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by Bamber Gascoigne

Michel Tournier (1924-2016)


French writer, who gained fame at the age of forty-three with his first novel, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (1967, Friday; or, The Other Island), an ingenious reworking of the classic Robinson Crusoe theme. Michel Tournier's parodic and sometimes disturbing works can be read as comments upon the contemporary world, but are often based on old myths and stories.

Robinson was too exhausted to measure the full extent of his misfortune. "Since it isn't Más a Tierra" he reflected simply, "then it is the Island of Desolation," summing up his own situation with this impropmptu babtism. (in Friday, 1967)

Michel Tournier was born in Paris, the son of Alphonse Tournier, and Marie-Madeleine, née Fournier. His parents had met at the Sorbonne where they both studied German. Tournier also learned to speak German at an early age, when each summer his mother would take her children to stay in her favorite boarding house in Germany. After being wounded in the World War I, his father had given up the idea of becoming a teacher. He started a business to take in royalties for authors' record rights. These recorded texts, and the tales of Andersen, Selma Lagerlöf, James Oliver Curwood, gave rise to Tournier's hunger for the world of imagination and love for books. The family lived first near the fashionable Boulevard Haussmann. Later they moved to a large house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. In 1957 his family bought a former rectory in the hamlet of Choisel as a vacation home. It became eventually Tournier's permanent residence.

Tournier was educated at St.-Germain-en Laye and at a large number of private schools, mostly religious. During World War II German soldiers were stationed in the family's Saint-Germain-en Laye. Tournier completed his undergraduate studies and partly under the influence of Gaston Bachelard and Jean-Paul Sartre, he continued to higher degrees in philosophy and law at Sorbonne. He spent four years at the University of Tübinbeg (1946-50), planning a career in philosophy and education. His thesis was about Plato. Like his father, he did not pass the agrégation, a competitive state examination for admission to the most important teaching jobs. When he failed on his second attempt, Tournier abandoned his plan to become a teacher of philosophy.

Between 1949 and 1954, Tournier wrote and produced for French radio and television. He was the chief editor for the publishing firm of Plon (1958-68), a press attaché at the Radio Europe I (1964-1968), and hosted the television series La Chambre Noir, which was about photography. "I wasn't unhappy, but things weren't going well," he recalled. "To be a failure is fine when you're young, but the older you get, the harder it is to stand it." (Michel Tournier's Metaphysical Fiction by Susan Petit, 1991, p. 89) He wrote for the magazine Nouvelles Littéraires and translated Erich Maria Remarque's novels into French. Tournier describes this period as an excellent time to prepare his first novel and reconcile fiction and philosophy using myths as a vehicle. (World Authors 1975-80, edited by Vineta Colby, 1985, p. 745) He wrote three novels, which he did not consider worthy of being offered for publication.

Tournier's new look at old myths hit the literary scene at the right moment, when the audience was tired of the nouveau roman, with its difficult style of writing, avoidance of character analysis, absence of clear narrative, and emphasis on description instead of dramatization. When he began writing, he took as models such authors as Zola, Jules Renard, and Colette. Turning his back on the modern world, Tournier sought inspiration from the realms of fantasy and archetypes told from a fresh point of view. He showed that readability doesn't mean lack of depth. "A dead myth is called allegory," Tournier once said. "The writer's function is to prevent myths turning into allegories." ('Tree, Rhizome, Rock: Philosophical Inspirations in Michel Tournier's Concept of the Garden' by Magdalena Zdrada-Cok, in Space of a Garden – Space of Culture, edited by Grzegorz Gazda and Mariusz Golab, 2008, p. 217)

Not satisfied in merely retelling established myths and legends, Tournier deconstructs them in such a way that opens new ways of interpretation. Like in the work of the Swedish Nobel writer Pär Lagerkvist, the fundamental questions of good and evil, human suffering and meaning of existence, are examined in the context of Christian and alternative paradigms. When preparing a novel or a short story, Tournier surrounded himself with all sorts of things that he thought he might be able to draw on later in his work. For the novel about Saint Sebastian he studied the philosophy and technics of archery. 

With Friday Tournier won in 1967 the Grand Prix de Roman. It retells Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe but gives the story a philosophical depth. (Nearly 20 years later the Nobel writer J.M. Coetzee played with Defoe's classic novel in Foe. This time a woman shares the island with Robinson and Friday.) The famous hero is marooned on the desert island with his pipe tobacco, a copy of the Bible, and a modern identity problem. After abandoning his cultural background and sinking into animalism, Crusoe returns to the world of the spirit by the noble act of writing. "A new life thus began for him – or more exactly, it was the beginning of his true life on the island, after that period of degradation which he now thought of with shame and sought to forget." Crusoe develops a mystical relationship with his island, which he names Esperanza. When the rescue ship appears, Crusoe rejects the brutality of civilization reflected in the ship's crew. He stays on the island, and Friday chooses to leave, not accepting Crusoe's version of the world.

In sympathy with other workers, Tournier went on strike and was fired from the Plon publishing house, but his severance allowed him to continue his writing. Following the success of Friday, he left Paris, and  settled in Choisel, where he had bought an old village presbytery and converted it into a fuctional dwelling. Tournier's second novel, Le Roi des aulnes (1970, The Ogre), won the Prix Goncourt. The work was inspired by Goethe's famous ballad, 'Der Erlkönig' (1782), and Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959).

Tournier brought together the myths of St Christopher and the Erl King, set against the background of East Prussia during the Third Reich. Tournier made extensive research for the life of Field-Marshal Hermann Göring, whose passion for hunting plays a crucial role in the story. In the novel the ogre, Abel Tiffauges, is a monstrous and innocent character, a French prisoner in Germany who assists the Nazis by searching for boys for a Nazi military camp. Tiffauges is obsessed by his conviction that everything in the world is a sign. Destiny leads him to Rominten, the private hunting reverve of the "Great Huntsman" of the Third Reich, Field Marshal Hermann Göring. In the end he perishes while rescuing a little Jewish boy.

In 1975 there appeared Les Météores (Gemini), a baroque treatment of the myth of Castor and Pollux, which could be read as a contemporary version of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Beginning from Crusoe, Tournier's men are often solitary characters; he sees that the the natural antagonism of male and female is the major source of problems for human beings. In Gemini Thomas Koussek argues that "the heterosexual wants to lead the free, unattached life of the homosexual nobility. But the more he breaks out, the more firmly he is recalled to his proletarian condition."

Friday, rewritten for children as Friday and Robinson (1971), was less than half the lenght of the original. For the most part, Crusoe's logbook entries were eliminated, but Tournier added also new scenes, such as the invention of games and arts. Some of this material was introduced into the revised adult paperbacke edition in 1972. Enjoying an enormous popularity in France, the children's version was made by Antoine Vitez into a stage play and in 1982 it was adapted into a six-hour TV series. "For Tournier, writing can only ever be rewriting, not just the rewriting of key myths but also conscious and unconscious inter-textuality. The rewriting of Friday for children is merely the most obvious example of a compulsion to rework his fictional narratives." (Michael Tilby in Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier, 1993, p. 524)

Le Coq de bruyère (1978), Tournier's first collection of short fictions, included also a play, Le Fétichiste. Some of the stories had been published individually in illustrated editions for children. The first rewrites Genesis; God is portrayed as a narcissist and Adam is bisexual before God creates Eve, his female half. 'Amandine ou les deux jardins', 'La fugue du petit Poucet' and 'Tupik' focused on children growing up in a restrictive environment. Tournier has not avoided dealing with taboo subjects, such as politics and sex, in his children's stories, and he had troubles in finding a publisher abroad for the picturebook Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit (1979), which he called "a hymn to a physical contact" and "a lesson in love." However, its suggestive ending shocked even adult readers in France. (Crossover Fiction: Global and Historical Perspectives by Sandra L. Beckett, 2008, p. 195) In 1981, the book won the prize for best foreign children's book at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Tournier's fouth novel, Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar (1980, The Four Wise Men) reworked the familiar Christian legend of the three kings who came to Bethlehem to honor the Messiah's birth. Taor, the fourth Magi, according to Russian myth, travelled from India. Taor did not reach Bethlehem in time, but rescued a group of children from the Massacre of the Innocents. The story weaves together realistic elements with the fantastic, and makes a groundbreaking move away from the formalism of the French nouveau roman. After the publication of The Four Wise Men, Tournier was at the height of his career, considered to be France's leading novelist. Dissatified with the celebrated work – "I didn't go far enough", he said – Tournier wrote a children's version, which came out under the title Les Rois Mages (1983). The following adult novel he did not rewrite for children, feeling that he has no need to publish fiction separately for adults and children.

Gilles et Jeanne (1983) returned to the story of Joan of Arc and her contemporary, the mass murderer Gilles de Rais. These opposite characters meet in the first section. La goutte d'or (1985) was intended partly as an attack on France's racist attitudes toward its North African migrant workers. It the poetic story about the plight of these laborers the protagonist is Idris, a young Berber and a kind of Friday figure. In the middle of the desert he meets a beautiful white woman who takes a photo of him, promising to send it to Idris. He waits for the picture in vain, and then decides to travel to France, to find the woman. In Paris he experiences all the humiliations of an outsider and faces the superficial world of pictures. To save himself in the labyrinth of mirages, he starts to learn the art of calligraphy. "Le signe est esprit, l'image est matière."

Le Médianoche amoureux (1989, The Midnight Love Feast) included a novella, short stories, and short 'fables'. In the novella 'The Taciturn Lovers' examined the basic psychological warfare between men and women: "What is a domestic scene? It's the woman's triumph. It's when the woman has finally forced the man out of her silence by her nagging. Then he shouts, he rages, he's abusive, and the woman surrenders to being voluptuously steeped in this verbal downpour." Eléazar, ou, la source et le buisson (1996) recounted the journey of a family of 19th-century Irish settlers to a new home in California and explores the question of God's refusal to allow Moses to enter the Promised Land. Tournier .

Tournier was elected member of the Académie Goncourt in 1972. Tournier's literary autobiography came out in 1977 under the title Le Vent Paraclet. Despite preferring to commute to Paris from his home only for business or for literary activities, Tournier frequently visited schools and corresponded with classes by tape cassette. In addition to novels, Tournier published essays, short stories, prose poems, the travel book Le vagabond immobile (1984), and juvenile books. Several of his works have been illustrated photographs taken by Edouard Boubat. Though being a good all-around photographer himself, Tournier confined largely to portraits and to nudes. Michel Tournier died in his home in Choisel, near Versailles, on January 18, 2016. 

For further reading: Myytti ja usko Michel Tournierin tuotannossa by Anne Fried (1994); 'Tournier, Michel (Edouard),' in World Authors 1975-80, edited by Vineta Colby (1985); Michel Tournier by W. Cloonan (1985); Michel Tournier by S. Koster (1985); Michel Tournier, ed. by P.E. Knabe (1987); Michel Tournier, Philosophy and Fiction by C. Davis (1988); Michel Tournier by Francoise Merllié (1988); Michel Tournier: Le Roman mythologique by Arlette Bouloumié (1988); L'In-difference chez Michel Tournier by Mireille Rosello (1990); Michel Tournier's Metaphysical Fiction by Susan Petit (1991); Michel Tournier by Martin Roberts (1994); L'Evangile selon Michel by Lorna Milne (1994); Michel Tournier, edited by Michael Worton (1995); Tournier élémentaire by Jonathan Krell (1995); Michel Tournier: Le Coq De Bruyere by Walter Redfern (1996); Michel Tournier by David Gascoigne (1996); Michel Tournier's Children by Christopher Anderson (1998); Myth and the Fiction of Michel Tournier and Patrick Grainville by Rachel Edwards (1999); ('Tree, Rhizome, Rock: Philosophical Inspirations in Michel Tournier's Concept of the Garden' by Magdalena Zdrada-Cok, in Space of a Garden – Space of Culture, edited by Grzegorz Gazda and Mariusz Golab (2008); Postmodern Mythology of Michel Tournier by Melissa Barchi Panek (2012); Différance in Signifying Robinson Crusoe: Defoe, Tournier, Coetzee and Deconstructive Re-visions of a Myth by Haiyan Ren (2014); Dictionnaire Michel Tournier, dirigé et préfacé par Arlette Bouloumie (2019)

Selected bibliography:

  • Vendredi, ou les Limbes du Pacifique, 1967 (Grand Prix du Roman de l'Academie Francaise)
    - Friday; or, The Other Island (translated by Norman Denny, 1969)
    - Perjantai eli Tyynen meren kiirastuli (suom. Eila Kostamo, 1980)
    - Film 2005, prod. A.A. Les Films Belge, Artisan, C&C Partners, dir. Yvan Le Moine,starring Philippe Nahon, Alain Moraïda, Ornella Muti, Hanna Schygulla
  • Le Roi des aulnes, 1970
    - The Ogre (translated by Barbara Bray, 1972) / The Erl-King (U.K. title, translated by Barbara Bray, 1972)
    - Keijujen kuningas (suom. Annikki Suni, 1983)
    - Film 1996, prod. Canal+, France 2 Cinéma, Héritage Films, screenplay Jean-Claude Carrière and Volker Schlöndorff, dir. Volker Schlöndorff, starring John Malkovich, Gottfried John, Marianne Sägebrecht, Volker Spengler
  • Vendredi ou la Vie sauvage, 1971
    - Friday and Robinson: Life on Esperanza Island (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1972)
    - Robinson ja Perjantai (suom. Inkeri Tuomikoski, 1982)
    - TV film 1981, prod.
    Antenne-2, Carthago Films S.a.r.l., Société Française de Production (SFP), dir. Gérard Vergez, starring Michael York, Gene Anthony Ray, Roger Blin, Robert Rimbaud
  • Le Fétichiste: un acte pour un homme seul, 1974 (play)
    - [The Fetishist]
    - Fetisisti: yksinäytöksinen yksinäisen miehen puheenvuoro (suom. Annikki Suni, 1993)
  • Le nain rouge, 1975
    - Film: Le nain rouge / The Red Dwarf, 1998, prod. Production Co:A.A. Les Films Belge, Canal+, Classic, dir. Yvan Le Moine, starring Jean-Yves Thual, Anita Ekberg, Dyna Gauzy, Michel Peyrelon
  • Les Météores, 1975 (Prix Goncourt)
    - Gemini (translated by Ann Carter, 1981)
    - Meteorit (suom. Annikki Suni, 1985)
  • Le Vent Paraclet, 1977
    - The Wind Spirit: An Autobiography (translated by Arthur Goldhammer, 1988)
  • La famille des enfants, 1977
  • Canada: journal de voyage, 1977 (photographs Edouard Boubat)
  • Contes et nouvelles Le Coq de bruyère, 1978
    - The Fetishist (translated by Barbara Wright, 1983)
    - Punainen kääpiö (suom. Annikki Suni, 1981)
    - Film adaptations: Le coq de Bruyère, TV film 1980, dir. Gabriel Axel, starring Pierre Mondy, Françoise Christophe, Dorothée Jemma, Jean-Marie Proslier; Tupik, short film, 1987, dir. Chantal Richard; Mirage dangereux, TV film 1987, based on L'air du muguet, dir. Charlotte Dubreuil, starring Jean Carmet, Tom Novembre and Sylvie Orcier
  • Des clefs et des serrures, 1979
  • Pierrot, ou les secrets de la nuit, 1979 (illustrated by Danièle Bour)
    - Pierrot ja yön salaisuudet (suom. Annikki Suni, 1984)
  • La Fugue du Petit Poucet, 1979
  • Barbedor, 1980
  • Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, 1980
    - The Four Wise Men (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1982)
    - Kolmen kuninkaan kumarrus (suom. Annikki Suni, 1982)
  • Vues de dos, 1981 (photographs by Edouard Boubat)
  • Le Vol du vampire, 1981
  • L'Aire du Muguet, 1982
  • Barbedor, 1982
  • François Mitterand, 1983 (with Konrad R. Müller)
  • Les Rois Mages, 1983
  • Gilles et Jeanne, 1983
    - Gilles & Jeanne (translated by Alan Sheridan, 1990)
  • Des clefs et des serrures, 1993
  • Sept contes, 1984 (illustrated by Pierre Hézard)
  • Le vagabond immobile, 1984 (designs by Jean-Max-Tombeau)
  • Journal de voyage au Canada, 1984
  • Marseille, ou, Le présent incertain, 1985 (photo collection)
  • Petites proses, 1986
  • La Goutte d'Or, 1986
    - The Golden Droplet (translated by Barbara Wright, 1987)
    - Kultapisara (suom. Annikki Suni, 1988)
    - TV film 1990, prod.
    France 3 (FR 3), dir. Marcel Bluwal, starring Lilah Dadi, Farid Chopel and Jean-Pierre Bisson
  • Le Tabor et le Sinaï, 1988
    - Taaborinvuori ja Siinainvuori: esseitä nykytaiteesta (suom. Annikki Suni, 1990)
  •  Le Médianoche amoureux, 1989
    - The Midnight Love Feast (translated by Barbara Wright, 1992)
    - Rakastavaisten illallinen: satuja ja novelleja (suom. Annikki Suni, 1990)
  • Le Crépuscule des masques, 1992
  • Waterline, 1994 (photographs by Arno Rafael Minkkinen)
  • Le Pied de la lettre, 1994
  • Le Miroir des idées, 1994
    - The Mirror of Ideas (translated by Jonathan Krell, 1998)
  • La Couleuvrine, 1994
  • Eléazar, ou la Source et le Buisson, 1996
    - Eleazar, Exodus to the West (translated by Jonathan F. Krell, 2002)
  • The Mirror of Ideas, 1998
  • ALAIA, 1998 (with Azzedine Alaia, Juan Gatty)
  • Sept contes, 1998
  • Célébrations: essais, 1999
  • Journal extime, 2002
  • Allemagne, un conte d'hiver de Henri Heine, 2003
  • Les vertes lectures de Michel Tournier, 2006
  • Michel Tournier, Voyages et Paysages, 2010 (photographs by Edouard Boubat, ed. Arlette Bouloumie)
  • Lettres parlées à son ami allemand Hellmut Waller (1967-1998), 2015 (édition établie, présentée et annotée par Arlette Bouloumié)
  • Contrebandier de la philosophie: sept conférences suivies d'échanges avec le public, 2021 (édition d'Arlette Bouloumié et de Mathilde Bataillé)

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