The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

I wish I could remember who recommended The Man Who Walked Through Walls to me, I owe them a great big thank you. It’s a book I would never have found on my own, and I was completely charmed. The Man Who Walked Through Walls was originally published in French in 1943, reprinting stories that first appeared in magazines between 1938 and 1943. This English translation by Sophie Wells came out in 2012. (I would have liked for the book to list the stories’ original titles and dates of publication.) It collects ten tales by Marcel Aymé, who grew up the son of a smith and only turned to writing after working as an insurance representative, mason, banker and painter, among other occupations. In fiction, his breakthrough came with The Green Mare, which I have not read but which the front matter of this book characterizes as “a dark satire on sexuality published in 1933.” Beginning in the mid-1930s he also had considerable commercial success writing for the cinema.

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

Every story in The Man Who Walked Through Walls has some kind of fantastic element that Aymé then develops in unexpected directions, or sometimes in expected directions but with droll and biting humor about human folly. The fantastic element in the title story (“Le Passe-muraille,” 1943) is obvious enough, and Aymé so matter-of-factly describes how “a gentleman called Dutilleul” discovered his ability that the reader accepts it without question. The ability disturbs him so he goes to see a doctor, who

was soon persuaded that Dutilleul was telling the truth and, following a full examination, located the cause of the problem in a helicoid hardening of the strangulary wall in the thyroid gland. He prescribed sustained over-exertion and a twice-yearly does of one powdered tetravalent pirette pill, a mixture of rice flour and centaur hormones.
Having taken the first pill, Dutilleul put the medicine away in a drawer and forgot about it. As for the intensive over-exertion, as a civil servant his rate of work was governed by practices that permitted no excess, nor did his leisure time, divided between reading the newspapers and tending his stamp collection, involve him in any excessive expenditure of energy either. (p. 10)

Centaur hormones! Not that there is any further reference to centaurs or any hint that this is a France in which centaurs roam freely, apart from occasionally giving their hormones to medical science. Dutilleul is not tempted to put his ability to use until something happens at the Ministry of Records that quite upends his world. He receives a new boss, one who

intended to introduce reforms of considerable scope … For twenty years now, Dutilleul had commenced his official letters with the following formula: “With reference to your esteemed communication of the nth of this month and, for the record, to all previous exchange of letters, I have the honour to inform you that…” A forumula for which Monsieur Lécuyer intended to substitute another, much more American in tone: “In reply to your letter of n, I inform you that …” (p. 11)

Quelle horreur. With that, Dutilleul’s inhibitions are broken and he starts to use his wall-walking abilities, first to harass his upstart boss, and then to embark on a life of crime and lasciviousness. The ending is unfortunate and unexpected.

“Sabine Women” (“Les Sabines,” 1943), the next tale and the longest in the book, concerns “a young woman named Sabine who had the gift of ubiquity. She could, at will, multiply herself and exist simultaneously, in both body and mind, in as many places as she pleased.” (p. 27) She, too, starts off by using her power moderately. “Since she was married, and this rare gift would only have worried her husband, she had been careful not to reveal it to him and hardly used it except at home, and only when she was there alone.” (p. 27) Aymé often hides his drollery in asides like “would only have worried her husband.” He did discover her tripled one time, but “Sabine came together again straight away and he thought he’d had a funny turn, in which opinion he was confirmed by the family doctor, who diagnosed hypophyseal deficiencey and prescribed some expensive remedies.” (p. 28) Before long, though, Sabine makes herself more ubiquitous to enjoy some things that would definitely have worried her husband, and then things get out of hand.

Some of the stories address World War II and the occupation of France more directly. In “Tickets on Time” (“La Carte,” 1942), the authorities announce that “to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working part of the population” (p. 77) the non-productive segments will spend part of each month dead. Time will be rationed, and only certain people will be entitled to all of it, the rest “will simply have their time cut back.” (p. 78) The first-person narrator finds this has a certain elegance until he discovers he will only be entitled to two weeks of life each month. The authorities issue tickets for the days a person is allowed to have each month. Naturally, a black market springs up, with some collecting more days than the calendar typically shows. In “The Problem of Summertime” (“Le Décret,” 1941), the world’s governments solve the problem of the war by moving time forward seventeen years, well past war’s end. All is fine for the story’s narrator until he stumbles onto an isolated village that hadn’t gotten the news of the time decree.

I particularly liked “The Seven-League Boots” (“Les Bottes de sept lieues,” 1940), a tale of boyish competition, camaraderie, and cruelty, with adventures that blur the lines of reality. It’s also a dissection of class differences, with an unsparing portrait of growing up in poverty and trying to make the best of it. There’s a mad shopkeeper whose emporium is home to the boots, among other probably magical items. And there’s a happy ending, one of the few in this collection.

Aymé’s stories are funny and strange, in a way that’s new to me. I’ll have to look for more of his work.

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