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Notes for
from "The Walker-Through-Walls"
by Marcel Aymé, translated by Norman Denny)

Exercise AK G9 L4.1 Verbals Literature

     I have been reading stories from older anthologies, looking for works that are in the public domain such that they can be placed on this site and used as exercises or examples. I found this story in Reader's Digest Great Short Stories of the World: 71 of the finest stories ever written ((Pleasantville, NY: 1972). According to the notes, the story is "copyright Editions Gallimard 1943," and "is from Across Paris and Other Stories by Marcel Aymé. Used by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, and Editions Gallimard." I take that to mean that I cannot put the entire story on the site, but the opening paragraph and the sentences from the second paragraph can probably make sense by themselves as an example of the use of detail in stories of the fantastic.
     Part of the charm of humorous fantastic fiction probably results from the interplay between the believable and the incredible. In a sense, the writer sucks us in with believable details and then smacks us over the head with the incredible. The sentences in the exercise are a nice example of this. The first sentence includes two prepositional phrases that establish a credible home for Dutilleul -- "on the third floor of No. 75 bis, Rue d'Orchampt." Note also the nice touch of the adjective "excellent." But then we are hit with a subordinate clause (minor key) that is absolutely incredible -- "who possessed the singular gift of being able to walk through walls without experiencing any discomfort." 
     The text, however, continues as if there is nothing amazing going on -- the following sentences are syntactically very simple and realistically detailed -- "He wore pince-nez and a little black beard, and he was a third-grade clerk in the Ministry of Registration. The adjectives "little black" make the beard much easier to visualize -- and thus accept as real. And he wasn't just a clerk, but a "third-grade" clerk. These are the types of details that, for example, student writers often omit, but they are also details that make the text more credible. The following two prepositional phrases again add to the realism. A "clerk" could be any clerk, a made-up clerk, but this clerk is real -- he works "in the Ministry of Registration."
     The prepositional phrases in the last sentence of the first paragraph add nothing of importance to the plot of the story. (In winter he went by bus to his office, and in summer he went on foot, under his bowler hat.) Instead, their simple structure and ordinary details suggest that there is nothing unusual going on here. Dutilleul is a normal, everyday guy.
     The second paragraph of the story explains how Dutilleul, at age 43, learned of his special ability. The electricity went out in his apartment, and he fumbled around in the dark. When the lights came back on, he found himself outside on the landing. "Since his front door was locked on the inside the incident caused him to reflect, and despite the protests of his reason he resolved to go in as he had come out, by walking through the wall." The sentences that immediately follow the preceding one are in the second part of the exercise.
     The subordinate clause, "This strange attainment, which seemed to correspond to none of his aspirations,..." both emphasizes and undercuts the "strange attainment." That words are spent, indeed a whole clause is spent, to modify "attainment" adds to the importance of the word. But the substance of that clause undercuts the attainment -- can it be considered an "attainment" if he did not aspire to it? Then we are told that it "preyed slightly on his mind." Slightly? Most people, should they find themselves easily able to walk through walls, would have nothing but that fact on their minds. Once again, the incredible, this time through a simple adverb, is being made acceptable, and we immediately find Dutilleul doing a very normal? routine sort of thing -- "on the following day, a  Saturday, he took advantage of the weekend to call on a neighboring doctor and put the case to him." Note the realistic effect of the appositive, "Saturday." Such details again suggest that this really happened.
     But note what happens in the next sentence. In this case, the "realism" results from the fact that details are left out -- "The doctor, after convincing himself of the truth of his story, discovered ...."  The simple prepositional phrase, "after convincing himself," slides over the question of what would convince a doctor that Dutilleul's story was true. But the writer has to slide over this as quickly as possible. He can't tell us how the doctor was convinced, nor does he even want us thinking about it. Imagine a doctor who discovers that he has a patient who can walk through walls. What is that doctor going to do? In the odd case that the doctor would not want to tell the whole world, he is certainly going to want to discuss this with his colleagues. Dutilleul would become a well-known, public figure. But if that were to happen, the rest of the story would not make sense. 
     Thus the swift prepositional phrase moves the reader to accept the "convincing" without time for thought, and it rushes the reader into the discovery -- "... discovered upon examination that the cause of  the trouble lay in the helicoidal hardening of the strangulatory wall of the thyroid vesicle." Most readers do not have medical degrees. And, even if they do, they probably do not know the state of medicine, and the diagnoses that were done, at the time the story is set. Once again a series of prepositional phrases pile up details that sound so close to being realistic. With, we might note, a glimmer of doubt from that "strangulatory." 
      Then we get what we expect, a prescription -- "He prescribed a regime of intensive exertion [Sounds like what doctors say], and,  at the rate of two tablets a year, [two a year?] the absorption into the system of tetravalent [Realistic medical terms] reintegration powder [reintegration powder??], a mixture of rice flour [strange, but possible] and centaur's hormones [incredible]." There's that smack over the head. He drew us in, and then he got us.
     What I have been trying to suggest, of course, is that we can use syntactic analysis to explore how writers create some of their effects. In this case, the simple sentence structure and the massive details in the prepositional phrases create the realism that, in effect, draws us into a state of at least semi-belief. And without that semi-belief to cut into, the incredible loses its edge.
     I have not seen "The Walker-Through-Walls" in any school anthology, and a quick search of the web suggests that it is out-of-print. Perhaps someone can discover its copyright status for us. If your library cannot get a copy, and you want one, send a note to the KISS List, and I'll ask our librarians for help. It's a neat story.