I've never read any of the French surrealist writers before - though I think that some would classify these stories as 'magic realism', but for me they belong with the surrealists. The Pushkin Press book cover appropriately features a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. Marcel Aymé was a very popular French author of novels and stories during the thirties and forties, winning a number of big prizes. He's little known in England, which is a pity. The humour and elegance of his prose - the boisterous delight in the ridiculous that is apparent in these stories - is a tonic.
One of my favourite stories in the collection is 'Tickets on Time'. The government have decided that there are simply too many people using up resources and issue an edict that sectors of the population 'consumers whose maintenance is offset by no real contribution to society', will have their lives rationed. They will be issued with tickets for each day of the month they are allowed to live. The narrator, a rather opinionated writer, has no qualms about his own worth, expecting to be able to live one hundred per cent of the time. He is rather shocked when he discovers that creative artists are not on the list of those making a worthwhile contribution to society. 'I could understand, at a pinch, if the measure were to apply to painters, sculptors, to musicians. But to writers!' He finds that the government values his contribution at a meagre 7 days a month. The inevitable happens of course - the worthy poor who are working to support everyone else find that they can enrich their lives by selling their tickets on the black market. Why live miserably for a month if you can live like a king for seven days? Strange things begin to happen to the space/time continuum.
The title story of the collection is one of Aymé's most famous - in French Le Passe-Muraille - and there is a sculpture in Paris that features the story's main character, Dutilleul, 'The Man Who Walked Through Walls'. Dutilleul discovers that he has an amazing gift and, although he has lived an exemplary life until then, the temptations offered by his ability to walk through walls freely, soon become irresistable and he embarks on a life of crime and debauchery which eventually catches up with him.
There's also a new take on the rape of the Sabine women - which aroused some feminist discomfiture. Read crudely, the rape seemed to be a punishment for female sexual incontinence (on a grand scale!) but at the same time as my feminist hackles were rising, I was also arguing the writer's case. Am I confusing the point of view of the narrator with the moral point of view of the author? And is the kind of perturbation I'm feeling actually what the author intends? It certainly makes you think about sexual morality. As many of the stories in this volume do. There is the fate of Duteilleul to consider. Let the punishment fit the crime. And the woman who has preserved her virginity in the service of the church expecting to go first into heaven, finds that things are a little more complicated than she had thought.
Not all the stories are completely humorous. 'The Proverb' is about a stern and moralistic father who has ambitions for his son. The point of view of the over-bearing father and the emotionally tortured son are both very clearly laid before the reader. People don't always get the fates that they deserve.
This is a wonderful collection of stories, in a completely different tradition. Thank you Pushkin Press and a big thank you to Sophie Lewis for a brilliant translation. Thanks too to Elizabeth Stott (who has a great blog) for pointing me in this direction!
If you haven't discovered Pushkin Press yet, take a look - they publish some wonderful writing from around the world in beautifully produced editions.
"Pushkin Press was founded in 1997. Having first rediscovered European classics of the twentieth century, Pushkin now publishes novels, essays, memoirs, children’s books, and everything from timeless classics to the urgent and contemporary.
Pushkin Press books represent exciting, high-quality writing from around the world. Pushkin publishes widely acclaimed, brilliant and often prize-winning authors such as Stefan Zweig, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Antal Szerb, Paul Morand and Hermann Hesse, as well as some of the most exciting contemporary writers, including Pietro Grossi, Héctor Abad, Filippo Bologna and Andrés Neuman."
The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé. Published in 2012 by The Pushkin Press, in paperback and e-editions.
Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis in 2012.