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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The difficulty in summarizing La Modification, like Butor's other novels, comes not from an excess or an absence of "content" as such, but from the insistent dualism, the simultaneous presence of inner and outer worlds.
The basic analogy that governs the novel is the funambulist figure of the motionless traveler. (p. 174)
[The passenger] Léon Delmont sees simultaneously the reflection of his own face [in the train window] and, juxtaposed, the familiar scenery where he loses himself, through which other trains run, crossing his, transformed into the trains he has taken on other trips at other times.
The idea of a glass separating the individual from experience, the consciousness from act, has become a commonplace of the modern scene. Butor seeks not to give in to either side of an antinomy between the distortions that might be induced from the surface of the glass itself (Robbe-Grillet) and the outside pull of its transparence (Simon). He tries rather to maintain a simultaneous double perspective, the monologue intérieur recording outside movement and the fixity of a personal point of view. (p. 175)
[Butor's realism] consists of a constant, respectful deference to the framework which guides his narrative. His constraining time-spans … and the corollary attitude toward space exemplified by the compartment on rails are elements of a new classicism…. [These] new unities permit free associations and digressions only within the reality of an objective structure. (pp. 175-76)
[In the light of] continuous interplay between legend and banality, the book which Léon Delmont carries into the train offers an interesting subject for comparison, particularly in view of the importance of the theme of language and literature in the novel…. Léon's book remains throughout La Modification the suggestive expression of dualism. While constituting the center of that circuitous theme which makes La Modification the literary project which Léon intends to write as he exits from the train in the Stazione Termini, the book serves as a sort of genie bottle for creating the intermittent dream of the last part of the book. It also serves prosaically to mark the protagonist's place when he leaves the compartment. As a final comment on Butor's position of cautious equilibrium between consciousness and act, the book remains closed throughout the entire trip.
Although it is accurate to say that Butor restores a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, the ultimate reference is to Things. They form that primitive state. Thus...
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Michel Butor sees history as a dynamic force which plays a vital role in the shaping of the present. In his works he sets out to challenge the prevalent assumption of stasis and to teach us … how to recognize the patterns which render comprehensible the evolving body of complex material at our disposal….
[One] of the central motifs in Butor's world is that of the museum or art gallery. For Butor … a collection is not a body of petrified works from another age; it is, rather a power source where the past crosses into the present. If we consider a selection of his writings we shall quickly become aware of the importance of the museum as a pivotal structure in every aspect of his work; it is to be found in his criticism, his poetic texts, his fiction, and his drama. Not only does Butor incorporate existing galleries into his texts, but he creates different kinds of museums for himself all the time. (p. 62)
If we concern ourselves … with the usual sort of gallery—that which contains work by artists and artisans—we find that Butor offers us three distinct kinds in his work, plus a discussion of the concept of the museum as he sees it. First, and most obviously, there is the presentation within a piece of fiction of an apparently ordinary museum—a building containing artworks and artifacts: Bleston Museum in L'Emploi du temps and the castles in Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe are the most developed examples. These may be termed the descriptive galleries. Secondly, there are the critical galleries in which Butor explains to us his understanding of the paintings he has chosen to display: these are Répertoire III and Répertoire IV (incorporating Les Mots dans la peinture). Thirdly, come the imaginative galleries—the volumes of Illustrations in which the reader must recreate for himself the absent images, from the basis provided by the text…. (p. 63)
[The] contents of [the Bleston Museum in L'Emploi du temps] could be that of any museum-art gallery of a British industrial town—but if we follow the indications Butor gives us and look at the function of the gallery within the novel, we realize that we are dealing with something a little more complex than a piece of realistic description: the origins and development of Western Europe are laid out for us, and we are taught how to profit from the information offered. Butor has selected exhibits from the major societies which influenced the development of modern Europe, and each chosen fragment illustrates the most important aspect of the civilization it represents…. (pp. 63-4)
We see the exhibits as products of their surroundings—the tapestries, like Revel, are imported from France—and we realize how much influence the past has on the present and the future for the last two rooms of the museum are in some ways Revel's future. We are shown that museums contain the past, render it stable and so more comprehensible than before, but still they express a dynamic sense of questing for greater understanding because of the continual addition of new objects to the collection.
Thus Butor sets up, as early as 1957, the concept of a museum as a place of individual enrichment and growth within a social context. In the next ten years he mentions museums from time to time in his writing … but does not develop the idea himself until 1967 when he situates Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe within the walls of Harburg Castle. Here we are dealing with an existent museum and library and a person who grows visibly as a result of his experiences within them. The young Butor studies the objects around him in conjunction with the books available and thus travels back through the history of the castle in order to understand its situation in the outside world and his own position in relation to the cultural pattern he has discovered. (pp. 64-5)
Throughout Portrait, contemplative and worldly ways of life...
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Michel Butor's explicit re-working of dreams began with Matière de rêves. That has now become the general title, and Second sous-sol is Volume 2. But it is more than a matter of arithmetic. If there are, once again, five dreams with a common formal structure, and even deliberate echoes of the first collection, it is soon apparent that here we are to be plunged much deeper into the stuff of dreams. Where, before, there was an "I" to whom things occurred—adventures, memories, fears, desires—"I" now is simply the name of that which moves through continual, rapid and total change; identity is as far away at the end as at the beginning. Where, in the first series, the private world of family recurred as...
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Butor's narratives characteristically begin with the isolation of his protagonist in one of two ways. The main character is most often cut off from his native milieu and set adrift in a foreign culture (L'Emploi du temps, La Modification, Portrait d'artiste en jeune singe, Mobile, 6.810.000 litres d'eau par seconde). In other instances, he is cut off within his own society by social stigma (Passage de Milan) or by the pressures of his work as a writer (Degrés). Separation prepares Butor's protagonists for the "initiatory ordeal par excellence": the descent into the underworld. This trial, seen most clearly in the references to Theseus, Orpheus, Aeneas, and the Egyptian Book of the...
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Michel Butor, in his skillfully written Matière de rêves III, carefully constructs content and form. But here, much more than [in the two previous volumes of the series], he proves himself the master of minute realism as well as of burgeoning fantasy. His work suggests qualities of painting and music. He composes a gigantic canvas on which distant horizons rapidly alternate with the tiniest of shapes, and analogies to reality succeed images of fantasy. In fuguelike counterpoint, philosophical contemplation follows stark satire, the birth of constellations in the night sky comes after the disgusting observation of putrified matter. Yet beyond such polarities lies original unity; death and decomposition are...
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