Charles Lambert was born in the Midlands, but has lived in Italy for much of his adult life. His latest novel, Any Human Face, is the first in a trilogy of novels set in Rome and concerned with the abuse of power. His first book, Little Monsters, was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He has also published the collection The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories, the title story of which won an O. Henry Award and was recently described by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, collaborator and translator of Borges as 'a perfect story, as one or two of Borges's tales are perfect stories'. Charles blogs about books at Charles Lambert. Here he writes about Michel Tournier's The Erl-King
Charles Lambert on The Erl-King by Michel Tournier
I'd planned to start this piece by describing how I found a second-hand paperback copy of The Erl-King (now more commonly known as The Ogre) by Michel Tournier on a stall in the covered market in Leek when I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, years old. The only reason I can imagine for buying the book, which was in poor condition even then, was the tagline saying that it had won the Prix Goncourt, the kind of detail that appealed to the aspirational provincial culture snob in me. It surely couldn't have been the lurid colours of the cover or the image of an SS officer mounted on a white horse behind a gloomy-looking child. Or maybe it could. It's an odd book to appeal to a teenage boy and the impression it made on me was deep and, in retrospect, disturbing. It seemed to me to be a book that had accompanied, and shaped, me throughout my adolescence and beyond - a character-forming, or character-exonerating, book. What I wanted to say was based on that unease.
This was my plan until I picked the book up again a few days ago and saw that it was published in 1972, when I was already at university, and that the paperback edition I had, and still have - the edition I distinctly remember buying as an intellectually, and sexually, frustrated schoolboy – only came out in 1974. I couldn't have bought it before the summer of 1975, when I was already a graduate, and it must have been in the covered market of another town entirely (Stafford, where my parents were then living). My memory had transposed the purchase both temporally and physically. And I found myself wondering why. Then, returning to the book for the first time in more than 30 years, I came across these words, put into the mouth of the hero's mentor, a deformed man-child called Nestor: 'There's probably nothing more moving in a man's life than the accidental discovery of his own perversion'.
The Erl-King is Michel Tournier's second novel. It followed Friday (1967), a retelling of Robinson Crusoe in which the roles of Crusoe and Friday as master and servant, representatives respectively of culture and nature, are tellingly inverted. In The Erl-King the theme of inversion is explicit, and central to the novel's concerns. The first section contains the sinister writings of its hero, Abel Tiffauges, a mechanic in pre-war France: sinister because written with the left hand, and because they describe a man whose understanding of the world is seriously at odds with that of those around him. The opening hundred pages, in Tiffauges' hand, are the story of a man gradually coming to understand his perversion. In the first few paragraphs, Tiffauges defines himself as an ogre: 'I do think there's something magical about me, I do think there's a secret collusion, deep down, connecting what happens to me with what happens in general... And I do believe I've issued from the mists of time.' He recognizes that he is a monster and that, 'if you don't want to be a monster, you've got to be like your fellow creatures, in conformity with the species, the image of your relations. Or else have a progeny that makes you the first link in the chain of a new species. For monsters do not reproduce... And here I link up with my eternity again, for with me eternity takes the place of both relatives and progeny. Old as the world, and as immortal, I can have none but putative parents and adopted children.'
As the sinister writings develop, what makes Tiffauges a monster in his own eyes and, subsequently, in those of the world, is brought more sharply into focus. At one point, he writes: 'All we need to understand all the symbols and parables in the world is the faculty of infinite attention', and the book is an ever-growing mass of intricate links, reflections and resemblances; pairings that find their counterpart in Tiffauges' later fascination with identical twins. (In his autobiography, The Wind Spirit, Tournier remarks that the flesh of twins, who share a single soul, 'must be denser, richer, and somehow more intensely carnal than that of non-twins'.) Tiffauges' obsessions accumulate: diet and defecation, playground noise, a willingness to accept, even welcome, humiliation, paper and fire, the significance of his first name, Abel - in an idiosyncratically logical crescendo of interlocking meanings that bear him inexorably towards his fate, in Nazi Germany. In the final section of the novel, Tiffauges is working as recruiter-cum-procurer for a military college in Prussia, an establishment in which every detail is the negative inversion of what is happening, although Tiffauges doesn't know this, in the concentration camps of his adopted homeland. Tiffauges at this point, is the Erl-King of Goethe's poem, who, bewitched by the beauty of a boy, tears him from his father's arms and bears him off.
It would be easy, but misleading, to say that Tiffauges' final perversion is his obsession with children and, ultimately, pre-pubescent boys. His obsession is less with children as sexual beings, something in which he shows no interest, than with serving them, with bearing them as the Erl-King bore his beautiful trophy and as St Christopher bore Christ. It's no coincidence that Tiffauges' school is named after the saint. In a world of symbols, there can be no coincidence. Nothing is wasted, nothing is irrelevant to the force that drives him and the world to the point at which their destinies meet.
At this level, of course, to say that everything is significant is equivalent to saying that nothing is more important than you are, and Tiffauges' quest for his own significance, his own fate, is recognizably adolescent - what teenager isn't convinced that the world essentially revolves around his or her own needs, desires, anxieties, frustrations, sense of self? But it's also implicitly parallel to the process by which art is made, by the imperative that every detail contribute to the whole. When I read this book I knew that what I wanted to do was write and, looking back, I can see that Tournier provided a model for this. It's interesting that he talks about the decision he made himself when he chose to write fiction: that he would use a traditional form to do untraditional things. I think I've found myself doing – or trying to do - something similar.
It strikes me now that what Tournier did in this novel was to validate my writing practice, although this didn't occur to me at the time, because I still considered myself a poet, committed in my Cambridgey J.H. Prynne-inspired way to undermining traditional form. More profoundly, it authenticated my sense of being both isolated and special, or destined to achieve specialness; or, finally, that my specialness be recognized as something for which I was responsible and yet not responsible. What I wanted, perhaps, as I recognized the oddness of my own desires, was the pardon of inevitability - of fate - that Tiffauges achieves: a sort of celestial gift. These are the sort of feelings that inhabit all too happily the heart of a teenage boy, but are less at ease - or should be - in the heart of an adult on the threshold of an adult world. No wonder I felt the need to shift my purchase of the book back to a more suitable time in my life. No wonder I allowed my memory to absolve me as The Erl-King, in the haunting final pages, absolves Tiffauges.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]