John and Abel in Michel Tournier's le Roi Des Aulnes

By Tumanov, Vladimir | The Romanic Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview

John and Abel in Michel Tournier's le Roi Des Aulnes


Tumanov, Vladimir, The Romanic Review


Introduction

Many critics have pointed out the importance of Revelation by John of Patmos as an intertext in Michel Tournier's Le Roi des Aulnes (cf., for example, J. Poirier 8, Jean-Bernard Vray 82-6, Susan Petit 1991:37 and Colin Davis 56). They normally refer to the apocalyptic ending of the novel as the most obvious link with the Johannine text. This connection is obvious not only because the final scene is the destruction of Kaltenborn castle with all its inhabitants (and by extension the destruction of the entire Third Reich), but also because there are direct references to Revelation in Tournier's text (e.g., Tournier 539). However, the importance of Johannine discourse goes well beyond this overt intertextuality.

In his discussion of Tournier's use of the Bible in general, David Gascoigne writes: "[The biblical] intertext becomes a narrative generator in its own right, when the Biblical analogy is at the root of the construction of a character, as indicated by the symbolic nomenclature (Abel, Thomas etc.), or central to the conception of an event (the fall of the Third Reich as Apocalypse)" (98). I would argue that this is the very mechanism at work in the relationship between Le Roi des Aulnes and Revelation: John's text is the kind of `narrative generator' that Gascoigne is talking about. The `fall of the Third Reich as Apocalypse' is the event that projects Revelation backwards to the entire novel. And as a result `the Biblical analogy is at the root of the construction of a character': Abel Tiffauges. As I intend to demonstrate, this is the key point of contact between the two texts. The "apocalyptic weight" of Le Roi des Aulnes stems as much from the connections between John and Tiffauges as from the calamitous events in question. Tiffauges is John's antitype primarily because both visionaries assume a certain moral stance toward life in society and then allow this stance to govern their whole existence.

Apocalyptic Fiction

David Bethea argues that certain works of literature are so fundamentally indebted to Revelation that they form a class which he calls "apocalyptic fiction." Although Bethea develops this notion with respect to examples from Russian literature, his concepts apply equally well (if not even more so) to Tournier's novel:

   an apocalyptic fiction is not an apocalypse, but a modern equivalent of
   one, a kind of sacred text or version of the Book through which the
   character and the narrator and, by implication, the reader--all in their
   separate, self-enclosed realms--are made privy to a "secret wisdom" from
   another space-time. [...] An apocalyptic plot [has] a `deep' or
   mythological structure in modern novelistic terms that it is a
   recapitulation of the essential movement of the Johannine text (Bethea
   33-4).

The extension of Bethea's understanding of apocalyptic fiction to Tournier is justified, among other reasons, by the historical subject matter of Le Roi des Aulnes: World War Two and the destruction of Nazi Germany as a civilization. Most of the material discussed by Bethea centers around equally cataclysmic events in Russian history: the wars and revolutions of the first two decades of the twentieth century that cost millions of lives, destroyed an entire way of life and put an end to a social order that had existed in Russia for a thousand years.(1) Bethea's argument is based on an analogy with two key notions from the Johannine text: The End and Revelation.

The End has to do with a termination so final that nothing of the previous state remains in the new state. And Revelation has to do with information about The End. The result is a division of a modern novel into two parallel 0universes or zones: "We are invited to view the mythic `zone' of novelistic space (i.e., the themes, figures, and passages taken from Revelation) and the realistic `zone' of novelistic space (i.e., the openness and contingency of contemporary life and history) as being in profound dialogic interaction" (Bethea 34). …

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