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