World Literature

Michel Tournier

 

BORN: 1924, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Friday, or The Other Island (1967)

The Ogre (1970)

The Fetishist, and Other Stories (1978)

The Golden Droplet (1985)

 

 

Michel Tournier. Tournier, Michel, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Michel Edouard Tournier, one of the most popular novelists in France, writes provocative fiction that blends myth and symbolism with realistic depictions of characters and setting. Tournier is a radical social critic, challenging cultural notions of the social contract handed down through myth and showing characters who select alternative modes of relating to their environment. Like the works of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Vladimir Nabokov, Tournier’s tales are densely packed with a complex network of symbols and allusions.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Influence of Germany and World War II. Tournier was born on December 19, 1924, in Paris. His family was middle class. His father, Alphonse Tournier, founded and directed an organization that dealt with musical copyrights. Shortly after Tournier’s birth, the family moved to the Parisian suburb of Saint-Germainen-Laye, where the author-to-be spent his childhood. When he was four years old, he underwent a painful tonsillectomy without anesthesia, which he later described as a kind of primitive initiation rite. Consequently, the theme of initiation figures prominently in many of his works. A sickly child, he excelled in theology and German studies.

Tournier’s youth was indelibly marked by World War II. After attempts to appease the territorial ambitions of Adolf Hitler failed, the war began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Both Great Britain and France immediately declared war on Hitler and Germany. In the spring of 1940, France fell to Hitler’s army and the country was occupied for much of the war.

The war years were particularly painful for Tournier, because he was raised in a household that had as much respect for genuine German culture as contempt for the Nazi parody of it. His family spoke German and often had spent summers in Germany. Although he was too young to serve actively in the war, living close to Paris provided him with opportunities to observe the varying reactions to the German occupation. He noted the pain and suffering of the French, but also in many cases, the French admiration for their German conquerors, as well as the frequently slavish adulation of Marshal Philippe Petain and his puppet government at Vichy. After the war, Tournier was witness to the numerous distortions and fictionalizations that led to the creation of the myth of the ‘‘French Resistance.’’

Denied University Career. Tournier’s postwar studies led him to what was supposed to be a brief period at the German University of Tubingen. This visit wound up lasting four years (1946-1950), during which Tournier devoted himself to the study of philosophy. When he returned to Paris, it was to prepare for the difficult French examination called the agregation. Tournier later recalled that, although he considered himself the finest philosopher of his generation, this opinion was not shared by his examiners, and he flunked the test. This setback effectively ended his hopes for a university career, and for a while he drifted in the exciting intellectual world of postwar Paris. He sat in on Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropology lectures at the Musee de l’Homme. The influence of this experience is apparent in his first published novel, Friday, or The Other Island (1967).

Tournier held a number of media positions in France in the postwar period as well. He was a producer and director with the R.T.F. (Radiodiffasion-television franyaise) from 1949 to 1954. In 1955, he joined Europe No. 1, a radio network, as a press attache and announcer. (His short story ‘‘Tristan Vox,’’ in the collection The Fetishist, and Other Stories (1978), displays his knowledge of the realities of the radio business, as well as the fantasies that can be engendered by the human voice.) Tournier left in 1958, when he joined the Parisian publishing house, Plon, as the director of literary services. During his decade-long tenure, he also did translations of German works, particularly the novels of Erich Maria Remarque.

Television Career. Soon, television beckoned as well. From 1960 to 1965, Tournier hosted a series titled The Black Box, which concerned what was to become his principal hobby, photography. This interest led him to write many introductions to photographic collections. Tournier was also one of the founders of the annual Rencontres internationales de la photographie, which takes place in Arles. Photography figures in most of Tournier’s fiction, and his ambivalent attitude toward the photographic image plays an important role in the novel The Golden Droplet (1985), as well as the short story ‘‘Veronica’s Shrouds,’’ which appears in The Fetishist, and Other Stories (1978).

Literary Success. Every aspect of Tournier’s varied career helped him to become a novelist, though it was philosophy education and his years as a translator that were particularly influential. While holding the media jobs, he figured out how to combine myth, philosophy, and fiction. He wrote three novels he deemed unworthy of publication, then completed The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1967), which inspired Friday, or The Other Island. Tournier was forty-three years old when he published Friday and began his meteoric career as a novelist. This book won him the prestigious Grand prix du roman de l’Academie franyaise in 1967, and much acclaim. Tournier followed Friday with The Ogre (1970), an exploration of life in Nazi Germany, for which he received the Prix Goncourt. He was soon recognized as one of the most remarkable writers to appear on the postwar French literary scene and received international attention for his works. In 1972, he accepted an invitation to join the Academie Goncourt.

Focusing primarily on writing, Tournier continued to publish challenging novels intermittently in the 1970s through the early 2000s. He followed The Ogre with Gemini (1975) and The Four Wise Men (1982). The latter is a retelling of the biblical story of the Magi that finds the men resolving personal problems when they find the messiah in Bethlehem. Tournier also includes a fourth seeker of the Christ Child who misses the birth, spends the next thirty-three years in prison in another man’s place, eats leftovers from the Last Supper, and is welcomed into heaven. The book received critical acclaim for its melding of religious and secular elements.

Simple Life. After publishing the notorious novella Gilles and Jeanne (1983) and the novella Garden at Hammamet (1985), Tournier put out the critically acclaimed Golden Droplet (1986), which looks at a quest for identity in a world where images are valued more than realities. Through the story of Idriss, a young Berber shepherd who goes to Paris, Tournier argues that the primary force of culture seems to be its ability to construct convincing illusions. Tournier challenged readers with his short-story collection The Midnight Love Feast (1991). The novel Eleazar, Exodus to the West (2002) finds Tournier returning to the Bible for inspiration. This time, he compared the journey of Moses across the desert with that of American immigrants heading west to California in search of a better life.

Tournier, a lifelong bachelor, has lived in a former rectory in the valley of the Chevreuse, for many years. Although he enjoys his considerable isolation, he also has been a frequent guest on French television talk shows, travels and lectures extensively in Europe and Africa, and gives talks to French schoolchildren. He has continued to publish other new works as well, including the observational diary Journal extime (2002).

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Tournier's famous contemporaries include:

Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979): The vice president of the United States under President Gerald Ford, Rockefeller was a liberal Republican who had previously served as the governor of New York.

Margaret Thatcher (1925-): The first female British prime minister. Her tough, conservative leadership earned her the nickname the ''Iron Lady.''

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008): Often cited as one of the greatest chess players of all time, Fischer was a teenage prodigy who became the first American to win the World Chess Championship.

Steven Spielberg (1946-): A director, producer, and screenwriter, Spielberg's films have been the highest grossing of all time.

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004): Popular actor, governor of California, and two-term U.S. president.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): This Chilean writer is one of the most popular poets of the twentieth century and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Tournier's use of symbolism and allusion has much in common with the work of several other acclaimed twentieth-century authors, including:

Lolita (1955), a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. A novel both famous and infamous, Lolita is the tale of a middle-aged man obsessed with a young teenage girl. The book is filled with literary and cultural allusions, often multilayered.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Even though this novel consists of fewer than two hundred pages, the story is thickly packed with dense historical and literary references, including a poetical allusion to the character of Humbert Humbert from Lolita.

The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), a novel by John Barth. A ''mock epic'' that satirizes both historical epics and picaresque novels, this book traces an ''innocent abroad'' as he makes his way through colonial Maryland, interacting with many actual historical figures.

 

Works in Literary Context

White Laughter. In an effort to achieve his ends, Tournier makes use of two concepts that suffuse all of his writing, both of which are crucial for understanding his creative works. Both have bases in his philosophical studies, and both are replete with irony. They are le rire blanc (‘‘white laughter’’) and the special meaning he gives to myth.

In The Holy Spirit, Tournier notes that the ‘‘white laughter denounces the fundamentally transitory, relative nature of everything human ...; the man who experiences white laughter has just seen the abyss open beneath him. He knows suddenly that nothing is important. He is filled with agony, yet at the same time delivered from all fear.’’ White laughter reflects an awareness of life’s utter meaninglessness. It is precisely this intuition that many of Tournier’s major characters attempt to reject by their elaborate inventions of highly structured universes.

Myth. An equally strong influence on Tournier’s writing is myth. In his novels, he makes frequent use of a variety of myths, but principal among them is the myth of twinship he associates with Cain and Abel. These two figures represent types of opposing but complementary personalities. Cain is the sedentary, the person who fears the complex and unforeseen. He hopes to have his life unfold in a totally predictable manner within a clearly demarcated geographic space. Abel is the nomad, the individual who, at times despite himself, becomes a wanderer and is forced to confront some of life’s complexities. It is tempting yet misleading to place Tournier’s characters into one or the other category. For example, Robinson of Friday could easily be Abel and the slave Vendredi Cain. In The Ogre, the conveniently named

Abel Tiffauges would be an Abel figure, and his friend Nestor a Cain. The globe-trotting Jean in Gemini would be Abel and his brother Paul Cain. In spite of the neatness of this schema, it simply does not work. No single character is a Cain or an Abel; each has within himself the potential to be the other. The myth of twinship indicates for Tournier that the quest for self-fulfillment involves a struggle, not just with the beloved and despised other, but within the individual himself.

Influence. As a leading modern French author, Tournier has influenced postmodern authors worldwide with his thematic, stylistic, and philosophical choices. Literary critics and fine-art students find such works as his collection of art criticism, Le Tabor et le Sinai Essais sur l’art contemporain (1988), particularly useful.

 

Works in Critical Context

Since the publication of his first acclaimed novels, critics have acknowledged Tournier as an important figure in modern French literature. He has been praised for creating challenging works, but his novels have also been criticized for their pretentiousness and, on occasion, for their somewhat disturbing and even frightening themes. The controversial nature of his subjects has brought him much critical attention as well. As Bob Halliday comments in the Washington Post Book World, ‘‘In Europe, where Tournier is recognized as the major French novelist of the past 20 years . . . his morally often uncomfortable works have aroused hot controversy and sold in the millions.’’

The Ogre. Many critics, including Jean Amery in Merkur, gave The Ogre a hostile reception, calling it a glorification of neo-Nazi ideals. However, William Cloonan argues in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that this reading results from mistaking the main character, Tiffauges, as a spokesman for Tournier, who has deliberately presented his character in a negative light. It also ignores the fact that Tournier depicts Tiffauges as a man separated from recognizing the ultimate evil of his actions by elaborate self-delusions. Cloonan asserts that ‘‘Tournier is depicting a deeply confused person whose personality is at once a portrait and parody of the Nazi psyche,’’ and an illustration of how important it is for individuals and nations to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Other critics, too, have been baffled by the multiplicity of ideas and interpretations present in the story, yet they still regard reading it as a worthwhile literary experience. Newsweek’s Peter Prescott calls it a ‘‘fine novel’’ that is ‘‘more likely to be praised than read.’’ ‘‘The Ogre is built in the way Bach built his fugues; themes and statements are introduced, inverted, tangled and marched past each other, all to be resolved in loud, majestic chords,’’ described Prescott, adding, ‘‘and yet the symbols and correspondences of this story, which are far more complex than I have been able to indicate, would be insufficient to sustain it as fiction. Tournier’s achievement rests in his remarkable blend of myth with realism.... [He] offers a succession of scenes ... which, as Abel says, not only decipher the essence of existence, but exalt it.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Tournier, like many French intellectuals of his age, was influenced by the philosophy of Claude Levi-Strauss. In a paper, address these questions: What impact do you think Tournier’s background in philosophy and the influence of Levi-Strauss had on his writing? How does he interweave philosophy with his narratives?

2. In a group, discuss the following questions: What role do pairs play in Tournier’s literature? What are his views of heterosexual pairings? How do these views compare with his take on homosexual relationships, or to the relationships between twins?

3. Create a presentation that addresses these questions: How does Tournier’s depiction of the character Friday differ from the original Robinson Crusoe depiction by Defoe? What are some other modern interpretations of Friday? What different messages were the various authors (including Defoe) trying to convey with Friday? Why is Friday such a suitable character for transmitting an author’s message?

4. In an essay, answer the following questions: How do you feel about the main character in The Ogre? Is it appropriate for an author to write from the perspective of such an unlikable character? How closely do you think Tournier identified with Tiffauges? Why?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Anderson, Christopher. Michel Tournier’s Children: Myth, Intertext, Initiation. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Davis, Colin. Michel Tournier: Philosophy and Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Roberts, Martin. Michel Tournier: Bricolage and Cultural Mythology. Saratoga, Calif.: ANMA Libri, 1994.