Saturday, 11 October 2014

On Michel Tournier

Forget  Modiano. Forget Roth and Murukami and all the other bookmakers' favourites. Of all the forty Nobel Prize in Literature candidates listed last week by Ladbrokes (with Bob Dylan and Tom Stoppard rank outsiders at 50/1),  not one of them is fit to sharpen Tournier's pencils. 

There are those who agree with me, who have read his books. Those who don't, it's fair to say, haven't. 

His first novel was Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (1967), published in English under the more prosaic title Friday, a re-telling of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of his manservant. Next came Le Roi des aulnes (1970, translated in 1972 as The Erl-King). This is a tremendous masterpiece, perhaps the greatest single French novel of the last century - a brilliant, epic and deeply disturbing account of Abel Tiffauges, a car mechanic caught up in the monstrous mysticism of the Third Reich, and including a lengthy (and gripping) discourse on the classification of deer antlers. 

Both books have remained in print ever since, and in English to boot. I can't think of a more convincing debut and second novel from any writer. He was, I think, 43 when the first book was published. More than a dozen novels followed between 1975 and 2002 (the highlight being Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar (The Four Wise Men, 1980), another re-telling, this time of events leading up to the Nativity. 

There's a very good profile of Tournier (in English) with a fairly comprehensive (if daunting) bibliography here. He will be ninety on December 19th this year and is said to be working on a book about Saint Sebastian. 

He has always been well-known among anglophone readers but I get the impression his star has waned on both sides of the Channel and have to confess I was surprised - and delighted, of course - to learn he was still with us. Do read and re-read The Erl-King - an astonishingly powerful and original novel to rank alongside  . . . well, the best of Patrick Modiano..

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