveal themselves to deceive the driver. A little later, when he is tired and lies down under a tree, the rabbits "[nuzzle] up to Tom, poking their little noses into his clothes." Out in the woods with no shelter, Tom finds a warmth and comfort with his rabbits that does not exist in the Mercury Tower apartment. And again, after he meets Mr. Ogre's daughters and goes to their home, he repeats the experience of being in "a live burrow." The scene of the eight children stripping off their clothes and jumping into bed mirrors the nuzzling rabbits, and in so doing illustrates a positive similarity between the human and animal worlds, the comforting and pleasurable nature of physical contact. In "Tom Thumb," the primary need for attachment of which Tournier writes in The Wind Spirit is met with nearly ideal, if only temporary, fulfillment; whereas Amandine's affection is concentrated solely upon her cats, Tom finds love among both animals and humans. Only his parents are missing.

The Grimm's tale "Little Thumb" ("Tom Thumb" in some English versions) is the obvious analogue to which Tournier alludes. Like his namesake, Tournier's Tom is ever-resourceful, outwitting wicked adults despite the handicap of his age and size; but unlike the doltish father and seemingly nonexistent mother of the new tale, the parents in the Grimm's tale dote on their precious son. His adventure also takes place in the countryside. But beyond this, there are no strong parallels between the tales; rather, the familiar names become amusing when they are applied to contemporary settings and attitudes, and imply that what we conventionally consider long ago and make-believe may in fact be very real and present.

Tournier undoubtedly wishes to stress the interrelatedness of myth and reality, and the necessary and continuous rethinking of both that their inseparability requires. William Cloonan points out that, in pondering Christian myth,

What Tournier discovered in transubstantiation was the confirmation of his belief in transformation: that everything which exists, be it as humble as bread or wine, has the potential to become sacred, a process which occurs when people learn to perceive themselves and the objects which surround them as sources of comfort, beauty and joy.

[see Michel Tournier, 1985, and "The Spiritual Order of Michel Tournier," in Renascense, Vol. 36, Nos. 1-2, 1983–1984]

In "Tom Thumb," Ogre's retelling of the Fall of Man constitutes another use, clearly quite different from that of the Grimm's tale, of mythic materials. Not entirely dissimilar to Tom's father, Ogre is quite glib in his revisionist telling of the myth:

"Encouraged by Eve, Adam makes up his mind. He bites into the fruit. And he doesn't die. On the contrary, his eyes open, and he knows good and evil. So Jehovah had lied. It was the serpent that had told the truth."

In this case, Tournier has taken sacred myth, the most difficult sort to attempt to revise, and made the deity into a hardly very admirable character. The new version of the Eden myth is not offensive, however, in part because it is so extreme, but also because it is Ogre's version. And although he is more credible than Captain Thumb (largely because he is simply kind to the children), Ogre's explanations seem almost as idiosyncratic. Part of the reason for this is that Ogre's own beliefs, which constitute yet another mythic dimension to the tale, conflict with acceptance of traditional Christian myth. He is the follower of an older religion, tree worship.

"Listen to me," he said. "What is a tree? In the first place, a tree consists in a certain balance between aerial foliage and underground roots. This purely mechanical balance contains a whole philosophy in itself. For it is clear that it is impossible for the foliage to spread, to expand, to embrace an ever-increasing portion of the sky if the roots do not at the same time plunge deeper…. So you see, the higher you want to rise, the more you must have your feet on the ground. Every tree tells you so."

Ogre's lengthy philosophical explanation for the tree as the perfect example of balance between inner and outer, restriction and freedom, earth and sky is somewhat overly scientific and overstated. But in contrast to Thumb's assertion that trees have only aesthetic value, Ogre's discourse is symbolically significant. What his speech stresses is not so much the sacredness of trees but the importance of balance and harmony with nature. Tom certainly understands the symbolical nature of the lesson, for it is his ability to incorporate Ogre's speech into his imagination that enables him to experience tree-like balance. At the end of the story, all the mythic elements combine in Tom's transcendent moment when he puts on the boots Ogre has given him: unable to escape physically from the sterile environment of the apartment, his feet are nonetheless symbolically on the ground; he becomes his own savior (this is, after all, "A Christmas Story") and escapes spiritually, retaining his connection to nature and hence his wholeness through his imagination.

Both "Amandine" and "Tom Thumb," then, have numerous similarities—the narrator's close identification with a strong, central child character; the delineation of a sterile, insensitive parent world that is, however, escapable; the beneficial relationship between the child and the animal world; the representation of myth as a dynamic aspect of current reality—that enable the reader to identify closely with the child-hero. The tales, in effect, invite the reader to share, on whatever conscious or subconscious level is suited to his or her age or experience, in Amandine's initiation into puberty and Tom's initiation into the regenerative power of the imagination. In "Prikli," conversely, Tournier reveals exaggerated and even opposite attitudes toward some of the same phenomena of the children's tales, with a result that stresses the seriousness of the child's life and the adult's responsibility to him.

"Prikli" is told in the third person, but the relatively elevated language and consequently formal tone of the prose makes the narrative voice quite distinct from that of "Tom Thumb." The fluent and ordered descriptions of Prikli's perceptions stand in rather striking contrast to the information related, as in this early passage:

The beautiful apartment that Prikli and his family lived in on the rue des Sablons would have had few resources to offer to the child's reveries had it not been for a huge old painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style which had been hung, to get it out of the way, in the narrow corridor leading from the living room to the bedrooms at the back…. This painting depicted the Last Judgment…. The damned were sinking down into an underground passage made of granite, while the chosen, singing and carrying palms, were ascending to heaven up a great staircase made of pink clouds. Now, what the child found particularly striking was the anatomy of each category. For whereas the damned had brown skin and black hair, and their nudity revealed formidable muscles, the chosen were pale and slim, and their white tunics concealed frail, delicate limbs.

The objective tone in which Tournier delineates a typically overwrought piece of Pre-Raphaelite art is humorous, because it implies a reaction to a clearly outrageous object that is equivalent to the reception of mundane actuality. As it exposes the discrepancy between perception and reality such irony is always amusing; in "Prikli," however, it is at the same time rather terrifying. This is, after all, the child's point of view, and phrases like "what the child found particularly striking" combined with logical coordinators like "for whereas" dramatize Prikli's attempt to form a rational understanding of the painting. While the reader can identify with the child's struggle to form an adult response, the fact that the painting is the sole subject of Prikli's reveries, combined with the excessive seriousness of those musings, indicates that something is askew. Through careful control of his irony, Tournier establishes a difficult position for the reader: Prikli, mystified by the adult world, engages sympathy, but he is simultaneously held at a distance by his foreboding tendency to literalize absurd attitudes.

While Amandine's and Tom Thumb's parents offer their children sterile, uninteresting environments but are nevertheless unthreatening in their distance from the child's world, Prikli's parents are another matter. It is safe to say that their abode, graced by the phantasmagoria of a Pre-Raphaelite Last Judgment, is hardly sterile. Rather, it is governed and shaped by a couple who confuse romantic fictions with reality, and are therefore unable to respond to the natural needs of their child. On the one hand, Prikli's father as an adult male represents everything repulsive; on the other, his mother personifies eternally mysterious femininity:

After her lemon tea, which she took alone in her bedroom, she shut herself up in the bathroom for an hour and a half. And when she came out, still dressed in a chiffon negligee, she was already a goddess, the goddess of the morning, as fresh as a rose, anointed with lanolin, very different, it's true, from the great black goddess of the evening, the one who leaned over Prikli's bed, her face half hidden behind a little veil, and who told him: "Don't kiss me, you'll wreck my hair."

While the pathos of a child whose parent denies him affection need hardly be glossed, the idealized image of woman that Prikli is encouraged to adopt adds another dimension to his mother's maternal deficiencies. Perceived as "the goddess" in one of her many transformations, Prikli's mother takes on for her child the unbearable value of the feminine ideal realized, yet still unattainable. When Prikli begs to sleep with her gloves, he is granted contact with the symbol instead of the actual person of his mother. Thus, the substitution of symbol for reality is established early in the story, and implies a perverse method of interpreting the world that in the end becomes explicit.

Like Amandine's and Tom's parents, Prikli's have a tendency to take him for granted; but above and beyond this, their refusal to take their child's experience seriously manifests itself in some rather sadistic remarks. Although he has expressed displeasure at his nickname, it (quite literally) sticks, and he is told:

"But you know, baby hedgehogs don't have prickles—just very soft, very clean down. It's only later. Later, when they grow up. When they become men…."

Prikli may only be a child, but he knows that hedgehogs don't "become men" and hence sees that his mother's remark refers to his own human masculinity. In taunting her child and therefore failing to take him seriously, the mother burdens him with a distorted and disturbing vision of his own future.

Prikli's adventures are limited to the gossamer realm of his goddess-mother and to the garden of the ironically named Desbordes-Valmore Square—places that stand as suggestive images of romantic extremes. If the world of his mother is the interior of a lingering decadence, the square enshrines the spirit of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, whose poetry waxes rhapsodic on such subjects as lost children, deceased mothers, spent youth, and aestheticized nature. At the same time, the square is incongruously decorated with statues representing Greek mythic heroes. Thus overladen with mythical and romantic resonances, the square is clearly no corrective to the home environment and, unlike Amandine and Tom, Prikli has no opportunity to explore nature in its unsentimental reality. As a result, his only impression of the animal world is that which he receives from the adults around him, to whom animals are dirty and barbaric and fatally associated with masculine sexuality. Prikli imagines a hedgehog as "a miniature pig covered with bristles swarming with vermin," a vision entirely antithetical to Amandine's poetic description of the hedgehog going to sleep. The connection between animals and masculinity is moreover reinforced when Prikli overhears Mamouse, the attendant for the restroom in the square, railing against men as "lechers, wild boars, [and] debauchees," a screed he probably little understands beyond the yoking of male and animal in a highly negative context. And later, Prikli's abortive imitation of canine behavior leads him to the inconvenient conclusion that urination itself is an animal, and therefore despicable, act. Unfortunately for Prikli, he is smart, and the accumulated disgust he feels toward anything animal progresses from the perception that men are like animals to the conclusion that men are equivalent to animals.

Finally, Tournier's treatment of myth in "Prikli" reinforces the tensions he has established through distance in narrative tone; rigidly opposed concepts of masculine and feminine, as embodied in the parents; and identification of the natural, animal world with vulgarity and masculinity. Whereas "Tom Thumb" exhibits the playful blending of many myths and asserts the flexibility of all, "Prikli" dramatizes the destructive potential in literalized misinterpretations of myth. On a general level, Prikli's perception of his mother as a goddess, and the underlying assumption that living humans can be goddesses, is an example of this. On a more specific level, when Miss Campbell, the governess of another young child who visits the square, gives Prikli her seemingly half-hearted explanations of the centaur and the minotaur statues, she unwittingly embellishes Prikli's conviction that the keys to reality reside in phantasmagoria. Because she cannot explain, for instance, why Theseus wears "a skirt," Prikli concludes that Theseus is female and the Minotaur male. The irony of this of course is that the mythic Theseus, the preeminent Attic hero who conquered the Minotaur and led the war against the centaurs, was in fact something of a philanderer, while the Minotaur was an imaginary beast without sexual distinction. But there is more to Prikli's mythic misperception:

Miss Campbell had given Prikli quite a long lecture, from which he had vaguely gathered that the man-horse—a scent-tar [sent-fort]—was obliged, in order to marry, to abduct a woman by main force, precisely because of his bad smell, to which he owed his name. Remembering his father's smell, Prikli had been satisfied with this explanation.

Miss Campbell's creative abilities notwithstanding, her freedom at inventing what she does not know is another example of the unwitting negligence of the adults surrounding Prikli. Like Prikli's mother, she betrays the child's utter faith in the adult's word. Could she have known that her interpretation was precisely the wrong one to give Prikli? In the statue of the centaur, Prikli sees an embodiment of what he has already learned to link, the animal and the masculine, and Miss Campbell's free definition of "scent-tar" reinforces the connection. And while the degree of misinterpretation is certainly no help to Prikli's weird cogitations, the simple fact that neither Marie, Prikli's family's maid, nor Miss Campbell explain that the centaur is a fictional being perpetuates Prikli's tendency to see real men as monsters of mythic proportions. An explanation that pointed out the once-upon-a-time aspect of the myth, placing it back in the days when men wore "skirts," would have suggested to Prikli the difference between artistic representation and reality, and allowed him to avoid his dangerous logic. Instead, it is the disastrous connection that Prikli makes between these "facts" and the revelation that "man" and "animal" are only different terms for the same thing that leads him ultimately to the formulation that "the link between the brown meat of the man in the urinal and Mamouse's saucepan [of giblet broth], was forged by Theseus' sword."

In the end, Prikli's drastic act of self-mutilation displays the total sum of a child's efforts to weave some fabric of reality from many mismatched threads. Through his fear of the unavoidable bestiality that he sees as the primary characteristic of adult masculinity, he regresses to a psychologically primitive state. In The Golden Bough, Frazer recounts several instances of ritual castration, and hypothesizes that, according to the superstitions of some primitive tribes, self-castration constituted a transfer of power:

[Some] Asiatic goddesses of fertility were served … by eunuch priests. These feminine deities required to receive from their male ministers, who personated the divine lovers, the means of discharging their beneficent functions: they had themselves to be impregnated by the life-giving energy before they could transmit it to the world.

In a world where all beauty resides in the femininity that has been denied him, Prikli wants nothing to do with brute strength, and sacrifices his masculinity to the goddess-image of his mother. The disconcerting parallels between his behavior and primitive ritual castration underscore the barbarism that lies just beneath the perverse myths the adults around him continually enact in the name of high civilization. Thus, Prikli's self-castration registers not only his own psychological disturbance, but that of his whole culture; with this counter-initiation, it is as though much that holds itself up as civilization is lost.

Tournier's essay about his visits to French schools, "Writer Devoured by Children" [translated by Margaret Higonnet in Children's Literature 13, 1985], attests to his enormous sensitivity to the experience of childhood. As always, he tells the tale of his conversations with the children with gentle irony:

We pass from animals to nature, to ecology, to the quality of life, and then, quite simply, to happiness. Children are not afraid of the big questions. In fact they do not order problems hierarchically. What do you eat for breakfast? Or, How can one be happy? They throw out such questions without making any distinction. One must know how to answer. We may skip breakfast. But what about happiness? "Happiness? Very simple. There is only one condition, but it is absolutely essential: you must passionately love something or someone."

At the same time that he is delighted by the spontaneity of the children's questions, Tournier acknowledges that the adult is not free to exercise the same spontaneity: "One must know how to answer." Prikli's case is an extreme example of the failure to fulfill what for Tournier is the imperative responsibility of adults, guiding the child so that he or she can learn to discriminate and evolve personal possibilities of order. Tom and Amandine are lucky enough to learn this mostly on their own, with the help of their animal friends and, in Tom's case, Ogre. And I think, finally, that Tournier shows what children can give adults as well as vice versa: all three stories suggest that the child's capacity for wonder need never be lost in the adult, but instead can ameliorate the series of initiations into maturity, and thus provide the enthusiasm and self-assurance to "passionately love something."

Karen D. Levy (essay date Winter 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 stories he describes as myth. He radically alters the configurations of his borrowings and incorporates them into what both he and many critics describe as perverted re-tellings that depict his own evolving obsessions and reveal the scope of his originality. Beginning with the Robinson Crusoe story, which acts as a springboard for his first novel, Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique, up to the final jubilatory tale of festive commemoration in his latest anthology, Le Médianoche amoureux, Tournier constructs an elaborate verbal network of intertextual resonances that disorient us as readers and challenge our imaginations.

Nowhere is the process of textual appropriation and perversion more intricate and more disconcerting than in Tournier's tale, Gilles et Jeanne, in which we encounter for the first time historical figures whose activities can be documented. Tournier recounts the grizzly tale of Gilles de Rais, fifteenth-century wealthy landowner, and Maréchal de France, who fought for a time beside Joan of Arc, and nine years after her martyrdom, was himself executed for having molested and grotesquely murdered numerous children, disposing of the evidence by burning their corpses in the giant fireplaces of his preferred castles of Machecoul and Tiffauges.

Tournier's literary sources for Gilles et Jeanne include Joris-Karl Huysmans's late nineteenth-century description of Gilles's experience in his novel Là-Bas; German expressionist Georg Kaiser, whose work gave Tournier the title for his own text; and more recently Georges Bataille's essay detailing the simultaneous exhibitionistic and tragic aspects of Gilles's drama [see Bataille, Le Procès de Gilles de Rais, 1965]. Bataille's essay provides the background for Tournier's version, which concentrates on the double-sided erotic and mystical fascination he envisions Gilles experiencing for the Maid of Orléans. Even more important than literary transformation, however, which Tournier has been practicing throughout his career, is the way in which he exploits the recorded historical data pertaining to Gilles's situation. He weaves a simultaneously outrageous and bewildering tale, which has polarized critical reaction perhaps more intensely than any of his other writings and become the subject of heated debate. The specific historical manipulation that Tournier undertakes reveals itself only when we unmask the elements which constitute the text's provocativeness and determine their specific function.

The structural simplicity and temporal condensation of Tournier's text suggest what Susan Petit has described as its fairy tale dimension. In her thoughtful study of the work, she argues that "because of its style and subject matter, Gilles et Jeanne may be viewed as Tournier's long-promised children's version of his earlier novel Le Roi des aulnes." Using Bruno Bettleheim's analysis of the structure of fairy tales and their importance in children's psychological development, Petit notes that "everywhere there is simplification" [see Petit, "Gilles et Jeanne: Tournier's Le Roi des aulnes Revisited," Romanic Review 76, 1985]. All that was either multidimensional or ambiguous in Le Roi des aulnes—point of view, chronology, character presentation and motivation—has been distilled to make the text acceptable for a young and vulnerable audience.

The narrator takes complete control of the material. He filters the historical information concerning Gilles's prolonged, eight-year massacre of innocents and specifies that Gilles was motivated, not by the desire to do evil, but rather by his fidelity to Joan of Arc—his promise to follow her to the depths of hell if necessary. He was, as the narrator stresses, "un brave garcon de son temps, ni pire ni meilleur d'un autre" 'a fine young man of his times, neither worse nor better than any other,' whose personality disintegrated when he witnessed the death of his idol and lost all ability to distinguish the so often finely delineated line separating good from evil. Gilles's ritual murders are never directly depicted in the text itself. The details of his sadism are presented only in excerpts from the testimony of witnesses at his trial in October 1440. Parents sketch the scenarios of their children's disappearances; and his codefendants describe what occurred in the vaulted rooms and fireplaces of Gilles's forbidding castles in southern Brittany and the Vendée. In reading Tournier's tale the reader "is being protected, as a child is when his parents assure him that there are no dragons any more." Faced with excommunication, Gilles publicly repents and dies invoking Joan's name, suggesting the traditional happy endings of fairy tales (Petit).

As appealing and reassuring as this interpretation may be, it poses some serious problems for the reader—for Tournier's work resolves nothing, even in a fairy tale context, and the tidy reconciliation of contraries it appears to depict is a lure whose seductiveness must be resisted. The apparent simplicity of the text, which proposes to explain Gilles's transformation through Tournier's familiar phenomenon of the double-sided "inversion maligne / bénigne" 'evil / benign inversion' (first explored in Le Roi des aulnes) is a screen which masks the complexity of its rhetorical strategies. In his lucid and highly innovative analysis of Gilles et Jeanne Colin Davis points out the way in which Tournier tries to entrap and compromise his reader. He argues that the text serves as "a parable of writing," which depicts the author's double-sided attitude toward his work and his public [see Davis, Michel Tournier: Philosophy and Fiction, 1988]. Tournier seeks to control his reader while simultaneously insisting that he must interpret a work by himself, nourishing it with his own blood to make it come to life and suppressing the author in the process. The aggression implied in such a relationship leaves both writer and reader frustrated and alienated because, as Davis further notes, "the uncontrollable always resides somewhere other than where the author attempts to isolate it."

While Gilles et Jeanne may be treated as a parable for the writer / reader relationship, it is also parable perverted for a deliberately distorted purpose. Its function is not, as one might traditionally expect from a parable, to impart meaning or provide a moral lesson, but rather to expose some of the textual strategies by which a reassuring illusion of meaning is produced and consumed by the characters, only to be contested by the reader. Tournier exploits in particular the fact, as Rice and Schofer note, that "irony is not semantically marked … there is no incompatability between the microcontext and the macrocontext" [Donald Rice and Peter Schofer, Rhetorical Poetics, 1983]. Tournier uses irony to expose the way in which the text contests its own authority. The easily assimilated coherence which appeared to exist is called into question when, as Rice and Schofer note, "the 'voice' of the narration talks against itself by presenting signifiers which undermine the apparent signified." This process of undermining occurs in two intertwining contexts in Gilles et Jeanne, revealing the unacknowledged gap between historical referentiality and Tournier's invention, which in turn highlights the division that exists between the specifically fictional situations of the two protagonists. The text produces a complex counterpoint of self-deconstructing discourses, which abrogate the seeming legitimacy of its argumentation. It thereby enables us to understand more clearly the verbal maneuvering which seeks to excuse atrocity so that the menace it poses can be confronted more directly and its seductive power displaced.

This textual undermining centers around Gilles's identification with Joan. Gilles seizes upon Joan's image, first as a guide and then eventually as justification for his own disintegration, singling out the qualities that would gradually be highlighted in Joan's five-century rehabilitation as patriotic savior, innocent child, androgyne, sacrificed saint, and angel. The moment Gilles first notices Joan in the reception hall at the castle of Chinon in late February 1429 he sees what the narrator describes as "tout ce qu'il aime, tout ce qu'il attend depuis toujours: un jeune garçon, une femme et de surcroît une sainte …" 'everything he loves, everything he has always been waiting for: a young boy, a woman, and moreover a saint.' A little further on in the course of this initial meeting, Gilles himself adds, "Ne voyez-vous pas la pureté qui rayonne de son visage … une innocence enfantine … une lumière qui n'est pas de cette terre … Du ciel, parfaitement. Si Jeanne n'est ni une fille, ni un garçon, c'est parce qu'elle est ange" 'Don't you see the purity that shines from her face … a childlike innocence … a light which is not of this earth … from heaven, absolutely. If Joan is neither a girl nor a boy, it is because she is an angel.' The narrator condenses into a few concise pages the complexity of her historical reality, repeatedly stressing her purity, gentle candor, and fidelity to the voices which counseled her to be a good child. The voices had nothing to do with the devil. Gilles discovers in Joan "l'enivrante et dangereuse fusion de la sainteté et la guerre" 'the intoxicating and dangerous fusion of saintliness and war.' He seeks to follow her example in order to exorcise his own evil tendencies, becoming thereby the saint he already perceives her to be. And any hesitation he might feel stems, not from Joan's status, but rather from the ambivalence of his own inclinations.

Despite the enthusiasm of Gilles's commitment to Joan, his loyalty is extremely short-lived. Through the spring and summer of 1429, he serves beside her at Orléans and at Patay and accompanies her in glory to Reims for the coronation of Charles VII, but he abandons her as soon as her royal favor begins to wane. After the ill-fated attempt to capture Paris in September 1429 "Gilles disparaît mystérieusement" 'Gilles disappears mysteriously,' and from this point on the "voice" of Tournier's narration begins to expose the gap between words and meaning. When Joan is captured at Compiègne on 24 May 1430, one of many dates whose citation seems to indicate a concern for historical accuracy, the text stresses that Gilles tries to plead her case with Yolande d'Anjou, regent of that province and the king's mother-in-law, who had initially supported Joan's cause. Historically, there is no evidence that Gilles ever attempted to intercede with d'Anjou or ever tried to rescue Joan from prison. The king's mother-in-law and Gilles were vicious political enemies. We know that Gilles was actually plotting her death with the help of Charles VII's current favorite counsellor, Georges de la Trémouille. In Tournier's tale, Gilles does not move precipitously to help Joan; references both to Rouen and to Joan's trial date Gilles's attempt to intervene sometime in the winter or early spring of the following year. She was kept at the castle of Beaurevoir near Arras until December 1430 and depositions for her trial were not given until 13 January 1431. She was first summoned before her judges on 21 February. Hence Tournier's Gilles waits at least seven months after Joan's capture before interceding on her behalf. Furthermore, even Gilles's bold project to rescue Joan from her Rouen dungeon in the spring of 1431 is proposed by someone else. After his unsuccessful audience with the Queen Mother, Tournier's text notes that Gilles is ready to retreat once again to one of his many estates when La Hire, a former battle companion, proposes "Allons-y [à Rouen] ensemble. Jeanne ne sera pas surprise de voir arriver son compagnon Gilles et son vieux La Hire" 'Let's go there [to Rouen] together. Joan won't be surprised to see her companion Gilles and her old La Hire arrive.' Only at the latter's suggestion does Gilles consider a rescue attempt, and it is with troops loyal to La Hire that they undertake their expedition.

Tournier's work clearly indicates that as soon as Joan begins to lose political support, Gilles equates this fall from royal favor with a moral and spiritual defeat. "Or depuis l'échec devant Paris, il semble qu'a pris fin l'état de grâce où vivait Jeanne et qu'elle lui avait fait partager" 'Thus, since her defeat at Paris, it seems that the state of grace in which Joan was living and which she enabled him to share came to an end.' This initial reaction on his part seems to be confirmed by her trial, mentioned only cursorily, and her subsequent execution, which Tournier describes in all of its macabre detail, making it the focal point of Gilles's transformation. By situating Gilles in the crowd—"Perdu dans la foule, il assiste, le coeur crêvé de haine et de chagrins aux préparatifs du supplice" 'Lost in the crowd, his heart broken by hatred and sorrow, he witnesses the preparations for torture'—the text once again undermines its authority, since historically, Gilles was not present. Furthermore, Tournier's work does not acknowledge that throughout her trial Joan continually emphasized her loyalty to the voices she heard, which instructed her only to do good and her "unshakable conviction in … the rectitude of all her motives, her passions, and her enterprises" [Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, 1981]. It likewise ignores the fact that Joan heard Mass and received communion on the day she was to be burned. As Warner stresses, "Her judges failed to prove even to themselves that their victim was the thing of reviled pollution they had hoped. She died with the body of her maker inside her." Hence, even according to the ecclesiastical authority that condemns her, Joan died in the state of grace and therefore escapes hell.

When he witnesses Joan's execution, Gilles both confuses condemnation to death by an ecclesiastical court with personal damnation, and carries the process of appropriation to the lowest level of the abject. When Gilles witnesses Joan's death, he confronts the horror of her strictly physical destruction imposed on her by others, "une charogne à demi calcinée, un oeil éclaté qui s'incline sur un torse boursouflé" ("a half burned corpse, one eye burst open, hanging down over a bloated torso") and seizes upon it as emblem and justification for the final stages of his "métamorphose maligne …" ("evil metamorphosis.") In a double move he shifts the level of Joan's disintegration to that of the spiritual, implying her condemnation to hell, while simultaneously internalizing the image of her bodily suffering. He becomes an agent of the physical destruction she had endured as victim and, for the next eight years, he imposes on numerous others tortures even more grotesque than those to which the authorities had subjected Joan.

Once Joan is executed and Gilles's metamorphosis into 'infernal angel' is completed, which takes place in the first third of Tournier's work, the scope of the text's undermining process broadens and becomes more radical in its implications. As in the depiction of the initial stages of Gilles's transformation, careful attention is paid to the overall chronological accuracy of events, as well as to the precise identity of the individuals who played significant roles in the last period of Gilles's life (c. 1432–40), namely the priest Eustache Blanchet, the Italian alchernist and conjuror Francesco Prelati, and the various henchmen who assisted Gilles in carrying out his bloody rituals. Tournier manipulates the historical data, however, and widens the gap between the text's words and their meaning, between the signifiers and the signified.

The role of Eustache Blanchet in Tournier's plot is a typical revision. According to documents pertaining to Gilles's trial, Blanchet was in Florence on business in autumn 1438, when he met Prelati, who was eager to share his alchemic secrets with any French patron who might wish to engage his services. Blanchet had been commissioned by Gilles for several years to search out alchemists and conjurors whose skills could hopefully replenish his dissipated fortune; he proposed that Prelati accompany him back to Tiffauges, where they arrived on Ascension Day in 1439. In the following months Blanchet gradually came to realize the extent of Gilles's and Prelati's involvement with demons. He heard more and more disturbing rumors about Gilles's human sacrifices, and was forced to seek at least temporary refuge elsewhere when he tried to warn Gilles of the consequences of his scandalous behavior. Despite his discoveries, however, Blanchet remained in Gilles's service up to the time the arresting authorities arrived in September 1440, although he was never a member of the latter's inner circle (Bataille).

Tournier presents Blanchet as childlike and naïve in his beliefs, and enlarges his role in Gilles's life. At least from the time Gilles established an ecclesiastical school for young boys on his estate at Machecoul in March 1435, Blanchet was his personal confessor and heard firsthand Gilles's admission of the pleasure he experienced at seeing children suffer: "C'est si beau un petit corps ensanglanté, soulevé par les soupirs et les râles de l'agonie" 'A small blood-covered body, racked by the moans and groans of its death agony is so beautiful.' There is no indication in Tournier that Blanchet was commisioned to engage alchemists and conjurors for Gilles's experiments. But the priest's knowledge of Gilles's predilections was both more extensive and long-standing than historical evidence indicates, and his personal complicity greater. Awakened to the potential for violence in Gilles's remarks and further alerted by descriptions of a dark-cloaked horseman galloping over the fields with kidnapped children in the folds of his mantle, Blanchet does nothing. Ostensibly, he does not want to violate the sacred seal of confession; but his own cowardice and unwillingness to accept responsibility are equally strong motives. Tournier admits that the truth of the rumors floating up from the surrounding villages would have required "de lui des décisions si boulversantes qu'il préférait aussi longtemps que possible—mais pour combien de jours encore?—Se replier frileusement sur son ministère d'aumônier et de chapelain" 'such overwhelming decisions from him that he preferred as long as possible—but for how many days more?—to withdraw timidly into his role of personal priest and chaplain.' Only much later, when he can no longer dismiss the "odeur de chair carbonisée … cette puanteur de charogne carbonisée" 'odor of carbonized flesh … this stench of corpses reduced to ashes,' does Blanchet admit the desperateness of Gilles's situation and take action. He leaves Gilles to continue his sacrifices while he sets out for Florence to find someone capable of exorcising his charge's demons.

Once in Florence, however, Tournier's provincial Blanchet is unable to cope with the extremes of opulence and corruption he encounters in the city. He immediately falls prey to the charms of the elegant Prelati, who first saves him from a band of thieves and then proceeds to seduce him with arguments that poverty is the source of all vice, opened cadavers should be used to explore the anatomical secrets, and that one must necessarily descend to the depths of the diabolical to discover the unknown. Although he greatly fears Prelati's outrageous assertions, Blanchet nevertheless decides, without looking further, that only Prelati can help Gilles—"il ne voyait plus de ressource qu'en lui" 'he saw no possibility other than him.' Prelati proceeds to seduce Gilles with the same eloquence that so captivated Blanchet. Historical data indicates that he was both alchemist and conjuror, and was easily able to convince the acutely superstitious Gilles that, if he followed Prelati's directions, he would amass the wealth and power he desired without jeopardizing his life or his soul. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to make Prelati's private demon Barron appear, the Italian even managed to persuade Gilles to offer one of his victims in a diabolical sacrifice. Although Gilles feared the spiritual consequences of such an offering, he was sufficiently desperate about his financial situation to do anything to protect the assets he still possessed and eventually attain the level of financial omnipotence he so eagerly sought.

In Tournier's text Prelati is even more insidiously manipulative. Unfortunately, he does not live up to the image Mireille Rosello paints of him as a disinterested, truth seeking man of science whose gaze reveals "l'acuité froide d'un observateur, d'un sociologue extérieur aux phénomènes qu'il tente de comprendre" 'the coolheaded sharpness of an observer, of a sociologist detached from the phenomena he is trying to understand.' Prelati tells Gilles exactly what the latter wants to hear, equating, as did Gilles, Joan's political defeat with moral transgression and maintaining that since she was condemned by the Inquisition, she automatically went to hell—"au fond du gouffre ardent" 'to the depths of the burning chasm.' At the same time, in another manipulation of theology, Tournier's Prelati purports to offer Gilles a way to rise from the depths of his degradation through the purifying role of the very fire Joan experienced and to which he is subjecting his tortured victims. "Le pécheur plongé dans les abîmes de l'enfer pouvait en rejaillir revêtu d'innocence pourvu qu'il n'ait pas perdu la foi" 'The sinner, plunged into the abyss of hell, could reemerge, once again clothed in childlike innocence, provided he hadn't lost his faith.' Like Joan, whom Prelati cleverly assures Gilles "serait réhabilitée … elle connaitraît la béatification, qui sait même peut-être la canonisation" 'would be rehabilitated … she would undergo beatification, who knows, perhaps even canonization,' he too will be able to rise glorious and transfigured from the abyss of his abjection, provided he descends far enough.

Despite Prelati's eloquence he does not exorcise his patron's demons; instead, he encourages his continued massacre of innocents by stressing that the end justifies the means and radicalizing the situation by urging him to offer his sacrifices to Prelati's private demon: "Réussissez pour Barron le sacrifice d'Isaac. Offrez-lui la chair des enfants que vous immolez" 'Carry out for Barron Isaac's sacrifice. Offer him the flesh of the children you are immolating.' In keeping with the evidence of the trial testimony, Tournier has Prelati channel Gilles's narcissistic sacrifices in another direction; but his promise of transmutation, alchemically or morally, is part of his charade. Prelati's final prayer to Barron, after Gilles socially disgraces himself by viciously kidnapping the priest Jean de Fréron during Mass in the church adjoining the castle of Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte, reveals Prelati's intentions:

"je n'ai rien négligé pour élever cet homme jusqu'à ton seuil sublime … pour venir convertir sa violence en ferveur et ses bas appétits en élans vers ta face auguste…. Et sans doute y étais-je parvenu … ne sacrifiait-il pas désormais les enfants, non par basse volupté, mais à seule fin de t'offrir leurs dépouilles en holocauste!"

[I neglected nothing to raise this man to your sublime threshold … to succeed in converting his violence into fervor and his base appetites into passion for your noble countenance…. And undoubtedly I had succeeded in doing so … wasn't he henceforth sacrificing children, not out of base pleasure, but with the sole intention of offering you their remains as a holocaust!]

Serving Barron is not merely a stage in Prelati's cleverly argued plan, but rather his ultimate goal. He condemns only the puerile violence of Gilles's assault on Jean de Fréron because he had been forced to sell the property to the priest's brother Geoffrey for a pittance. Further, he was outraged when the new owner exacted the back taxes he himself had not collected from the peasants.

The final pages of Tournier's work concentrate on Gilles's trial and execution. They present excerpts from his testimony and that of Prelati; lengthy remarks by Gilles's most intimate and long-serving henchmen, Henriet Griart and Étienne Corrilaut, called Poitou, who describe specific crimes; and brief statements from some of the parents whose children disappeared. The transcript of Prelati's testimony details his experiments with alchemy and conjuring during the sixteen months of his service with Gilles. Prelati is careful, however, to blame Gilles for both the sacrificial offering of the child and the pact made with the devil (Bataille). Prelati invoked the devil purely for material gain, to rebuild Gilles's dissipated personal fortune and to reestablish his political dominance.

In Tournier's version the trial is presented more dramatically—consisting largely of dialogue between Prelati and his judges—and provocatively. It depicts Prelati in the most difficult role of his career, before a hostile and highly skilled audience. The tribunal is as adept as Prelati in manipulating arguments, which makes his triumph all the more dazzling. Prelati succeeds not only in saving his life, which at first seems beyond hope—"aucun calcul, aucune momerie, aucune bassesse ne pourrait sauver une cause aussi compromise que la sienne" 'no calculating, no mummery, no servility could save a cause as compromised as his'—but also in completely silencing all possible opposition. In a clearly calculated move, Prelati decides to push the defiant insolence of his "sourire ironique" 'ironic smile' further than ever before, daring his nonplussed judges to do anything about it and beating them at their own game. He turns the tribunal members' own objections against them in a mounting sequence of outrageous statements, noting God the Father's passion for bloody sacrifices, quoting with "une déférence ironique" 'an ironic deference' Christ's statement urging the children to come to him, stressing with "une douceur affectée" 'an affected gentleness' the essential resemblance between Satan and God, and eventually subdues them completely with the illusion of meaning he offers in his discourse on the parallelism between Gilles's situation and that of Joan of Arc. As the narrator indicates, "Malgré eux, tous ces théologiciens, grands amateurs de fines disputes, dressent l'oreille. Pierre de l'Hospital fait signe de laisser parler Prelati" 'In spite of themselves, all these theologians, great enthusiasts for subtle disputes, prick up their ears. Pierre de l'Hospital makes a sign to let Prelati speak.'

The same display of self-serving histrionics likewise characterizes Gilles's testimony. Tournier lifts a number of statements directly from the trial transcript and adheres to the chronological accuracy of Gilles's appearances. Consistantly, Tournier again revises historical data to highlight the contradictions in his protagonist's position and to reveal more precisely the differences between his situation and Joan's. In the transcript Gilles at first appeared as a defiant accuser, refusing to acknowledge the charges against him and attacking his judges as "simoniaques et des ribauds" traffickers in holy offices and thieves' (Bataille). Scandalized by Gilles's conduct, the tribunal in turn immediately excommunicated him, closing the session and scheduling his next appearance in two days. When Gilles resumed his testimony, he had changed from belligerent accuser to docile penitent. Confronted with the reality of excommunication, he tearfully confessed his crimes, "se mettant à genoux et exprimant la contrition par de grands soupirs, douloureusement et dans les larmes, sollicita d'être humblement absous … de la sentence d'excommunication" 'getting down on his knees and expressing his contrition with great sighs, he humbly begged to be absolved of the sentence of excommunication' (Bataille). This attitude persisted throughout the rest of the proceedings, and Gilles went to his death reconciled with the power of the ecclesiastical authorities and fully reinstated in the Church.

Tournier begins the trial testimony by changing the sequence of events, complicating the situation and revealing both the extent of Gilles's own ability to overwhelm his judges and the level of their vanity. The trial transcript reports that Gilles was excommunicated on 13 October. When the next session opened, he appeared an effusive penitent. In Tournier's work the initial meeting ends with Gilles's attack on his judges as vengeful debtors, who are jealous of his family's influence: "Non, vous n'êtes pas des juges: vous êtes des débiteurs. Je ne suis pas un accusé: je suis un créancier" 'No, you are not judges: you are debtors. I am not the accused: I am a creditor.' Through the power of his own social position, he forces them mutely out of the trial hall: "atterés, ils sortirent piteusement, les uns après les autres …" 'shattered, they left pitifully, one after the other.' When the next session opens on Saturday, 15 October, Gilles is equally aggressive, asserting that he is as good a Christian as any one else. He insists that since he confessed to Blanchet, he is "blanc et pur comme l'agneau qui vient de naître" 'as white and pure as the lamb which has just been born' and, like Prelati, dares the court to attack him. In the interim, however, the judges recovered from their humiliation of the last session and unanimously excommunicated him. In keeping with the reaction noted in the trial transcript, Tournier's Gilles is thunderstruck: "L'excommunication est pire que la mort, puisqu'elle débouche sur la damnation éternelle" 'Excommunication is worse than death because it leads to eternal damnation.' This statement is significant for the light it sheds on Gilles's much flaunted fidelity to Joan; the text separates for Gilles the issue of condemnation to death and damnation, which it had failed to do for Joan. Furthermore, despite his repeated assertions about being willing to follow Joan to hell, Gilles does everything possible during his trial to avoid going to hell and experiencing the fire which Joan had suffered during her execution and to which he had subjected his victims.

Descending into hell for Gilles is only a metaphor, another rhetorical strategy used to mask his duplicity. When the tribunal makes his damnation a reality, his reversal is instantaneous. The speed of this transformation could be said to correspond to the overnight reversal indicated in the trial documents; but in yet another revision of history, Tournier reinstates Gilles in the Church before he acknowledges any crimes. The excommunication order is rescinded as soon as he begs forgiveness for having insulted the judges, playing up to their own egoism: "Je leur demande humblement pardon pour les injures et les paroles blessantes que j'ai proférées" 'I humbly ask their pardon for the insults and offensive words I spoke.' Only when the decree is lifted does he admit culpability, but even then his arrogance stands out as clearly as ever, and his expressions of guilt overwhelm his judges even more profoundly than his earlier vituperative outbursts: "[ils] se sentaient humiliés plus encore que sous les injures" '[they] felt themselves more humiliated than by insults.' There is no indication at this point that either Gilles or his judges is treating the situation any more honestly and forthrightly than they had earlier. Each manipulates the other in a desperate struggle for power. Only the means have changed, from insults and threats to excessive mea culpas and condescending pardons.

The process of historical manipulation and textual subversion culminates in the scene of Gilles's execution. As indicated by the trial documents, Gilles goes to his death reconciled with the Church, exhorting his two companions to welcome the death that awaits them, for then "ils se reverraient dans la gloire, avec Dieu dans le paradis" they would see one another in glory, with God in paradise' (Bataille). Tournier's depiction carefully maintains chronological and geographical accuracy; it emphasizes Gilles's public repentance as he proclaims to Henriet Griart and Poitou, "Suivez-moi dans mon salut comme vous m'avez suivi dans mes crimes" 'Follow me in my salvation as you followed me in my crimes.' Once again, however, Tournier's treatment raises troubling questions and reveals dramatically how the signified slips ever further beneath the signifier to prevent the production of meaning. Along with seeking to describe Gilles's execution in terms of Christ's crucifixion, with Gilles being paraded through the streets of Nantes to die on "un étrange golgotha" 'a strange golgotha,' Tournier's work attempts one last time to make Gilles's image converge with that of his idol by stressing the parallels between their execution scenes. However, this strategy will not work, for although Gilles and Joan were both executed, they did not, as Tournier's work emphasizes, die in the same way. Joan was burned alive on the Place du Vieux Marché in Rouen, and her ashes were thrown into the Seine (Warner). Out of mercy, Gilles, the still privileged nobleman, was hanged and died before the fire was lighted. His body was also removed from the pyre "avant que son corps ne fût ouvert" 'before his body burst open' and was then entombed in the Carmelite church in Nantes (Bataille; Nettlebeck). Only Gilles's two servant accomplices were destroyed by fire "de telle sorte qu'ils furent réduits en poudre" 'so that they were reduced to ashes' but after they too had already died by hanging (Bataille).

Despite the frenzied invocation of Joan's name which Tournier's Gilles makes as an "appel célèste" 'celestial appeal' before the crowd at his execution, the images do not converge in either a historical or a fictional context. They cannot even be made to reflect one another as the inverted mirror images that haunt so many of Tournier's writings. Gilles's reaffirmation of Joan's short-lived apotheosis as sainted warrior and her subsequent condemnation by the Inquisition just before his own death merely repeats his earlier declarations and offers no new insight into the differences separating them. And in one final, and perhaps its most splendidly ironic move of all, Tournier passes over in silence the one essential and historically verifiable parallel that does exist between Gilles's situation and Joan's—namely that they both died reconciled with the Church. His work denies Joan the official reconciliation it so dramatically grants the master of Tiffauges. Gilles's last comments leave Joan still condemned as a witch, awaiting future rehabilitation, while he prepares to ascend directly "vers la porte du ciel" 'to the gate of heaven.'

Tournier leaves his readers poised on the edge of the abyss his text creates, struggling to find our footing amidst "un réseau de contradictions" 'a network of contradictions.' However, as the ironic "voice" of Tournier's narration exposes the gap between Gilles and the one he appropriated as his idol, it creates the essential space in which our own questioning and contesting can be formulated. It is precisely this ongoing activity on our part which the text itself so vigorously encourages. Tournier's work seeks not to entrap us, but rather to provide us with the means to avoid being "définitivement compromis" 'definitively compromised.' The echoes of Gilles's last dramatic invocation, reinforced by the chanting of the crowd and the roar of the storm, continue to resonate in history and fiction down through the centuries, and the stench from his private holocaust continues to pollute the atmosphere. These signs marking Gilles's spectacular cruelty reached the ultimate level of horror in our era in the Nazi apocalypse, a phenomenon Tournier explores in his earlier work Le Roi des aulnes, which creates the fictional experience of his twentieth-century ogre Abel Tiffauges, revealing how acutely urgent it has become for us to be able to decipher the strategies that nourish and sanction atrocity. Only then can the tirades of a Gilles be silenced and the air cleared. More intensely and directly than any of Tournier's other writings, Gilles et Jeanne enables us to participate in this process of displacement.


Tournier, Michel (Vol. 6)