Any consideration of Michel Butor as a novelist, as incomplete and misleading as that title may be, must begin with the subgenre that he helped establish in the 1950’s and that he later transcended. With Alain Robbe-Grillet (who later repudiated Butor), Robert Pinget, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Simon, Butor was a chief proponent and practitioner of the New Novel. The New Novel unquestionably owes debts to the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, yet the form was truly a new one in the hands of the New Novelists—it became their own.
As Michael Spencer pithily summarizes the form in his Michel Butor (1974), the work of the New Novelists “are essentially a mise en question of a complicated and unstable world, owing a good deal to the descriptive philosophy of phenomenology. In the course of this questioning, most of the features of the traditional novel are discarded.” Chronology, for example, is discontinuous and highly subjective; the protagonist is often uninteresting; action, in the usual sense of plot, is minimal and is generally replaced by reminiscences and interior monologues that reflect, in their lack of ostensible and actual coherence, the incoherence of the world in question. “One very important consequence,” Spencer continues, “is that the reader tends to become involved in the creation of some kind of novel from the unassembled elements, ’fictional’ or ’real,’ with...
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