This collection of short stories by Marcel Aymé was a total pleasure that I slowly savored in between some of my other readings. Several of the stories had a dream-like magical quality that was both intoxicating and jarring. Of the ten stories, four were phenomenal and only one was a total dud (The Proverb) and all but that one dud captured my attention completely, preventing me from doing anything other than finish the story in hand. These writings possess both the quality of the bizarre and the profound with a whimsical and enjoyable artistic realism. And they were fun too!
The first two stories, the collection’s title namesake of the The Man Who Walked Through Walls and Sabine Woman both felt like blunt superhero stories told within a world that takes no notice of super hero powers. The first story was literally about a man that possessed the power to walk through walls and the second story was about a woman who was able to multiply her physical self infinitely. These plot scenarios could easily be subtexts for any Marvel X-Men story lines, but Aymé wrote these stories not to explore these powers as would a comic book writer who exploits the childlike wonder of superhero possibility, but rather to explore the moral and ethical choices of people granted unusual attributes.
The man who could walk through walls first found annoyance with his ability, going to a doctor to figure out what was wrong with him, but as he finds trouble at his work he soon exploits his ability to toy with his boss and then he later becomes a criminal and escape artist. Just like the man who could walk through walls, the woman with the ability to multiply herself is at first suspicious of her ability, only using it to expedite the completion of her household chores, but she later finds the enjoyment of comfortably living out an affair while remaining chaste to her husband. She later becomes addicted to the excitement of living multiple lives at once as she multiplies herself again and again. In both stories, the title characters become corrupted by their unique abilities, breaking both moral and legal laws, yet their corruption is told from a light and playful narrative voice that speaks with a practical tone. The practical voice portrays the characters’ stories with believability, as though their outcomes would be the expected outcomes of people with these abilities in our world.
My favorite stories from the collection were two stories that explored the concepts of time. Tickets on Time told the story of an overpopulated world where the elite decided that the days of the month would be granted to individuals that were most productive, thereby creating days when unproductive individuals would disappear from existence until the subsequent month. This created an unusual barter system where the poor sell their tickets on time to others and the wealthy are able to live extra days each month. In The Problem of Summertime it is determined that time will be moved forward by seventeen years for society to skip over the turmoil of the second world war and the German occupation. One individual finds himself in a strange time warp when he was once in 1960 and then back in 1943 occupied France, yet with all his memories of the peaceful future intact. As he tries to understand the truth of his reality he rather profoundly states the following:
“It seems, and it might just be my imagining, that my memory of the future is already less certain.” (134, The Problem of Summertime)
Astute and philosophical statements such as this are interspersed throughout Aymé’s writings. Just as both Tickets on Time and the The Problem of Summertime bend the reader’s perception of the concepts of time and The Man Who Walked Through Walls and Sabine Woman toy with the reader’s expectations of human abilities, all of the stories in this collection are presented as a playful twist on reality to provide the reader with an altered perspective on truth, morality, and human relationship. These stories, written when France was occupied by Nazi Germany, come from a voice that knows the potential for, but denies the cynical perspective. After having stated that, I must acknowledge that there were a couple of stories with a darker perspective such as The Proberb, which portrays a stern and short-sited father and While Waiting, which tells the story of several destitute survivors of a never-ending war. However, despite those two outliers, most of the the stories in this collection are from a voice that portrays a playful perspective on life; it is a voice that questions moral, philosophical, and physical laws to prompt the reader to better enjoy the reality lived through reading.