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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

The Wind Spirit

Michel Tournier

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To purchase The Wind Spirit

Title: The Wind Spirit
Author: Michel Tournier
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1977 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 249 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Wind Spirit - US
The Wind Spirit - UK
The Wind Spirit - Canada
Le vent Paraclet - Canada
Le vent Paraclet - France
Der Wind Paraklet - Deutschland
Il vento Paracleto - Italia
El viento Paráclito - España
  • An Autobiography
  • French title: Le vent Paraclet
  • Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

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Our Assessment:

A- : a fascinating writer's memoir, both engaging and vexing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/12/1988 John Weightman
Sunday Times . 5/2/1989 Gilbert Adair
The Washington Post . 11/12/1988 Richard Howard

  From the Reviews:
  • "I may add that the inexactness characteristic of the English title also occurs in the body of the translation, which reads quite fluently, but does not always bear close comparison with the original (.....) It could perhaps best be defined as an eccentric lay sermon about certain issues and memories connected with the three novels he had published by 1977 (.....) Tournier behaves as if he had freed himself on one level, only to espouse the constraints more enthusiastically on another. The limitations of his general philosophical attitude are most apparent in the last chapter of Le vent Paraclet, a would-be didactic postscript" - John Weightman, The New York Review of Books

  • "Not so much ergo as ego, perhaps, and The Wind Spirit is nothing if not a celebration and commemoration of self. Yet, whenever Tournier relaxes his resolve to make the reader want to scrawl an irate Rubbish ! in the margin , he is brilliant and compulsive, his pretensions invested with a kind of cosmic charm, his perversities unfailingly suave. (...) His mots justes are so meticulously justes as to appear fabulous trouvailles, his literal descriptions -- of his childhood, his peregrinations of a devastated postwar Germany -- come to acquire, rather as Nabokov's do, the magical precision of the metaphor. (...) If this form of speculative enquiry is of interest to you, as concerning either Tournier or yourself, and you are able to handle a slightly self-regarding taste for excess and eccentricity, The Wind Spirit cannot be too highly recommended." - Gilbert Adair, Sunday Times

  • "(B)rilliant and maddening (.....) (M)uch of The Wind Spirit (...) is as exogamous as it is committed to those specifically French virtues and vices that Tournier analyzes so resourcefully. (...) Tournier leaves a trail of vivacious and convincing aphorisms, another reminder of his national character. Not only does he delight by his condensations, but some of them he develops into wonderfully impertinent essays" - Richard Howardv The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Late in The Wind Spirit, Michel Tournier writes: "I hope the reader will indulge me if I digress for a moment to talk about myself", but any reader who has made it this far has been indulging him for quite a while. Yes, there are any number of theoretical discursions along the way -- such as the one he interrupts here --, but for most of this memoir a rather self-satisfied Tournier has very much been talking about himself (and digressively, too, at that). Surely, also, readers have expected and hoped for exactly that -- the volume is subtitled: An Autobiography, after all (though not in the original French edition, which is presented as an: essai) -- and they certainly find it here: Tournier in spades, as it were -- and no small bit full of himself, for better and worse.
       Tournier clearly means to goad his readers, right from the start -- and, if nothing else, his intentionally provocative pronouncements certainly make their mark, near indelibly. Early on already, he bashes Paris -- "Paris is like a large pump, which alternately sucks up and spews out provincials" -- and, notoriously, expresses his disappointment that Hitler did not, in fact, burn the place down when the Germans abandoned it in World War II:

Burn Paris ? How could so clever an idea have originated in so wicked a mind ? But if the story is true, despite my doubts, for once I am sorry that Hitler was not obeyed, since for once he made a wise decision.
       And while the description of the traumatic experience of having his tonsils removed when he was age four -- disturbing though it is -- is certainly defensible, he doesn't do anywhere nearly enough to justify his gratuitous comparison:
Forty-five years later I still bear traces of the operation, and I remain incapable of describing the scene dispassionately. During the last war pre-pubescent girls were raped by soldiers. I maintain that they were less traumatized than I was by having my throat slit at the age of four
       No doubt, quite a few readers will part ways with Tournier at this point (on page seven ...), but it should be noted that he soon largely shifts from the inciteful to the more insightful, and, though he certainly continues with the very strongly-held opinions, never manages to be quite so bluntly offensive again.
       The Wind Spirit is a writer's memoir, but this 1977 work came out only a decade after Tournier debuted as a novelist, with Friday, or, The Other Island. Tournier focuses closely here on the major works he had published during these ten years -- specifically, Friday, The Ogre (published in the UK as The Erl-King), and Gemini --, all very much the products of his particular background and experiences.
       Tournier's ambition had been to become a philosopher, and it was only his failure at the agrégation -- "that bloated, hypertrophied, Ubu-esque institution, the most dishonest and nefarious test in the whole educational system" -- that forced him to choose a different path. Even decades later, his disappointment rings through:
The rest of us had to renounce our one true calling and toss our metaphysical-clerical robes into the bushes; we had to convert to careers in journalism, radio, publishing, manufacturing, or, like Michel Butor and myself, fiction writing.
       Long still seeing himself as a: "defrocked academic philosopher", it is almost two-third's of the way into this autobiography that he (resignedly ?) comes to the point where he acknowledges: "So literature was to be my life's work" -- but he adds: "But I vowed never to forget that I was an outsider in the world of letters and promised myself that I would always remain so". At heart, he remained a philosopher -- to the extent that:
My ambition was to take readers infatuated by tales of love and adventure and interest them in the literary equivalent of such sublime metaphysical inventions as Descartes's cogito, Spinoza's three type of knowledge, Leibniz's preestablished harmony, Kant's transcendental schema, and Husserl's phenomenological reduction.
       It took him a while to figure it out -- "how to produce Ponson du Terrail with Hegel's typewriter" -- but he spent many years honing his craft, reading and studying the masters (after, as he notes, a childhood in which: "I read little and late") and, not insignificantly, translating. As he points out: "Translation is a most profitable form of exercise for the apprentice writer". Among those whose works he translated was Erich Maria Remarque; among the amusing anecdotes in the memoir describes him meeting the author, who praises his translation (and introduces him to the delicacy that are sea urchins) but mentions his surprise at finding both some pages missing in the translation as well as some pages "that were not in the original". (Tournier notes by way of explanation: "I was twenty years old, I was a pretentious little fool, and my esteem for the prose of Erich Maria Remarque was not boundless".)
       Tournier notes that his parents met at the Sorbonne while both were studying German, and so: "From the inception, therefore, the family lived under the sign of Germanistik". Surviving fairly comfortably as a teenager under the Occupation, Tournier managed to hook up with a group of French students on a three-week visit to the University of Tübingen (in the French zone) right after the war, in 1946, shortly after defending his thesis (on Plato). The others were all Germanists, and while they all turned down the offer to continue studying in Tübingen, Tournier leapt at it: "I had gone for three weeks; I remained for four years". Even then, Tübingen was a philosophical center; among the other French students that eventually joined him there was Claude Lanzmann.
       Tournier's descriptions of both his (limited) wartime experiences and then his time in a defeated Germany are quite fascinating -- and he presents it well in explaining also how much of it eventually influenced The Ogre. Certainly, The Wind Spirit is invaluable for the insight it provides into those of his novels Tournier discusses in it -- not least for titbits such as:
     The Ogre, one critic said, is a musical novel. He was alluding, of course, to the Schubert lied that borrows its title and theme from Goethe's Erlkönig. But the fact is that it was not Schubert's music to which I listened over the four years of writing, but Karlheinz Stockhausen's Songs of the Jewish Children.
       Tournier also notes that:
I never had any intention of writing fantasy. My aim was to achieve a realism that became fantastic only through an extreme of precision and rationalism: hyperrealism plus hyperrationalism.
       He goes on to note that he feels closer to the surrealist painters than the surrealist writers
Surrealism, I think, is mastery of technique -- in the academic sense -- so perfect that it ends up being anti-academic. For me, that is the distinguishing characteristic of surrealist painting. Ernst, Picabia, Magritte, Delvaux, Dali, and Fini paint with such consummate skill as to produce meticulous, polished, finely brushed images that render reality with more precision than a photograph. [...] Aiming to penetrate by stealth to the very heart of being, they trusted in the infallible firmness of draftsmanship rather than the shimmering haze of dreams. The more literally one copies reality, the more intimately one interferes with it.
       The approach the surrealist writers took -- "relying instead on vagueness, fantasy, the unconscious, and the approximate, on automatic writing and free association." -- has no appeal to him.
       When writing about Friday, he also acknowledges:
It was Valéry who defined the kind of novel I was trying to write and who, with Monsieur Teste, provided me a model.
       Tournier neatly captures the youthful swagger of the young philosophy student and his colleagues (while World War II raged around them, no less), and he never seems to have lost either the swagger or the certainty of the preëminence of philosophy:
Like young Saint-Justs of the intellect, we held our swords aloft and divided all the products of man's mind into just two categories: philosophical systems and comic strips. Anything that was not a system -- or a study of a system -- was a comic strip, and into that contemptible category we indiscriminately tossed Shakespeare and Ponson du Terrail, Balzac and Saint-John Perse.
       Tournier obviously came around as regards literature, and chronicles that shift well in The Wind Spirit -- but can't ever fully let go of having been deprived his true calling, with the strong influence of philosophy and his philosophical training evident in all his writing (so also the final chapter here is a more purely philosophical exercise). His great accomplishment, of course, was in managing so successfully to fit fictional form to the philosophical questions he wanted to address. A great example of just how well he managed to fashion appealing fiction that nevertheless remained true to his philosophical roots and concerns came with that first success:
When I published my novel Friday, I was glad as well as proud to include in the paperback edition a rather technical afterword by Gilles Deleuze, while the very same novel was simultaneously being brought out in a children's version and staged as a children's play by Antoine Vitez. For me, the proof of the novel's success is the response that it was able to elicit from two readers at opposite poles of sophistication: a child at one end of the scale, a metaphysician at the other.
       Tournier has and presents strong opinions on a variety of subjects -- many of interest, and some that are clearly misguided -- and he weaves these in well into this loose memoir. Part of the book's appeal is his digressiveness -- all of which ties together --, best captured early on, when he is describing his youth:
     Before discussing influences -- records and books -- I want to speak of certain objects -- I hardly dare call them toys or games -- whose common denominator seems to have been a high degree of solitude. But before discussing any of these things I must quote the philosopher Leibniz, for reasons that will become obvious.
       This typical layering of explanation and disclosure reflects both man and mind; The Wind Spirit is successful as memoir because Tournier is so much himself here, not so much in the life-details he offers -- he only reveals so many of these, and elides much significant experience -- but, not least, in the presentation of the material.
       Well-wrought, The Wind Spirit is an intellectual biography, less concerned with mundane biographical facts (though enough are sprinkled in) than matters of the mind. It is very much the memoir of a writer, with writing taking a prominent place: Tournier examines and explains closely the writing of the three novels that are at the heart of this memoir. But the memoir is also revealing beyond just these works, and though Tournier is not always a sympathetic figure he remains a fascinating one -- and The Wind Spirit a fascinating exercise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 March 2022

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The Wind Spirit: Reviews: Michel Tournier: Other books by Michel Tournier under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Tournier lived 1924 to 2016.

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© 2022 the complete review

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