Michel Tournier Tournier, Michel (Vol. 95)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michel Tournier 1924–

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

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

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

Biographical Information

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

Major Works

Friday is a recasting of the story that inspired Daniel Defoe's novel The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner (1719; popularly known as simply Robinson Crusoe). Strongly influenced by the anthropological theories of Lévi-Strauss, which, in part, stress the complexity and cultural fecundity of so-called primitive societies, the novel reverses Defoe's hierarchy by depicting Friday—the island native—acting as savior and teacher of Crusoe. The main character in The Ogre , a French auto mechanic named Abel Tiffauges, is—with his enormous size, poor eyesight, and deceptively malevolent interest in children—a twentieth century version of the ogres of European fairy tales; foremost among...

(The entire section is 38,832 words.)