In 1960 Bantam Books brought out a collection of stories the full title of which was: French Stories: A Bantam Dual-Language Book. The cover promised “Ten short stories by Voltaire, Balzac, Gide, Camus and others in the original French and a new English translation.” One of those “others’ was Marcel Aymé. Never heard of him? Me neither and yet this is what the introductory essay had to say about him:
American reviewers of translations of the works of Marcel Aymé did not hesitate to call him one of the best French writers of the day. This high praise would startle the leading literary critics in France who have never granted him the importance they give to other writers of his generation: Sartre, Giono, Malraux, Queneau, Céline, Blanchot.
The essay goes on to catalogue his works. As he lived until 1967, Bantam’s list is incomplete but all you have to do is look at Wikipedia (the French entry is more comprehensive) or his IMDB page to see that the man was no slouch and films based on his writings are still being made. The work that most people will have heard of—those who have heard of Aymé at all—will be his 1943 short story ‘Le passe-muraille’. It has been filmed four times (in 1951 as Mr. Peek-a-Boo, in 1959 as Ein Mann geht durch die Wand, in 1971 as Le passe-muraille and, in 2007 as The Wall-Passer), it was turned into a musical in 1997 by Didier Van Cauwelaert and Michel Legrand and an English language version, renamed (oddly, I think) Amour, was given to the Music Box Theatre in New York on October 20th 2002. Numerous translations exist of the original story and it is the title story in a new collection just released by Pushkin Press with the much cleaner title of The Man Who Walked Through Walls.
The collection contains ten stories, all about the same length, roughly thirty pages apiece, so these are substantial works. Time is taken to develop characters and describe things in sufficient detail to entertain you without risking boring you with endless descriptions of the corners of rooms. Mostly the time is taken up by pure wordiness and there’s not a story here that couldn't be cut in half and still work but this is a book that’s more interested in the journey than the destination. So if you’re looking for twists in the tail endings go read some O. Henry or Roald Dahl. These are not cleverly-plotted tales. These are simple stories, straightforward linear narratives for the most part, the majority of which—all but two a far as I could see—contain some fantastical element which is explored in a What if… fashion.
The French entry for The Twilight Zone makes interesting reading because the author compares the style of the show to the writing of the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges and our friend Marcel Aymé. All three have written works that could be described as magic realism. Borges is well known but the other two, to English readers at least, not so much. I liked this quote by Buzzati:
It seems to me, fantasy should be as close as possible to journalism. The right word is not "banalising", although in fact a little of this is involved. Rather, I mean that the effectiveness of a fantastic story will depend on its being told in the most simple and practical terms.
Aymé could have written that. He reports the facts and succeeds admirably in not sensationalizing them.
Out of the hundred or so stories which he produced during his career, about fifty contain some element of the fantastic or marvellous, whether expressed as children’s fables, contemporary fairy tales, philosophical allegories or social satire.
Here is how The Man Who Walked Through Walls begins:
In Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all. He wore pince-nez and a small black goatee, and was a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Records. In winter he would take the bus to work, and in fine weather he would make the journey on foot, in his bowler hat.
Dutilleul had just entered his forty-third year when he discovered his power. One evening, a brief electricity cut caught him in the hallway of his small bachelor’s apartment. He groped for a while in the darkness and, when the lights came back on, found himself outside on the third-floor landing. Since his front door was locked from the inside, the incident gave him food for thought and, despite the objections of common sense, he decided to go back inside just as he had come out, by passing through the wall. This peculiar skill, apparently unrelated to any aspiration of his, rather disturbed him. So, the next day being Saturday, he took advantage of his English-style five-day week to visit a local doctor and explain his case. The doctor was soon persuaded that Dutilleul was telling the truth and, following a full examination, located the cause of the problem in helicoid hardening of the strangulary wall in the thyroid gland. He prescribed sustained over-exertion and twice-yearly dose of one powdered tetravalent pirette pill, a mixture of rice flour and centaur hormones.
You’d think he’d gone to see the doctor with some unusual medical condition like losing consciousness every time he laughed or suddenly becoming allergic to water. Unusual, yes, but nothing more. And yet here the doctor has both the explanation and the cure; he treats the man’s intangibility as if it were a mere virus. If Dutilleul chooses to take the cure which he does not because it wouldn’t be much of a story if he did, got better and went about his life as if nothing had happened. So what would you do if you could walk through walls? You could do like Kitty Pryde did and join the X-Men when she discovered that she could phase but Dutilleul is no hero. Then is he a villain? "With great power comes great responsibility," says Voltaire via Stan Lee via Uncle Ben to Peter Parker. Just how responsible is Dutilleul going to be though?
In Sabine Women the protagonist has a different superpower:
On the Rue de l’Abreuvoir in Montmartre there lived a young woman named Sabine who had the gift of ubiquity. She could, at will, multiply herself and exist simultaneously, in both body and mind, in as many places as she pleased. Since she was married and this rare gift would only have worried her husband, she had been careful not to reveal it to him and hardly used it except at home, and only when she was there alone. In the morning, for example, while doing her make-up, she would double or triple herself in order better to inspect her face and body in various attitudes. The inspection over, she would hurriedly gather herself together again, that is she would merge back into one single person. Some wintry or very rainy afternoons when she had little desire to go out, Sabine might also multiply herself into ten or twenty, which would allow her to hold a lively, animated conversation that was, after all, no more than a conversation with herself.
She accepts her ability in an incredibly matter-of-fact fashion. No explanation is given as to why she has this gift but, like Dutilleul, she keeps it to herself. The power of replication as it tends to be known—“ubiquity” is a bit cumbersome—is not new. Eli, one of the carnies in Heroes, could clone himself at will. Unlike your typical superhero stories the only problems that Sabine—and Dutilleul in the first story—have to face are problems of their own making. In Sabine’s case living one life becomes unimaginable. But where do you stop? Two lives? Ten? Forty-thousand?
No superpowers in the third story, Tickets on Time—the twist in reality is one that everyone has to face. As Jules Flegmon, the story’s narrator, records in his diary which forms the structure for this story:
A ridiculous rumour is going round the neighbourhood about new restrictions. In order better to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population, the authorities are going to put unproductive consumers to death; unproductive meaning: older people, retirees, those with private income, the unemployed and other superfluous mouths.
As a writer, much to his consternation, he is informed that he is not exempt from the new directive:
This is infamous! Abuse of justice! Vile murder! The decree has just been published in the newspapers and there it appears that those “consumers whose maintenance is offset by no real contribution” include artists and writers! I could understand, at a pinch, if the measure were to apply to painters, sculptors, to musicians. But to writers! This exposes an inconsistency, an aberration, that will remain the crowning shame of our era. For, you see, writers’ utility goes without saying, my own above all, I may say in all modesty. Yet, I shall have the right to only two weeks of life per month.
This is administered by means of a ticket system. What happens during the other fortnight is never fully explained—neither the science nor the mechanisms—nevertheless we now get to see a world—not that unlike the one in the recent film In Time—where people have to make the most of the time they have (especially the “Jews [who] are allotted half a day of life per month.”) Needless to say an energetic black market springs to life overnight. Life is no longer priceless. There are no ill effects to this “relative death”—which becomes the fashionable expression for the time spent in nonexistence—although there are some moments of embarrassment:
What an adventure! My train being very much delayed, the temporary death caught me a few minutes before coming in to Paris. I revived in the same compartment, but by then the carriage was in a siding in Nantes. And, of course, I was completely naked. Such bother and vexation I have had to go through—it still makes me see red. Luckily, I was travelling with an acquaintance who had my clothes sent home ahead of me.
When I first read this I didn’t put two and two together. It was only as I was researching this article that I suddenly realised that this wasn’t simply an entertainment. There is much more going on just beneath the surface. How could I have missed the fact that this was written during the German occupation of France? This story was first published in La Gerbe, an avowedly pro-Nazi newspaper, before being included in this collection and would have needed the rubber stamp of the German censors to make it into print.
Presumably it passed German censorship and the editorial control of La Gerbe … because it was perceived as an entertainment. Making light of shortages, or deriding those who exploited them, was, in fact, not uncommon during the Occupation, as popular songs like Georgius’s ‘Ella a un stock’ and Ferdandel’s ‘Les Jours sans’ amusingly demonstrate. Rationing cards were introduced in France from 1940 and were to remain in force for over a decade. The card in Aymé’s story rations not commodities, but life itself; the tickets it contains are each worth twenty-four hours’ existence.
There is nothing to suggest that Aymé’s sympathies lay with the Germans but voluntarily allowing his work to appear in La Gerbe and other similar collaborationist newspapers did him no favours and it looks as if the underlying messages in his stories were missed. Accordingly, but also because of his outspoken criticism of what he considered the hypocrisy of left-wing France after the war, he was blacklisted, along with many other writers, and his work was ignored for years.
The fourth story in the book The Problem of Summertime is, to my mind, the most Twlight Zone-esque of all the stories. It also revolves around time. In this case the deep philosophical issues raised by the notion of daylight savings time or summer time:
At the height of the war, the warring powers’ attention was distracted by the problem of summertime, which it seemed had not been comprehensively examined. Already it was felt that no serious work had been carried out in this field and that, as often happens, human genius had allowed itself to be overruled by habit. On first analysis, what seemed most remarkable was the extraordinary ease with which the time could be moved forward by an hour or two. On reflection, nothing prevented its being moved forward by twelve or twenty-four hours, or indeed by any multiple of twenty-four. Little by little, the realisation spread that time was under man’s control. In every continent and in every country, the heads of state and their ministers began to consult philosophical treatises. In government meetings there was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time. It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap.
What happens here is simple enough.
It was decided that, throughout the world, time would be put forward by seventeen years.
Again, on the surface, this is just the basis for a funny story but there is a serious undercurrent here because when Germany defeated France in 1940 they literally did change time. Time was switched to Central European time (where it remains to this day despite only being across the channel from Greenwich).
This is an Aymé story though so it’s not a simple matter of changing the year from 1942 to 1959. No. Everything that would have happened in those intervening years is now deemed to have happened in an instant:
Events that should have occurred during that long period so suddenly conjured away were inscribed in everyone’s memories. Each remembered, or rather thought he remembered, the life he believed he had led during those seventeen years. The trees had grown taller, children had been born, people had died, others had made a fortune or been ruined, the wines had aged, regimes had crumbled, quite as if everybody’s life had taken the usual time to happen. The illusion was perfect.
What happens if—and this is where things get interesting—due to a bureaucratic error, a small village isn’t informed about the jump in time? We get to see what happens when our narrator visits the village of Jura to see “an old composer friend, who had retired to his native village where, for five or six years now, he had been spending his days as a serious invalid” and how he is affected once he returns to the new time stream. Time travel has been a common plot device in science fiction since the late 19th century so there’s nothing new here if the story is read as straight science fiction rather than the shrouded commentary that it actually is.
Although flights of fancy on one level, these last two stories—along with the final story in the collection While Waiting—all deal specifically with the privations caused by the occupation of France by the Germans. The reason it is agreed to jump forward seventeen years is to end the war in one fell swoop:
The war was long. They didn’t know when it would end. But would it one day end? All sides believed they would triumph, but feared that it might take a while.
The figure of seventeen years is arrived at because it was generally felt that “[t]his figure would encompass the most extreme
possibilities for duration of the conflict.” The story doesn’t say who won the war. That there are no Germans mentioned in 1959 suggests that Germany lost but it’s obvious that Aymé would have had to choose his words carefully.
Talking about choosing one’s words carefully, a word on the translation: translation is a tricky business. A lot can be lost. Take for example the name of the narrator in ‘Tickets on Time’ – Jules Flegmon. He’s not an especially likeable character and his name reflects it:
Jules can also mean a chamberpot or a pimp, which the word ‘phlegmon’ means a pustulant abscess in French and English. To be called Jules Flegmon is thus as absurd a combination of names as those of other fictional characters such as John Thomas, Lance Boyle and Ernest Everard.
In Bantam’s French Stories they say of Aymé:
I’m not sure that there was anything in any of these stories that I would describe as “obscene” and the only thing that one might think of as “lusty” is the generally-accepted Frenchman’s casualness towards sex; adultery is talked about in the same tones one might discuss the price of tea in China. So I can only deduce that a lot is lost in the translation and indeed “[m]any argue that his stories are best understood and interpreted in French” which makes it a little sad that he’s been so underappreciated there. Perhaps things are changing. What I can say that after reading Christopher Lloyd’s excellent essay on the story that’s called in this collection ‘Tickets on Time’ it’s clear that translation is not the only problem here: time is. And, as I have said before, that is the problem with satire:
When George S. Kaufman proclaimed that "satire is what closes on Saturday night," he was referring to its ephemeral quality: satire dates quickly. I would add that political satire dates twice as quickly. Probably because the painful realities it mocks are all too immediate, political satire seems particularly funny while it is fresh. But the intensity of satiric humour is often inversely proportional to its durability. Try looking at the opening monologue from last year's Tonight Show. We don't even get the jokes. Or look at any reruns of Saturday Night Live that bash then-current presidents. For every political satire that remains funny, there are a dozen that could be called Saturday Night Dead.
Where Aymé wins out is that his satire rises above its context. Time, for example, is no less important now than it was during the War. How we spend our times is so often dictated by others. It really is too easy to look at these stories as mere entertainments. The fact is that Aymé is an extraordinarily perceptive observer of social and psychological foibles. René Godenne categorises Marcel Aymé as a brilliant practitioner of what he calls "récit plaisant" (which Google translates literally as 'nice story') but that really does his writing a disservice. Between the fantastic and the delightful there is the harsh reality of the occupation and its consequences (poverty, rationing, racketeering); he accurately portrays the society in which he lived: hypocrisy, greed, violence, injustice, contempt, but also camaraderie, kinship, kindness, loyalty and tolerance. The writing is understated: “Aymé would never have bothered to be so crude as to drag a message into his writing.” Rabelaisian doesn’t simply mean bawdy though:
To be Rabelaisian, means to be totally outrageous, raunchy, crude in every way, absolutely stubborn in matters of truth, relentless against hypocrisy, and against all forms of popular opinion; but, also, in a more profound way, it means AXIOM BUSTING.
An axiom is a premise or starting point of reasoning. Aymé turns reason on its head. He does it politely, I’ll give him that, but he does it nevertheless and there’s no better place to examine the ordinary than from the outside.
A few words on some of the other stories then: The Proverb contains no fantastic elements but is a nice little domestic drama revolving around an overbearing father’s insistence on getting too involved in his son’s homework; two stories concern people trying to get past St Peter at the pearly gates—in Poldevian Legend a (frankly) saintly old woman picks the wrong time to die and in The Bailiff, a bailiff gets sent back to earth on a technicality to try to amass sufficient good works to earn admission; The Wife Collector features a tax collector whose grip on reality slips and who starts sending out tax demands for men’s wives (the interesting thing is that many comply); the magical Seven-League Boots of the story’s title are almost a MacGuffin because the story at its core is really a little Dickensian tale about a poor boy and his poor mother and how they each prevail in the face of snobbery, and, lastly, While Waiting introduces us to fourteen people standing in line outside a grocery store who each take their turn to relate how things were for them during the war which, in this vision of France’s future, we learn lasted from 1939 until 1972, not 1945 or even 1959.
Baliffs, tax collectors, queues, poverty— Aymé’s “war fiction highlights French adaptation to economic hardship, with a particular sensitivity to the moral confusion generated by conflict between state economic regulations and individual economic needs. Aymé was acutely aware of the ambiguities, inequities, vulnerabilities, and compromises of life under the German Occupation.” The ending of the last story—which I will not spoil for you—is particularly poignant.
You can read a translation of ‘Le Passe-Muraille’ here and a version of ‘La Carte’ here. Both are by Karen Reshkin and, although they obviously differ from Sophie Lewis’s, they will at least give you a flavour of what you can expect from this new translation.
All in all this was a most enjoyable collection of stories. Aymé has a unique style and I would be happy to read more by him. In addition to this collection Pushkin Press has also published his novel Beautiful Image in which “its protagonist, a successful married businessman, suddenly finds out that his appearance has been transformed into that of darkly handsome stranger. This leads him to observe his friends and family as an outsider and, among other things, to seduce his own wife—revelatory experiences which lead him to question his former life of comfort and elevated social standing.” I might just give that one a go.
I would like to find out more but there is very little online that’s not in French and the only book on his writing, The Comic World of Marcel Aymé by Dorothy R Brodin, written in 1964, is out of print. Marcel Aymé died in Paris in 1967.
 Restless Nights - Selected Stories of Dino Buzzati, introduction by L. Venuti
 Kenneth Mouré, ‘Marcel Aymé and the Moral Economy of Penury in Occupied France’, French Historical Studies