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Michel Tournier, who has died aged 91, was one of the leading French novelists of the last third of the 20th century. He was a splendidly inventive and imaginative writer committed to reviving myths and legends for readers who had lost touch with the truths they represented. He prepared meticulously for his 10 major novels, reading and travelling widely, and spending up to five years on each, converting old tales into new stories that uncovered the continuities of our collective experience.
Thus Tiffauges, the hero of his novel Le Roi des Aulnes (1970; The Erl-King), explains Nazi death camps by tracing the hostility shown to Jews, Gypsies and other wandering peoples to the hatred felt by the sedentary farmer Cain for his nomadic bother, Abel. Comparable connections underlie Tournier’s reinterpretation of the folk figure of the ogre in Le Roi des Aulnes, the biblical story of the Magi in the 1980 novel Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, and the myth of Robinson Crusoe, who finally shrugs off his social persona and achieves contentment in a mystical union with his island in Vendredi, ou les Limbes du Pacifique (1967; Friday, or the Other Island).
Les Météores (1975; Gemini) explored the metaphysical and sexual dimensions of twinship, and Gilles et Jeanne (1983) the relationship between good and evil, while Eléazar (1996), set in California in 1845, asks why God should refuse Moses entry to the promised land. Thus, to the human and mythological archetypes of the castaway and the ogre, Tournier added the twin, the saint, the prophet and others who appeared in the shorter fictions he tended increasingly to write after about 1978. Collections included Le Coq de Bruyère (1978; The Fetishist and Other Stories) and Le Médianoche Amoureux (1989; The Midnight Love Feast).
Tournier was born in Paris into a middle-class family with a strong religious tradition and close links to German culture. From it he inherited a sound knowledge of the Bible and a love of German philosophy, music and literature. His parents, Marie-Madeleine (nee Fournier) and Alphonse Tournier, had both graduated in German and he, too, became a fluent speaker. His childhood, he said, was “wretched”. He was an “execrable” pupil and attended a dozen schools, including a grim Catholic establishment for boys which is remembered without affection in several of his books.
During the second world war, he studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne in Paris. On graduating in July 1946, he went to study at the University of Tübingen in Germany for three weeks and stayed for four years, delaying the agrégation, the postgraduate examination that allowed entry to the best teaching jobs, until his return to Paris in 1949. He failed, much to his dismay, for he believed that he was “the best of my generation”. He concluded that the German method of teaching philosophy had left him ill-prepared for the French system, and he never resat the examination.
He was taken on by RTF, the French national radio and television service, for which he wrote scripts and produced a variety of programmes. In his spare time, he translated German novels (including two by Erich Maria Remarque), thus serving a literary apprenticeship of sorts. In 1954, he moved to the popular radio station Europe No 1 and shortly afterwards abandoned Paris, which he hated, for an old presbytery he had bought at Choisel, near Versailles. It was to be his home until his death.
After 1958, he joined the publisher Plon as literary editor, and in the early 1960s became well-known as the presenter of a popular television show, La Chambre Noire. In 1967, he published his first novel, Vendredi, ou les Limbes du Pacifique, which was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix and eventually sold 3m copies. The following year, he left Plon and became a full-time writer. His success was confirmed with Le Roi des Aulnes, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1970. In 1972, he was elected to the Académie Goncourt.
Tournier’s writing career was made up of several strands. A keen photographer, he exhibited and published images of his own and supplied commentaries for the work of others. He was also an accomplished essayist and discussed literature and the processes of creativity in his intellectual autobiography Le Vent Paraclet (1977; The Wind Spirit) and the pieces collected in Le Vol du Vampire (1981; The Flight of the Vampire). He reviewed for the major French newspapers and for five years (1992-97) contributed a pungent column to Le Figaro.
He wrote stories for children and took the reactions of young readers seriously, for when they grasped the true meaning of his stories, he said, he knew he had achieved his ideal of brevity and clarity and come close to expressing eternal truths. Tournier, a private, even outsiderly, man, was impervious to literary trends and intellectual fashions. He saw himself as a professional artisan, with an old-fashioned notion of the writer’s duty to entertain and question received values.
Age dimmed Tournier’s appetite for sustained writing, although he remained part of the French literary scene. He was a member of the Prix Goncourt panel until he resigned in 2010; he also published a number of short works that revisited his preoccupations. A selection of his correspondence with his German translator appeared in 2015.
He is survived by a godson, Laurent Feliculis.
• Michel Édouard Tournier, writer, born 19 December 1924; died 18 January 2016
Source: The Guardian
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