- Reviewed by
Although her title might suggest an interpretation of Tournier's literary work as philosophy, Susan Petit's study is not apparently structured by any such over-arching hypothesis. Rather, she presents Tournier's fictional works in chronological order, offering a selection of complementary "readings" of each. This treatment allows a variety of themes to emerge, which Petit can then scrutinize in terms of their evolution from one text to the next, an angle perhaps neglected by those studies which take a synthetic, rather than a chronological, approach to Tournier's works. Thus, Petit returns in several chapters to her own analysis of such well-established themes as Tournier's responses to conventional religion and sexuality, as well as to problems which are yet to be fully investigated in any critical work, such as the relationship between Tournier and Sartre. An interview with Tournier (translated into English, and conscientiously annotated) concludes the book.
The fundamental goal of this study seems to be to explain, in simple and precise terms, an oeuvre which is notoriously ambiguous and confusing. As one might expect, such a project has its pros and cons. On the positive side, newcomers to Tournier who are struggling with the texts will welcome Petit's angle of attack, which involves stripping Tournier's fictional plots down to their bare bones and proceeding to an analysis on the basis of the story. In addition, Petit's forthright tone and unpretentious language render her critique as accessible as possible, especially, perhaps, for those who study Tournier in translation. The helpful use of subheadings, an accurate index, and the most exhaustive bibliography yet published of works by and about Tournier further enhance the clarity and usefulness of the volume.
The major disadvantage is that occasionally clarity is achieved at the price of subtlety, a problem unfortunately compounded in some cases by the author's commitment to plain English. For example, in affirming baldly that Tournier's Vendredi "represents Christ," Petit fails to acknowledge the nuances of this character who is also likened to Lucifer, and possesses a "diabolical" laugh. [End Page 975] The same difficulties emerge more seriously in other, longer passages, where the desire to eliminate ambiguity leads Petit to conclusions which are ultimately unconvincing, such as her over-precise correlation between structural patterns in Les Météores and the Divine Comedy or the theology of Joachim de Flore, and her assertion that the name TOURNIER is to be found inscribed, à la Bach, in the fugal structure of Le Roi des aulnes.
But if some of Petit's interpretations appear rather reductive, they are compensated by others—her reading of Vendredi as a meditation on the Sartre/Lévi-Strauss dispute, for example—whose tone is more tentatively evocative and whose content is both suggestive and illuminating. Whether one subscribes fully to all of her conclusions or not, Petit's volume is thus surely provocative enough to ensure that her stated hope in writing it—to help readers join in the creative act by reflecting on Tournier's work—will indeed be realized.