The Newsletter of
The Fantastic Logic of Marcel AyméKenneth H. Rogers, University of Rhode Island
Copyright 1998 Kenneth H. Rogers
Aymé (1902-1968) has long been noted as one of the more important short-story writers of modern French literature. He is noted for his humor and satire as well as for his sense of the fantastic; this latter sense has long been recognized as one of his hallmarks. Aymé is often overlooked by American readers of LF, but he is well worth a little side-trip into French fantasy, whether in English or in the original French. And most of the stories mentioned in this brief article are available in English, in the collections Across Paris and The Proverb and Other Stories.
It is almost universally the case, in the "fantastic" short stories of Marcel Aymé, that the fantastic premise appears in the first few lines of the story. E.g., in "Le temps mort" ["Dead time"], we learn from the start that the hero only exists on alternate days; in the first sentence of "Les Sabines" ["The Sabine Women"], the author describes his heroine as having the gift of ubiquitousness. However, Aymé, like any competent writer, can keep his readers guessing when he wants to: in "The Seven League Boots," the fantastic premise only operates in the last two paragraphs of an otherwise totally realistic, almost Dickensian, story. Aymé's children's stories are, not surprisingly, all based upon one or more fantastic premises. His Contes du chat perché[Stories of the Cat on a Perch], not available, to my knowledge, in English, (1934) relate the adventures of two little girls, Delphine and Marinette, on their farm, where all the animals, even those destined for the dinner table, talk and interact with the humans in the stories.
In his most well-known short story collection, Le Passe-muraille[The Walker-through-Walls], eight out of ten stories are wholly or partially based on fantasy. Only "Le Proverbe ["The Proverb"] and "En Attendant ["Waiting"] are wholly realistic. If readers of LF have heard of Aymé at all, it is probably because of his story "La Carte"["The Life-Ration"], from the above-mentioned anthology. In a France occupied by the Germans, a France in which food, fuel, and clothing were strictly rationed, Aymé imagines the system extended to life itself, with each person receiving ration cards for the number of days they may exist per month; after using up one's tickets for that month, the person ceases to exist until the first of the following month. "Useless" citizens, such as the author (a writer), receive only enough ration tickets for fifteen days per month.
Having laid out his diabolically, some would say merely cynically, fantastic premise, Aymé proceeds to explore to the bitter end all possible consequences: the flourishing black market in life-ration tickets, the attempts to get a "useful" job which carries with it a more generous ration of monthly life, the infidelities of those whose partners receive fewer days per month, and so forth.
In "Le Passe-Muraille", a lowly clerk suddenly finds himself able to walk through solid objects (such as walls, hence the title). As with many Aymé protagonists, the hero of this story begins by using his gift with moderation; but as time goes on, he goes from simple revenge to bank robbery. The story could not, and does not, end well for him.
Both of the stories mentioned above were written in Paris uner German occupation during the Second World War. Fantasy was easier than reality to get past the German censors (compare the abundant theological (!) science fiction written in Romania during the Ceausescu years).
In still another of his contes, "La Grace" ["The State of Grace"], the hero wakes up one morning with a halo over his head. His assumption, and that of his wife and colleagues, is that he is being rewarded for a life well lived. They're wrong. Soon his office-mates request that he wear a wide-brimmed hat at work, since the glare of the halo is distracting; and things go rapidly downhill from there until the end, where the hero, having tried to divest himself of his halo by committing all the sins in sequence, is seen pimping in the red-light district.
Aymé did not limit his use of fantasy to short stories. In his play Les oiseaux de lune (1954)[performed in New York as The Moonbirds in 1956], we learn that the protagonist can change his mother-in-law into a canary during the full moon. Aymé's characters are then faced with the problems that follow logically from this less than logical premise: Can they talk about her in her presence while she's a canary? Will she remember what's happened to her when the full moon has passed? Who's going to clean the cage?
The classic work on Marcel Aymé's use of the fantastic is Jean-Louis Dumont's 1967 study. Published in the year before Aymé died, Dumont's study connects humor and fantasy in Aymé as inextricable elements, especially in the author's short stories. Dumont classifies the fantastic in Aymé into five categories: metamorphosis, the world of the fairies, distortion of time, extraordinary gifts, and dark humor. It is clear from this panoply of fantastic elements that Aymé is very much a part of the twentieth-century literary scene: Jean Giraudoux's play Ondine stresses fairies, Sartre's Les Jeux sont faits[The Game is Up] utilizes both distortions of time and extraordinary gifts, Ionesco's Rhinoceros, metamorphosis, and so on.
While it is hard to classify Aymé's use of the interaction of literary characters and "real" people in his work, this use constitutes still another instance of the author's combining of fantasy and humor. In "La Clé sous le paillasson" ["The Key under the Doormat"], a fictional character gets loose and interacts with the real world: since this character is a professional burglar, the results are predictably comical. In another story, "Le Romancier Martin" ["Martin the Novelist"], the writer of the story cannot avoid killing off his main characters by the end of his novels. There is nothing fantastic about this situation until Martin permits a character to visit his editor, who falls in love with her, forbids Martin from killing her off, and wants him to rub out the woman's husband.
It is only natural that such a prolific writer as Aymé cannot have succeeded in all of his fantasies: his 1928 novel Les Jumeaux du diable[The Devil's Twins], one of only four novels in which the author employs fantasy (out of a total of seventeen novels written), contains an unconvincing fantastic premise couched in equally unconvincing dialogues between God and the devil (Dumont 1967, pp. 58-60).
Marcel Aymé's use of metamorphosis and fantasy is part of a long tradition in French letters, from the medieval Roman de Renart[Renard the Fox] to Anatole France's Ile des Pengouins[Penguin Island] to Eugene Ionesco's 1960 play Rhinoceros. The interaction of fictional characters with "real" people in fiction has been taken up most recently by Daniel Pennec in his short novel Des chretiens et des Maures[Christians and Moors] (Paris: Le Monde/Gallimard, 1995), in which a character from a novel gets the narrator's mother pregnant. That the tradition isn't exhausted by any means is demonstrated by the appearance in 1997 of Marie Darrieussecq's Truismes, the story of a woman who changes into a sow (truie, in French; the novel has now appeared in English as Pig Tales, a slightly different pun). Gallic fantasy lives on.
|The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.|
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