Michel Tournier and the Novel of Ideas

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Do novels think?

Epigrams that land with authority and portentous titles like Franzen’s Freedom and Purity simulate thinking, and they’re ubiquitous. There are writers who create plots around intellectual schematics.1

Real thought is dramatized famously in Plato’s Symposium. Various characters propose theories of love before the entire discussion breaks down with the disruptive arrival of Alcibiades. The Portrait of a Lady, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Cannibal’s Galaxy work similarly. Successful novels of ideas constantly reframe, discard, parody, and revise the ideas of novels. They disrupt the history of ideas as profoundly as non-narrative philosophy does.

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Ideas haunt Michel Tournier’s novels. Wrongheaded and provocative thinking, often at the same time, rule his protagonists (a Quaker castaway, a pedophilic man-ogre, four ancient kings). Improbably, their attempts to redeem or vindicate or overturn their intellectual commitment to abstractions, like civilization or justice, provide a deep reservoir of pathos.

Tournier was born in 1924 in Paris, a city he loathes. In a sense, he was born into all the themes that he drew from in his work. His parents were committed Germanophiles, having met at the Sorbonne, and spent some time in 1930s Germany observing the rise of Nazism up close. As a psychology student in secondary school, each Sunday, Tournier observed patient treatment at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris’s largest psychiatric hospital. He returns to his fascination with pathology and mental illness in his fiction, always with a complex attitude toward his mentally unstable subjects.

The OgreIn The Ogre (translated by Barbara Bray), the protagonist Abel Tiffauges is a literary concoction of monstrosity and wit. In the Nazi era, between 1938 and 1945, Tiffauges drafts his “Sinister Constitution.” The fourth entry reads:

As soon as a man lays down the law he places himself outside it, and thereby outside its protection. Thus the life of a man exercising any kind of power is of less value than that of a cockroach or a louse. Parliamentary immunity ought to be transformed by benign inversion to give every citizen the right to shoot at sight and without a license any politician who comes within range.

After discovering two books by Gaston Bachelard in a bookstore one day, Tournier decided to commit himself to philosophy. As an undergraduate, he studied French law and philosophy. His thesis was on Plato. Three years later, he attempted to acquire the equivalent of secondary-school teaching certification and failed. Tournier’s description of a character in The Four Wise Men might be a subtle jab at the sort of man he could have become:

One day, a portly man, puffed up with self-importance, turned up in the salt mine, which was Taor’s. His name was Cleophantes, and he hailed from Pisidian Antioch in Asia Minor, which, as he never tired of pointing out, must not be confused with Syrian Antioch on the Orontes. Distinctions of this sort gave you the man in a nutshell: raising his forefinger like a schoolmaster, he inflicted them on anyone who would listen.

In addition to producing programs on existentialism for an alternative radio station, Tournier worked as a translator from German after failing his teacher accreditation test. According to Michael Worton, he took liberties with translations. After praising Tournier for his translation of All Quiet on the Western Frontier, the author Erich Maria Remarque pointed out that several passages of his novel were missing in the translation. Remarque was also puzzled to find in the French passages he had not written.

Since establishing himself as an important 20th century French novelist, Tournier has spent most of his time in the village of Choisel. He claims to reporters to be France’s greatest “amateur photographer” and frequently gives tours of his gardens.

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At the age of forty-two, Tournier published his first novel Friday (1967), a reimagining of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The novel won the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman.

The novel intersperses first-person diary entries with third-person omniscience. The entries explore the castaway’s sense of dislocation and confusion:

I was in a land bereft of humankind. The group of my unfortunate companions receded into darkness, and their voices had long been silent when my own was still only beginning to weary of its soliloquy. Since then I have noted with a horrid fascination the dehumanizing process which I feel to be inexorably at work within me […] My fellows were the mainstay of my world…

The Four Wise MenWhen Friday, named after the day of the week Crusoe rescued him, arrives, they clash. The castaway is alternately compassionate and sadistic toward his companion, but even his attempts at cruelty are befuddled by his servant’s nonchalance. Their personal conflicts reflect questions about the value of work, the relationship of nature and civilization, and imperialism.

In the evening, [Friday] would drop his bag at Robinson’s feet with an offhand gesture which might have been that of a faithful retriever or, on the other hand, of a master so sure of his authority that he did not trouble to give orders. But the truth was that their relationship now extended beyond either of those two poles. Robinson now observed with a passionate interest Friday’s every act, and their effect upon himself…

Tournier’s interest in abstraction and training as a philosopher do not necessarily bode well for his fiction-writing. Philosophers from Plato onward have used language and literary devices brilliantly, but I still cringe at hearing affectations like “always already” and “alterity.” Abstraction can undermine the noble goal of thoughtful, articulate prose.

In an interview in 1987, collected in Michel Tournier’s Metaphysical Fictions (1991), Tournier said,

I really think that eleven-year-old boys and girls can read La Goutte d’or, my latest novel, which for me is the criterion of success. That doesn’t mean that I write for children. But it’s a criterion, because it means I can write clearly and briefly, and be concrete—which is very hard, especially because I started out as a philosopher.

Build your novel on philosophy, Tournier seems to be saying, but write it with the limpid sensuality of a children’s book.

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What is novelistic thought?

There’s architectural thought, part-to-whole thinking, the relationship of Part A (Ulrich’s recognition that he is a “man without qualities”) to Part M (Ulrich becomes involved in the Parallel Campaign). Novelists need a grasp of plotting and character logic; in A Brief History of Seven Killings, how does the charismatic, sadistic gangster Josey Wales’s Character Trait lead to his Tragic Mistake?”

But I mean a different kind of thinking. I have in mind what Aristotle talks about in his Poetics. Aristotle placed thought (dianoia) behind only plot (mythos) and character (ethos) in importance.

Thought is every part that is related to speech: proving and refuting, provoking feeling, suggesting importance or triviality. Thought is one of the causes of action… it covers the mind’s activities from reasoning, perception, and emotion. Thought is expressed in speeches and is therefore closely linked to diction.

Novels are valuable because they express consciousness so elegantly. It’s that transfixing ability to provoke and dramatize thought that distinguishes the novel from any other form, but it’s under-utilized generally.

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Both Tournier’s first and second novels were criticized because his depictions of Tiffauges and the Quaker castaway seemed to insult religion. Tiffauges, a pedophiliac “ogre,” refers to himself as a reincarnation of St. Christopher, and Crusoe’s sadism is tied to his missionary impulses. The Ogre was awarded the 1970 Prix Goncourt anyways, becoming the only unanimous winner in the prize’s history.

FridayDespite his supposed ambivalence towards Christian iconography, when he chose to rewrite a foundational Biblical story, he crafted another subtle masterpiece. Translated by Ralph Manheim, The Four Wise Men (1980) takes up the story of the Magi from the gospel of Matthew. From spare details (three kings or wise men from “the East,” a contract with King Herod), Tournier weaves a complex tableau of faith.

Translated by Ralph Manheim, The Four Wise Men has familiar Tournier themes: the failed-but-ultimately-ennobling quest, the importance of vocation, the reconciliation of ideas with the world. Frustrated by worldly concerns, each of the kings embark on a journey, which will take them through the demonic mindscape of King Herod before arriving in Bethlehem. The ultimate destination of a spiritual journey, Tournier reminds us, has to be obscure.

It’s also an intellectual conversion story. Each king in turn discovers Christianity as a key to the existential crisis haunting them. For instance, King Balthasar is enamored with a painting of a woman. Not even marrying the woman seems to satisfy his delirious attachment to the likeness. His visit to Bethlehem reconfigures his worldview:

You ask me what I found in Bethlehem. I found the image and the likeness reconciled, I found the image regenerated, thanks to the rebirth of an underlying likeness.

Bachelard’s philosophy could be seen as an inspiration to The Four Wise Men. Bachelard (1884–1962) wrote about epistemological ruptures, the way new systems of thought incorporate rather than refute previous worldviews. Christianity is not a radical departure from pagan worldviews or a challenge to modernity; it’s more or less a re-organization and consolidation.

The fourth king, Taor, is a frivolous prince from Mangalore who embarks on a tragicomic quest to bring the sweetest sweets back to his home country. While in Sodom, he makes a casual, arbitrary act of self-sacrifice and serves for thirty-three years in the salt mines. As in Friday, Tournier has a peculiar gift for writing physical drudgery:

Clearly, it was in this connection that Taor—the Prince of Sweets—underwent the most painful reform of his tastes and habits. From the very first day his gullet was scorched with thirst, but this was a mere thirst of the throat, localized and superficial. Little by little, it vanished, but only to give way to a different thirst, less mordant perhaps, but more profound, more fundamental. It was no longer his mouth and throat that cried out for fresh water, but his entire organism.

Eventually Taor receives spiritual deliverance, with an ironic wink from his author.

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Arguments that draw on cognitive research about empathy and reading, or the way books sustain and build attentiveness, are fascinating but utilitarian. They put the ultimate value of reading on some other plane: chemical balance, social integration, political commitments. But they avoid the primary question: why novels now?

I think more ought to be risked in the ideas of our literature. Our novels need to be cultivate a deeper commitment to thinking. As the passage comparing Friday and Robinson continues:

Robinson now observed with a passionate interest Friday’s every act, and their effect upon himself, which seemed to lead toward an astonishing metamorphosis.

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1. A good example of this is contemporary television’s deconstruction of “white-hat-versus-black-hat” morality that was spoofed on season 6 of The Good Wife.


John Yargo is a writer and teacher living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Follow him @GiveUsThisNada. More from this author →