Nicholas Spice

  • The Fetishist, and Other Stories by Michel Tournier, translated by Barbara Wright
    Collins, 220 pp, £8.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 00 221440 7
  • My Aunt Christina, and Other Stories by J.I.M. Stewart
    Gollancz, 207 pp, £8.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 575 03256 1
  • Mr Bedford and the Muses by Gail Godwin
    Heinemann, 229 pp, £7.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 434 29751 8
  • Alexandra Freed by Lisa Zeidner
    Cape, 288 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 224 02158 3
  • The Coffin Tree by Wendy Law-Yone
    Cape, 195 pp, £8.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 224 02963 0

In English nurseries little boys are known to be made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Little girls, as in my childhood I knew to my cost, are made of sugar and spice. And all things nice (which was a small consolation). Prickly, the infant protagonist of the sixth story in this collection of 14 by Michel Tournier, would agree. Maleness repels, femaleness attracts him. Papa is grizzled, tobacco-smelling, stiff and, above all, stubbly: rebarbative, in fact. Mama – soft, creamy, sweet-scented, supple Mama – summarises all things nice. Much else in the adult world reinforces these categories for Prickly. Including the public conveniences in the park which he goes to some afternoons with Marie his nanny. On the left, the Gents: foul-smelling and incommodious; on the right, the Ladies: perfumed, decorative and sumptuously furnished; in the middle, Mamouse, the large lady caretaker who sits ‘like the dog Cerberus’ at the gates of hell, watching over her pourboires and her pot of simmering chicken-giblet broth. Prickly’s chief aim in life is to sneak past Mamouse into the Ladies, where behind closed doors, and without having to stand up (a position which inhibits him), he can pee in peace. When Mamouse gets wise to this Prickly seeks advice from his friend Dominique, who is older than him and who passes in and out of the forbidden zone with mysterious immunity. At the centre of the park maze Dominique reveals how this can be: ‘Next, opening them wide, he pulled down the red underpants he had exposed. His smooth, white stomach ended in a milky slit, a vertical smile in which there was just a trace of pale down.’ The logic of the situation begins to dawn on Prickly. The vexatious problem of peeing like a man, Marie’s threats to have his willie cut off if he doesn’t stop wetting his bed, the curious statue in the park of Theseus and the Minotaur where Theseus, dressed like a girl, is apparently about to cut off the Minotaur’s willie, the hideous vision of a man’s genitals glimpsed one day in the urinals (‘the quantity of swarthy, flabby flesh he was trying with difficulty to cram back into his fly was incredible’), those chicken giblets in Mamouse’s pot ... it all adds up. Prickly no longer wets his bed. His mind is made up. He takes Papa’s cut-throat razor and pre-empts the inevitable. He cuts off his willie himself. The outcome of ‘Prickly’ is a shock because it is unforeseen, but also because it is not unforeseeable. Prickly’s self-mutilation precipitates the sudden recognition of an awful congruity in everything that has led up to it, and we experience a sudden rush of meaning to the brain. This effect is typical of Tournier’s control of the short story form.

When Prickly’s mother goes out for the evening, Prickly begs her to leave him her black kidskin gloves. ‘They were as supple and warm as fresh, living skins, and the child swathed his body in their empty hands, Mama’s hands, and fell asleep under their caress.’ This is a solace that Martin, the fetishist, would keenly appreciate. It is in a glove, so to speak, that he experiences his first sensual encounter with Antoinette, the love of his life: ‘that little fabric hand that I could squeeze in my hand, put in my pocket, Antoinette’s hand’. But his romance only really takes off with Antoinette’s panties, which a comic and curious turn of events brings into his rapt possession. We meet Martin long after this fateful occurrence. He is on day release from the mental hospital where he has been an inmate for the past twenty years. While his attendants are having a drink in a nearby bar, he talks to us for an hour.

Martin’s monologue (described as a ‘one-act one-man play’ and performable as such) is structured around five narrative set-pieces: how Martin acquires Antoinette’s knickers, how he fails to escape from prison camp in the war because of his aversion to men’s underwear, the trauma of his wedding night, his ‘adultery’ with the mauve satin bra of Mlle Francine, cashier at the Majestic Cinema, and the catastrophe of his life’s drama: his ‘rape’ of a black nylon suspender belt glimpsed fleetingly in the Paris Metro at the end of a Christmas shopping expedition squandered in the ecstatic purchase of mountains of decorative lingerie. These vignettes are linked by more discursive narrative material, in which Martin explains his tastes as well as the joys and sadness they have at different times brought him.

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