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 which he is confronted.”
The New Novel, especially according to Butor, also emphasizes structure; Butor differs from his companion novelists in that his works contain a didacticism that occupies a middle ground between the littérature engagée espoused by more existential writers and an aestheticism that posits art for art’s sake, structure for its own sake. Butor offers, in his novels and elsewhere, a possibility that language can reorder one’s experience of reality and thus transform reality itself: To the extent that Butor succeeds in diagnosing (and thus producing inchoate remedies for) the linguistic disorder that is characteristic of the modern age, his fiction is exemplary and has the social efficacy Spencer rightly attributes to it.
While to call Butor a novelist is to overlook the bulk of his work and to neglect his pioneering work in transcending the novel, the designation aptly applies to the Butor of 1954 to 1960. In that period, he wrote some of the finest novels that have appeared in postwar France, notably Passing Time and A Change of Heart. Of his two other novels, Passage de Milan remains untranslated, and Degrees, despite the enthusiasm Leon Roudiez expressed for it in his Michel Butor, may not pass the test of time. All four novels display Butor’s concern for place (location) and situation; for time and the ability as well as the inability of language to capture, restore, refract, and use time; for the role of the novel itself (most clearly exemplified in Passing Time and Degrees) as what Spencer calls an “intermediary between the writer and the outside world”; and for the concatenations of history and mythology as they inform contemporary consciousness, the dominant themes and real subjects that the novels treat.
Passage de Milan
Passage de Milan, Butor’s first novel, adumbrates the manifold elements that permeate his later work, reveals some of his ethical concerns, and demonstrates his adeptness in a new aesthetic structure with which he became identified. The work’s title provides an entry to an initial appreciation of the novel’s subject and aims. As a street name, Passage de Milan may denote an alley named after the Italian city; in another sense, it may mean the flight of a bird of prey, a kite, the hieratic bird of Egypt identified with the god Horus. The principal character in the novel is none of the many highly individualized residents of the building that sits squarely on the pages of the work; rather, it is the building itself. As the building and its life through its inhabitants dominate the novel, so the ordinary components of fiction, such as plot and subplot, are overshadowed by the structure of the work, the relational way in which the occupants—their thoughts, utterances, actions, and rituals—contribute to the totality of a portrait that is necessarily incomplete.
The priest who opens the novel, Father Jean Ralon, is an Egyptologist whose studies have led him to a loss of Christian faith and an apostasy that informs the general bad faith of his existence. The first line of the work presents him as he looks outward, leaning out his window. What he sees is a cityscape at dusk and, focused in the foreground, a small, mysterious tract of wasteland, a vacant lot that contains a junk pile, the contents of which are changed and moved by an unseen owner. This exterior wasteland mirrors the interior wastelands of the building and the tenants of this house. As the wasteland of the vacant lot is a microcosm of the life in the building, so the building is a microcosm of the unreal city to which it belongs.
A large element in the lives of the inhabitants of this building is ritual, but their rituals separate and insulate rather than unite them. The mundane rituals of daily homecoming and the larger ritual of a coming-out party for Angèle Vertigues reinforce the quiet desperation of their lives. The larger natural rituals of day passing into night and back into itself (the novel begins at 7:00 p.m. and ends, twelve chapters later, at 7:00 a.m.) and of the seasons passing from winter to spring, both overshadowed by the passing of the kite, hold a generative hope for rebirth of day and of season that underlines a greater human ritual of passage from a kingdom of the dead (the building) to a place outside the building and the city—to Egypt—for the young orphan Louis Lécuyer, who inadvertently causes the death of the vertiginous Angèle.
One important key to the work and to Butor’s structural agenda for the novel, a key that he is less than subtle in presenting, is the unfinished painting by Martin deVere. The painting of a “house” (of cards) is divided into twelve squares (as the novel is divided into twelve hours/chapters) arranged in three rows of four. Each square contains groups of symbols representing objects: The top and bottom rows contain four cards per square; the middle row contains five cards per square. Analogies and suggestions about identifying one or another of the characters with particular cards (Angèle as the Queen of Hearts, Louis as the Knave of Clubs, and Delétang as the Ace of Spades, for example) reinforce the structural relationship among the cards in the “house” and the inhabitants in the building. The destruction of the painting by fire, at the exact center of the novel, foreshadows a larger destruction, Angèle’s death and the concomitant end to the building’s undisturbed life.
Another key to the work lies in the multiple references to music found in deVere’s theory of composition and his comments on his unfinished painting, in the dance given for Angèle, and in the choreographed moves and countermoves of the building’s tenants that form a counterpoint. A third key is the extended discussion of the prophetic novel in Samuel Léonard’s flat by a group of would-be writers. Here, the issue of writing in, about, and beyond the past and present comments directly upon the novel itself, the writer’s task as archaeologist, and the scope and limitations of language.
All the themes of Passage de Milan come...
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