The Erl-King by Michel Tournier
This French novel, first published in 1970, doesn’t seem to be that well known in the UK. I think that’s a shame. It is one of the most compellingly odd and unsettling novels I’ve read in some time. The closest thing I can compare it to is ‘Lolita’, in the sense that there’s some very uncomfortable moral dental surgery being performed on the reader, with instruments being stuck into all kinds of painful cavities and sensitive spots. It’s uneasy reading and it’s also beautifully written. Even in translation, the prose feels so finely wrought and the imagery so nuanced you can’t help but be pulled in even as you feel yourself sinking into some very murky places.
If I start by saying it’s a novel concerned with the Second World war, that will possibly do an injustice. Yes, it is a book which confronts full-on the horror and insanity and moral cataclysm of Europe between 1939 and 1945. A considerable amount of the novel takes place within the Third Reich. The settings include a forced labour camp, the hunting lodge of Hermann Goering (who gets a walk-on, or perhaps lumber-on, part) and an isolated Prussian castle within which children are trained for future service within the thousand year Reich even as the Red Army advances on them. If anything, this is the most profound and moving book about the Second World War I’ve ever read, in part precisely because it doesn’t try to be a book about the Second World War. The war and its depravities happen largely as background and this adds to the book’s crepuscular sense of a world lacking in any kind of right perspective.
Throughout the novel, the focus is on the narrator, Abel Tiffauges, who is identified in the opening sentence as “an ogre”. Along with the novel’s title (taken from a Goethe poem – no, I didn’t know it either) these are the first indications that this book is best approached as a spectacularly dark fairy-tale for adults – and not in the sense that we’re meant to find Tim Burton films “adult fairy tales”. This is the real deal. Tiffauges may just be the single most disturbing central character in any novel I’ve ever read. And yes, I’ve read ‘American Psycho’ and ‘Fever Pitch’. Tiffauges is a garage mechanic in the suburbs of Paris. He lives detached from all those around him, observing them, speculating about them and their various failings and sexual proclivities, never quite humanly engaged beyond revelling in his sense of a mystical superiority that places him beyond the judgement of mere mortals. He is that familiar domestic monster we work alongside or pass in the street and never quite notice beyond being repelled by oddities in their appearance or smell or way of speaking.
Like many such monsters, Tiffauges is excessively sentimental and given to flights of violently expressed tenderness when obsessing over those things he regards as pure and worthy. For him, the greatest purity is found in children. He likes to drive around Paris and photograph pre-pubescent children, fantasising over these photographic images and the images they suggest in his mind. We are brought into proximity with the ogre through reading his secret diary of “sinister” writings – which are “sinister” both in the sense of the flesh-creeping insight they provide into this fearful, everyday beast and because, more literally, he commits his thoughts to paper with his left hand.
Just as with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, we are asked to consider this unapologetic monster as, in part, a product of a hypocritical, degraded world, satisfied with its own corruption. Tiffauges also recounts his early youth, within a predictably unpleasant Catholic boys’ school. In saying it’s predictably unpleasant, I should make clear that this refers to only the setting. The events in the story have an unguessable oddity, a dream-like, weird lucidity that leaves you completely unable to predict where this novel will go. As with Humbert, it’s not as simple a case as ‘to understand all is to forgive all’: Tiffauges remains someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet when you arrive for your French exchange, but his own insanity seems like an entirely explicable outcome of a childhood based on violence, guilt, neglect, religious mysticism, sexual abuse and cycling.
The first crisis point in the novel is reached when Tiffauges’ burgeoning infatuation with a small girl results in his arrest for a sexual assault on the child – though Tiffauges’ relation of this part of the story leaves open the possibility that he was, to some degree, set up for his fall.
On the point of condemnation and public exposure as a child-molester, Tiffauges is saved – by the outbreak of war. This typifies the novel’s utterly savage irony and, being related as an act of providence by Tiffauges, contributes to the sense of a twisted fairy-tale unfolding.
Tiffauges is sent to fight and the novel changes direction, opening out brilliantly into a picaresque series of ‘adventures’ in which the collapse of Europe in the background is offset against what is, for Tiffauges, a sense of continually climbing upwards towards a semi-articulated sense of grand destiny. Each subsequent section contributes compelling, ambivalent images that deepen the novel. In the abortive French defence against the German army’s westward advance of 1940, Tiffauges finds peace and purpose in caring for the pigeons used to send messages between command posts. Captured during the rout of the French forces, he is sent to a labour camp in the desolate flatlands of north-eastern Germany. What proves for his compatriots the end of the world is, for Tiffauges, a pure, existential liberation. In the barren landscape of the marshland he finds mystical meaning. In an utterly inspired section he discovers an “escape”: left unattended to dig trenches because of his apparent passivity, Tiffauges finds an abandoned hut within some woods. Rather than doing a runner from the POW camp, he is profoundly content to continue his labour, absconding when he can to commune with his vision of a simple life, close to nature. He inhabits the hut and – as someone who doesn’t “do” human relationships – builds a caring, affectionate bond with a giant, blinded elk. This is one of those parts of a novel that convinces you that what you have is a great book as opposed to just a very good one. I could imagine a pretty good writer would make this the substance of a whole novel: the quirky tale of a POW who quietly slips off to live in the woods for stretches of time, unnoticed by the Nazi guards. Here, it’s part of a much wider and more detailed painting, and is used to illustrate chaos and chance as the only reliable factors in the world.
Tiffauges’ bizarre rural idyll is brought to an end when the owner of the hut, a German forestry official, returns in the Spring to reclaim it. This apparent disaster only leads on to further unearned fortune for Tiffauges: having proved himself a careful and considered guardian of the natural world, he is selected for a position working in the Goerring estate. It’s hard to convey the profound level of dark comedy achieved in this section of the novel, with its straight-faced attention to the volkisch fantasies of hunting, blood, soil, man against beast: a sickening dignifying of those who are beyond humanity. Tiffauges’ innocence plays off brilliantly against the lurking horror of what remains unsaid in this section, as the horror of ideologically-motivated war continues, unmentioned, refracted through the hunting scenes. Again – this could have been an entire novel on its own and the complexity with which it asks you to consider the categories of “natural” and “unnatural” is fantastic.
And still it doesn’t let up. Tiffauges’ sense of destined ascent just grows and grows as your own sense of spiralling down into an utter horror deepens. Further fairy-tale like strokes of “fortune” see him given a position in a Prussian castle wherein small boys and girls – Tiffauges’ quivering pleasure is boundless – are carefully trained in Nazi myth and ritual, even as defeat in the war begins to become inevitable. As the Nazi edifice collapses, Tiffauges reaches his personal zenith, being given a position whereby he rides about the Prussian countryside on a horse, seeking out children to be taken to the castle. He becomes the “Erl-King” of the title, the child-catching ogre familiar from the collective consciousness of our childhoods. It is not that he particularly espouses Nazi ideology – more that it fits comfortably with his own elaborate and twisted personal mythology.
In the final section of the novel, which I’ll avoid explaining in any great detail, there is the possibility of a kind of redemption, though there is certainly nothing as simple as a neatly-contrived, morally uplifting and righteous conclusion. This book is far too complex and subtle for that.
It’s tempting to read Tiffauges as a symbol but, such is his individuality, his twisted massiveness as a voice and a mind, that would be to reduce a superb, disturbing creation to less than he is. There is a larger dimension to this book of course – it seems to me very concerned with the making of stories and how ‘history’ cannot be understood as something other than the mess of fairy-tales, myth, propaganda, lies, justifications and wish-fulfilments that individuals tell themselves and societies tell individuals. The brilliance with which Tournier layers the imagery of the novel – its use of landscape, animals, architecture, buried bodies and many more – gives the writing a beguiling, shifting, magical quality. And it’s a very dark magic. This is a book of beauty and horror and will stay in my mind for a long, long time.