Butor, Michel (Vol. 11)
Butor, Michel 1926–
Butor is a French novelist, essayist, philosopher, translator, editor, and author of children's books. Numbered among the New Novelists, Butor defies true literary classification in his disregard for traditional forms. In an attempt to give his reader new tools for examining reality, Butor combines elements of poetry and philosophy with innovative structural ideas. He experiments with interior monologue, surreal imagery, and a shifting time factor to create a complex and highly original fictive language. The influences of Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, and Joyce can be felt in his work. Butor has also made a number of interdisciplinary artistic contributions, working with serialist composer Henri Pousseur to create the opera Votre Faust, supplying a text to the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in Illustrations I, and working as both writer and illustrator with Gregory Masurovky on a 1976 issue of Obliques. He has also collaborated with Maria Grazia Oltolenghi on Tout d'oeuvre, and is the author of numerous essays on music and painting. Butor received the Prix Renaudot for La Modification in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Michel Butor occupies a paradoxical situation in what we may call the hierarchy of the nouveau roman. On the one hand, he has written four novels of unquestionable though uneven merit…. On the other hand, he has published a series of brilliant articles on the theory of the novel, to be found in his volumes of criticism, Répertoire and Répertoire II, which have made him at least as important an expounder of the newness of the New Novel as Alain Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute; yet it can be shown that all his novels except the last break very little new ground and owe much of their success primarily to Butor's mastery of those old-fashioned components, plot and characterization.
Naturally, this mastery appears most strikingly in Butor's most popular novel, La Modification (A Change of Heart) [(1957)]. (p. 215)
The scope of the novel is restricted to one man's reflections, memories, dreams, and perceptions during a railroad journey between Paris and Rome which lasts not quite twenty-four hours (21 hours, 35 minutes, to be exact). Within this larger restriction an even narrower one is imposed, for we are not allowed to share this one man's experience directly except when he is occupying a third-class compartment that seats eight passengers when full…. What he does in these intervals outside the compartment is made known to us only by anticipation or by memory, if he happens to...
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[Butor's] journals stand in the same relationship to other works of this type as do his novels to the traditional novel, for in both he refuses to interpret. Instead, he solicits the participation of the reader whose collaboration becomes an essential part of the book….
Time plays an important part in Où. Le génie du lieu 2, as it does in all of the author's work. Past, present and future are mixed. Weather conditions also figure prominently and impressions predominate of mud in Seoul, rain at Angkor, fog at Santa Barbara, and snow in New Mexico. Above all, the book is governed by an ambivalent love-hate relationship with Paris. There are sections entitled, "I Fled Paris," and "I Hate Paris," but the last words of the journal are grouped together in the form of a love poem to the city to which he is inexorably drawn. "All of the trips I take," he concludes, "are to the beat of your pulse." (p. 443)
Lucille Becker, in Books Abroad (copyright 1972 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer, 1972.
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Michel Butor's Passing Time is a story in which the detective hunts himself. In this circular, self-contained structure any connection with an external reality is tenuous. Is Bleston really so oppressive, or is Revel extremely paranoid? Did he actually commit any crime? The reader cannot be sure, for he perceives reality only as it is reflected in the narrative of which Revel is both writer and actor. Indeed, the only certain reality is Revel's consciousness where he plays criminal, detective and victim simultaneously and where his fate is determined by the interplay of these internal agents, whose behaviour is spurred, but not designed, by external circumstance. (pp. 29-30)
On the most obvious level, Passing Time is written in the first person, the subjective voice of the self. Yet this same voice embodies both second and third person narration. For Revel is not only writer but reader of his own journal, becoming by benefit of both knowledge and time a more objective, third person narrator. Finally, near the end of the novel he disassociates himself from his plot and speaking as if to another, accuses himself of deception. By this tri-partite narration, an all-encompassing consciousness is created, which writes, interprets, acts and reacts in its fictional world. It traverses the range from total subjectivity to apparent objectivity, becoming a world in itself. Still, at base, the world it creates is profoundly...
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Thomas D. O'Donnell
Butor, as a writer and artist, finds himself in a somewhat awkward position. On the one hand, he subscribes to the theory that his ideal reader must be encouraged and/or coerced to participate actively in the work of art: the reader's effort must be commensurate with that of the author, and Butor finds himself open to accusations of literary elitism and hermeticism. On the other hand, Butor does not accept the human condition as it stands, socio-politically or intellectually. Echoing Rimbaud, Butor insists that life be "changed": "Any literature which does not help us toward this end is eventually, and inevitably, condemned," Ironically, a single theme, that of alchemy, suffices to emblematize the contradictory dictates of hermeticism and didacticism.
Butor, like most modern scholars, sees alchemy … as a tradition of knowledge into which one must first be initiated in order to become, ultimately, an adept. The transformation of matter is a metaphor for a more arduous and elusive spiritual transformation; the true, and subversive, nature of this ultimate science is hidden from the uninitiated through the use of a system of codes to be deciphered; the keys to aid this decoding are to be found in the Book, passed down from the adept to the initiates.
Butor's interpretation of the basic nature of alchemy is admirably suited to becoming the basis of an entire aesthetic theory. If Butor's purpose is no less...
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In his various novels, Butor explores the nature of reality and the part imagination plays in our perception—or creation—of it.
In L'Emploi du Temps [Passing Time], many different elements of experience come together in Revel's narrative of his experience in Bleston. His affective experience, for instance, is intimately associated with his cultural experience—his response, among other things, to a detective novel, to various films, to the Theseus tapestry seen in Bleston Town Hall, and to Bleston's two cathedrals. Jacques Revel in Bleston is an individual consciousness set at a point of confluence which he uniquely registers and interprets. (p. 42)
Butor's novel is narrated in the first-person, which … allows the observation of conscious processes in the narrating mind. We are not, as it were, plugged in to an unselfconscious being …, who unwittingly distorts all he sees, but are introduced instead into the preoccupations of a highly conscious and self-conscious narrator, who reflects on the limitations and distortions involved in his grasp of his experience…. [There] is here a conscious process of examination, comparison, selection and organisation…. When Revel, on the first of May, recounts his arrival in Bleston the previous October, he does so with the full awareness of the time that has elapsed, and with the deliberate determination to achieve lucidity. The rain on the windows of his...
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