Michel Édouard Tournier (tewr-nyay) is one of the most widely read, most honored, and certainly most controversial and thought-provoking of contemporary European writers. He was born in Paris on December 19, 1924, the son of Alphonse and Marie-Madeleine (Fournier) Tournier, who had met while studying German at the Sorbonne. Alphonse’s educational career was curtailed by World War I; after being wounded, he abandoned professional ambitions and founded an international bureau which dealt with musicians’ copyrights. Tournier’s favorite toy was the phonograph; from childhood on, he enjoyed music but even more the power of the spoken word. Marie-Madeleine’s legacy was equally formative. While she gave up her teaching plans for child-rearing, she never lost her love for Germany, which she passed on to her children. Tournier’s maternal great-uncle, Gustave Fournier, had taught German in Dijon, and tales about Gustave and Edouard, Tournier’s grandfather, during the Prussian occupation of the 1870’s form the basis of some of Tournier’s autobiographical vignettes in The Wind Spirit. His own childhood was laced with train excursions to the Black Forest; these happy occasions took place within the growing shadow of Nazism. Tournier was not a diligent student nor was he a prodigious reader. Yet he was attracted to writers such as Hans Christian Andersen, whose works combine fantasy with reality. Tournier has said that he wishes his own works to be comprehensible to any twelve-year-old child. His stories in The Fetishist, and Other Stories, his rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) in Friday, and the novel The Four Wise Men reflect his early reading.
When he was four years old, Tournier underwent a routine tonsillectomy. To the nervous and hypersensitive young boy, the operation was a nightmare, an invasion. It gave Tournier a sense of alienation and a mistrust of other people. This feeling of solitude and separation was furthered by his experiences during World War II. Too young for active service, Tournier first saw the war from a perspective of youthful exuberance. At the beginning of the Occupation, his family lived in the Parisian suburbs, but their home was soon commandeered by German officers, and the Tourniers were socially categorized by their germanistik sympathies. The family moved to an apartment in Neuilly while Tournier stayed at a summer cottage in Villers-sur-Mer and, later on, in the village of Lusigny. In spring, 1944, by chance he was away from Lusigny when his foster family was deported to Buchenwald for having helped the Maquis. Tournier’s love of German culture made Nazi excesses even more intolerable to him, but he admits that he, like the majority of the French, never considered joining the Resistance. From 1942 to 1945, Tournier studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Gaston Bachelard and Jean-Paul Sartre. He also was influenced by fellow student Gilles Deleuze. In 1946 Tournier went to the university in Tübingen for a proposed three-week study of German philosophers; he stayed there for four years. In July, 1949, however, Tournier suffered the setback which ended his academic career: He failed his Sorbonne doctoral exam. It was a bitter blow, yet it may also be seen as the beginning of his literary vocation.
From 1949 to 1958, Tournier worked in radio and television production, first for a French station, and then as an announcer for Europe No. 1. He lived in a Parisian hotel with other painters and writers. He also worked as a translator of contemporary German texts, most notably those of Erich Maria Remarque, into French, and he took courses from Claude Lévi-Strauss. In 1958, Tournier became head of translation services for Editions Plon, where he worked until 1968. From 1960 to 1965, he also hosted a television series, La Chambre bleue (the darkroom), which dealt with photography. Tournier has been called France’s foremost “amateur” photographer, and the motif of image versus...
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