Sunday 8 February 2009

Marcel Aymé

Marcel Aymé, virtually unknown in the English-speaking world these days, is also to some extent not appreciated at his just value in France, where – although some of his short stories and children’s writing are considered undisputed classics – the rest of his considerable body of fiction and drama is now essentially ignored. He was born in rural Burgundy in 1902, spending his childhood there before moving to Paris to become a journalist. His first novel Brûlebois was published in 1927 to critical acclaim, and his follow-up, La Table aux crevés, won the prestigious Prix Renaudot two years later, but it was with 1933’s La Jument verte that his fame became widespread.

Aymé wrote and published regularly until his death in 1967, focusing mostly on his novels and short stories at first – his farmyard tales Les Contes du chat perché (1934–46) have now become a staple in French curricula – but shifting more towards plays from the late 1940s onwards. All of his writings are characterized by their irony, humour and realism, and are concerned with unearthing and examining – both in the context of rural France and bustling Paris – the workings of society and ordinary people’s darker motives. His fiction became increasingly satirical and political – such as the 1948 novel Uranus, which criticizes the Left’s abuse of its post-Liberation power and was superbly adapted to the screen by Claude Berri, featuring a memorable performance by Gérard Depardieu as an alcoholic barkeeper who develops a passion for Racine.

Although Aymé’s reputation was stained by his decision to continue publishing his works during the Occupation and his friendship with politically dubious writers such as Brasillach, he staunchly refused to join any party and poured scorn on the Left and Right alike. Another recurring feature in his works is the Kafkaesque incursion of the supernatural into a realist setting. A famous example of this is his short story Le Passe-muraille, in which a modest and downtrodden civil servant suddenly discovers that he has the ability to walk through walls, and uses this new-found power to avenge the humiliations inflicted on him throughout his life.

Aymé’s 1941 novel La Belle Image (which has recently been published for the first time in English, as Beautiful Image, by Pushkin Press) uses a similar technique: 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.



  1. La Belle Image sounds terrific! Thanks for this interesting post.

  2. Thanks for posting about Aymé. I recently discovered that many of his works have been translated into English, though in editions now long out-of-print. At one point there was even a mass-market US edition of The Walker Through Walls (Le Passe-muraille)! (Also published in a beautiful hardcover edition as Across Paris and Other Stories.)

    I'm so glad you are blogging.


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