A Durham University Modern Languages undergraduate I tutor has been set an interesting collection of texts for her exams in French literature. One of them is Michel Tournier’s Le coq de bruyère, which Amazon informs me has been translated as The Fetishist and other stories (it is also insanely expensive, and has no cover image).
Michel Tournier is one of the most respected living French authors and he has written for children, with, for instance, his Friday books, which are rewritings of Robinson Crusoe. Le coq de bruyère is a collection of strange, sometimes gruesome, sometimes shocking tales and short stories, mostly readapting and rewriting traditional tales and nursery rhymes, and generally marketed as ‘littérature jeunesse’ (youth literature). I read it when I was 10 and I very clearly remember being perturbed by it in many ways, as well as intrigued. Striking images in the book have remained in my memory ever since: ‘Mother Christmas’ breastfeeding baby Jesus, a hippie Ogre in a sexy rewriting of Hop-o’-my-Thumb, a woman made of bread with brioche boobs. It is one of these books that both ‘adult’ literature critics and ‘children’s’ literature critics would revendicate as their own.
Other French examples in that category would perhaps be Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Boris Vian’s L’écume des jours (Foam of the Daze), or Marcel Aymé’s beautifully surrealistic Wonderful Farm.
At Durham, my tutee tells me, Le coq de bruyère is presented to students as ‘littérature jeunesse mais que les adultes aiment aussi’ (‘youth literature but which adults like as well’). Phew! That makes it ok then. Of course, they study it using traditional tools of ‘adult’ literature criticism, probably missing out on important questions and paradoxes in the book which could be grappled with using children’s literature criticism.
But though their unease in defining the book is palpable, at least they acknowledge its ‘youth literature’ dimension – no burying their heads in the sand there. I wonder if English or Modern Languages exams are likely to incorporate, gradually, more texts like Tournier’s. The awkward non-definition of ‘youth literature but that adults like as well’ will probably need, in that case, to be tackled more convincingly by professors and students by using children’s literature criticism as well as ‘adult’ literature and linguistic criticism.