Michel Tournier

The French author Michel Tournier died yesterday (18 January) at the age of 91. He has long been on our list of authors to collect at the University Library (he won the Prix Goncourt in 1970) and we have a large number of his publications in both French and English translation. Interestingly, several of his works held by the UL in English translation were translated by Ralph Manheim, subject of a blog post in early December.

Tournier’s first novel, Vendredi, ou Les limbes du Pacifique (an adaptation or retelling of the story of Robinson Crusoe) was written in 1967, and won the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française in that year. We have previously discussed how difficult it can be to pick up on important writers early in their careers, and so it is no surprise that the UL did not purchase this novel in its first edition. However, it was published in a revised and augmented edition in 1978 (with a postface by Gilles Deleuze, who Tournier had met in the 1940s)– the UL has this edition at 738:45.d.95.393. By that time he had already won two of France’s most important literary prizes, and it would have taken an obstinate librarian not to have bought this book.

The 1970s were a prolific period for Tournier, and the UL has actively collected his novels and essays since then. However, looking back over the works of this major writer is instructive in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of a collection such as ours. For a completist, the UL’s collections probably are simply not good enough: he wrote children’s books (starting in 1971 with Vendredi ou la Vie sauvage— again, the UL’s copy at 9003.d.696 dates from 1998, due to our general reluctance to buy children’s literature); and before his career as a novelist, Tournier was a translator, with only two of these early translations in the UL (Les archives secrètes de la Wilhelmstrasse / Documents traduits de l’allemand par Michel Tournier published in 1950 and in the UL at 571:75.c.95.5-10, 13-14, and Icones russes : 14 planches en couleurs published in 1953 with an introduction and preface translated by Tournier, at S405:8.a.9.30).

There is at least one Cambridge connection to his work, in that the late Cambridge specialist of 19th Century French literature, David Kelley owned an apartment on the rue de La Goutte d’Or and was interviewed by Tournier for his novel La goutte d’or (738:45.d.95.681). In addition, he gave a Choiseul-Praslin Lecture here, several decades ago.

While he wrote far less fiction (and indeed stopped) in the 1990s, and he became quite outspoken about how fed up with he was with old age and with the idea of growing old, his interviews and correspondence continued to be published. In late autumn last year, we ordered Lettres parlées à son ami allemand Hellmut Waller (published 2015), which we look forward to receiving.

For further information about Tournier’s recent publications, please see the useful resource Bibliographie de la littérature française.

Josh Hutchinson

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