Michel Marie François Butor (boo-tohr) is the most popular of the loosely defined group of postwar avant-garde French novelist-theoreticians practicing the so-called New Novel. He was the fourth of seven children; his father, Émile, was a railway inspector. The family moved to Paris when Michel Butor was three, settling in a busy commercial street in a middle-class district on the eastern fringe of the Latin Quarter, close to the universities and literary cafés. Butor’s later public persona has been said to mix bourgeois respectability and bohemianism in something of the same way as the place in which he was reared (he also rebelled spectacularly against his family’s devout Catholicism). He attended the parochial school and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand during the years of the German Occupation. The stagnation of French intellectual life at this time affected the teaching in schools, and Butor turned to intense private study of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, all of whom influenced his later work. He also began to forge connections to intellectual, especially philosophical, circles and to write poetry in the manner of André Breton and the Surrealists.
In 1944 Butor entered the University of Paris, where he earned the equivalents of a master’s degree and a teaching diploma but twice failed the national competitive exams for the doctoral-level agrégation en philosophie. His life took a decisive turn in 1950, when he took a teaching post in Egypt’s Nile Valley. There he wrote his first (virtually unnoticed) novel, stored memories for his travel writing, and set the...
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