The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

As you might have guessed from my reviews here, I’m something of a fan of Pushkin Press’s very beautiful books. So I couldn’t let my first visit to the sparkly new Foyles in Charing Cross Road go by without picking up one of their volumes, and this was it. I knew nothing about Aymé, but I liked the sound of the stories so there you go! And having had a look online Wikipedia tells me: Marcel Aymé (March 29, 1902 – October 14, 1967) was a French novelist, children’s writer, humour writer and also a screenwriter and theatre playwright. The title story of this volume seems to have been his best known work and is immortalised by a sculpture in Paris.  walls
The book contains ten stories, often very different, but many distinguished by the time when they were written. Published in 1943, the works are informed by the ongoing presence of war and occupation by Germany. Several cover war and its effects, and it’s worth bearing in mind that these were written at a point when it was not possible to know how things would turn out (for example, one story mentions the 1939-1972 War, which emphasises how it must have felt to be in the centre of these events with no sign of hope).

However, on to specifics. The title story is a clever, funny piece of work about an unassuming clerk, Dutillieul, who discovers that he can literally walk through walls. All goes well and he has no need to use this skill until bureaucracy gets in the way and threatens his life and his status quo. Dutillieul rebels, and has a brief time of glory – but alas, rather over-reaches himself! Strange powers are also featured in “Sabine Women”, in which the woman of the title discovers she has ubiquity and can split herself into as many duplicate women as she wants. This becomes useful when she wants loves, but becomes more sinister as they populate the world, and ends up musing in somewhat satirical fashion on the soul. Then there are a couple of strange time-shifting tales dealing with less useful members of society only being allowed to stay alive for part of the month, or a switch to summertime taking time travel to the furthest extent. There are sadder stories, too, about poverty, madness and cruelty.

As Nicholas Lezard, reviewing in the Guardian, pointed out about the stories: Many were written in occupied France and conjure, obliquely, with the absurd horrors of wartime. Obliquely is correct here, as the stories are not really escapist, but look at things in a slightly skewed way as a method of coping and trying to make sense of the situation. Lezard, a huge fan, compares Aymé to Kafka and Will Self, but I was more reminded of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, his strangeness, the surreality of his settings and the manipulation of space and time in his stories.

This was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, full of unexpected twists, emotions and humour. Once again, I’m going to have to throw bouquets at Pushkin Press for bringing us this book – they’re turning out to be awfully reliable publishers!