The Man Who Walked through Walls

Marcel Aymé

translated from the French by Sophie Lewis
Pushkin Press 2012 [1943]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
This collection of short stories, first published in 1943, deploys some surreal plots but mixes them with realist descriptions of everyday life. Aymé doesn't elaborate on his fantastic premises, but rather uses them as a direct source of entertainment and as a way of "loosening up" the reader and making them receptive to his subtly satirical probing of social conventions and assumptions. He draws on the wartime setting for material, along with family relationships (between children and parents or husbands and wives), questions of social justice, and scenes from everyday Parisian and provincial life. There is a general sympathy for humanity in all of this, with the gentle humour in Aymé's deftly handled social and personal portraits dominating the mood.

Four of the stories have science-fiction premises. In the title story an ordinary clerk discovers he has the ability to walk through walls, which eventually shakes up his attempt to maintain an ordinary life completely. "Sabine Women" involves a woman who is ubiquitous — who can make copies of herself and be in different places at the same time — and the adventures of (some of) her thousands of copies. In "Tickets on Time", time-rationing means that non-essential workers, such as writers, only get to live for a few weeks in every month. And in "The Problem of Summertime", the French government of 1942 attempts to escape the war by setting the clocks forward seventeen years instead of one hour.

Others among the stories tend more to the folk-fantastic. "Wife Collector" features a small-town tax collector who has problems paying his own taxes; when his wife runs off he thinks she's been appropriated in lieu of taxes and starts collecting wives himself. "The Bailiff" and "Poldevian Legend" are both parables, involving attempts to get past St Peter and into heaven, but the former is a morality story while the latter is almost an extended dirty joke.

The remaining stories involve quite ordinary settings. In "The Proverb" an authoritarian father attempts to help his son with his homework, but the latter ends up learning about his father's limitations instead. In "The Seven League Boots" the son of a poor cleaning-woman has an accident while playing with richer classmates (here the conclusion has, again, something of the feel of a fairy tale). And "While Waiting" presents vignettes of everyday wartime life, as told by fourteen people waiting in a queue outside a grocer's.

The Man Who Walked through Walls is a fun collection, with good variety in subject material and settings, some clever ideas on both large and small scales, and a lively and engaging style.

August 2012

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%T The Man Who Walked through Walls
%A Aymé, Marcel
%M French
%F Lewis, Sophie
%I Pushkin Press
%D 2012 [1943]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781906548643
%P 296pp