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.
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.
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.
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.