Michel Tournier and the TLS
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Yesterday’s awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich wasn’t perhaps as much of a surprise as last year’s crowning of Patrick Modiano. It’s fair to say that the choice of Modiano put paid to any lingering prospects Modiano’s fellow Frenchman Michel Tournier may have had of being garlanded (and I’m not sure that he would care either way). After all, Tournier is ninety and hasn’t published a novel for nearly twenty years (Éléazar, 1996). It’s hard to imagine there will be another one.
Tournier hasn’t ever had his due in Britain: his novels were translated, and respectfully reviewed, but had little impact. His brand of intellectually probing novel of ideas is essentially alien to us, even if his first novel Friday (Vendredi ou les limbes du pacifique, 1967) is based on Robinson Crusoe. His great second novel Le Roi des aulnes (1970; The Erl-King) tackled the Nazi era in a way that was utterly strange and compelling. When his first collection of short stories Le Coq de bruyère was published in 1978, the TLS reviewer Barbara Wright wrote “M Tournier has a wide range of subjects, and of course he writes extremely well – but he still frightens me”,
I’m happy to say that there is something new from Tournier – not a novel, alas, but perhaps the next best thing. Recently published are his letters to his German translator Hellmut Waller, dating from 1967 to 1998, and therefore covering his entire career as a novelist; very interesting they are too (the book will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS).
Somewhat improbably, Tournier was, until recent years, a regular contributor to the TLS’s annual International Books of the Year feature in November. His short text, composed in French on a manual typewriter, would arrive by post with his calling card attached to it: “Michel Tournier, de l’Académie Goncourt”. It took me some years to realize that, in choosing a book of the year, he was drawing on his wide reading as a Goncourt prize judge; he would always opt for a book (usually by a young writer) that hadn’t won a prize but that he felt deserved being brought to wider attention. When, one year, his contribution included a joke that I didn’t find funny, I took the radical step of ringing him up and asking him if we could remove it – was this a wise course of action? He was taken aback: “Vous ne trouvez pas ça drôle?” There was no honest answer to that. The joke stayed in.