Thursday, 23 August 2012

In Search of Lost Time Tickets

After the wonderful time I had reading Traveller of the Century and Petersburg, I have become most willing to put my trust in the books Pushkin Press chooses to publish, so when I was offered another review copy recently, I was very happy to give it a try, even though I'd never heard of the author before.  This time it was a collection of short stories from a mid-twentieth-century French writer, but the end result was just as good :)

Marcel Aymé's collection, The Man Who Walked through Walls (translated by Sophie Lewis), was released in 1943 and comprises ten stories, each a little gem in its own right.  Some are short, realistic tales, others are whimsical, fairy-tale-like fantasies, while a few are verging on science-fiction, altering one little aspect of the universe, then casually following the consequences of the change.  One thing they have in common is that they are all fascinating and exceedingly-elegantly written.

The most famous of the stories is probably the one which lends the collection its name.  On the very first page, we are introduced to "an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all." (p.11, Pushkin Press, 2012).  Surprisingly, Monsieur Dutilleul doesn't think much of his talent, preferring to use doors like everyone else until, one day, his supervisor at work pushes him too far, forcing our friend to use his gift to get his own back.  Once he has decided to finally make use of his talent though, it becomes extremely difficult to stop...

This bizarre style is continued in the next few stories.  Sabine Women, the longest of the stories included here, follows the troubles of a woman who is able to divide herself into as many different people as she likes.  Of course, once her doubles get bored, they too begin to duplicate, causing problems across six continents...  In The Problem of Summertime, a bold attempt to end the war by moving time forward seventeen years comes unstuck when a man visits a tiny village which is unaware of, and unaffected by, the international decree.  Our hero then returns home with knowledge of what he thinks is the future, but day by day, he becomes less sure of whether it all actually happened.

In some of the later stories, the style leans more towards fairy-tale and fantasy than in the earlier efforts.  Poldevian Legend and The Bailiff both look at what effect our lives on earth have on where we spend the rest of eternity (with wildly differing results), and The Wife Collector is a Kafkaesque tale in which a local tax collector deals with an unexpected loss by introducing a bizarre new scheme for increasing tax revenue, one which some may find appealing ;)

There is a lot more to this collection than just an over-active imagination though.  The book was originally released during the Second World War, and while we know that the war ended a couple of years later, with France on the winning side, Aymé was writing at a time when victory seemed impossible - and when even an unwelcome defeat could be decades in the future.  The final story, While Waiting, begins with the phrase:
"During the 1939-1972 war..." (p.275)
What to us seems an exaggerated statement was at this time simply a pessimistic view of an uncertain future...

While Waiting is one of the bleakest of the stories, in which fourteen people who meet while queueing for groceries decide never to go home again.  Each of them tells a tale of sorrow, lamenting their poor luck, each claiming to have nothing to go home to.  Some of the complaints go on for pages, other only take up a few lines.  One of the shortest simply doesn't need to be expanded upon:
"I," said a Jew, "I'm a Jew." (p.293)

As well as being the driving force behind While Waiting and The Problem of Summertime, the Occupation is also the underlying idea in Tickets on Time.  In this story, written in diary form, we learn of a scheme the government has come up with to ease food shortages.  People are divided into categories, depending on their usefulness, and are accordingly given ration tickets... for time.

Our diarist, writer Jules Flegmon, initially approves of the idea - that is until he hears that artists are not considered to be terribly useful and will only be allowed to live for two weeks each month.  At midnight on the 14th, he will disappear, reappearing on the first of the next month...  Aymé sets out the general concept of the story and then explores it in depth, leaving Flegmon to find out what really happens to the people who temporarily vanish.  More importantly, after trading tickets, he also learns what happens to those who are left behind for the final part of each month.

Hidden beneath the surface of this story is an examination of life in Occupied France and the way solidarity of a conquered people can swiftly turn into a self-centred free-for-all.  Very quickly, a black market for time tickets is established, and the poor are forced to sell off their precious time in order to feed their families.  Meanwhile, the rich and well-connected hardly seem to be affected by the new system at all - perhaps a reflection of how life really was in France at the time...

While I had never heard of Aymé before being offered this book, I'm a big fan now, and I'd love to try more of his work.  If I'm feeling up to it, I might try one in French next time - although Sophie Lewis' work here is excellent.  Anyone interested in short stories should give The Man Who Walked through Walls a go: it's a great collection of stories, and a lovely, aesthetically-pleasing book to boot.  In short, another wonderful Pushkin press production :)