Butor, Michel (Vol. 161)
Michel Butor 1926-
(Full name Michel Marie François Butor) French novelist, poet, essayist, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Butor's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 11, and 15.
Considered one of the New Novelists—a movement in French literature that questioned traditional modes of literary realism—Butor defies easy literary classification because of his disregard for conventional narrative forms. In an attempt to provide his reader with 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 sense of time to create a complex and highly original fictive language. Butor has often been compared to several of the Nouveau Roman authors, including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Phillipe Sollers, and Nathalie Sarraute.
Butor was born on September 14, 1926, in Mons-en-Baroeul, France, to Emile and Anne Butor. He received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris in 1946 and 1947, respectively. Butor has taught French in Egypt and England and taught philosophy and literature at several universities in France and abroad. As a writer, Butor has focused on novels and poetry and has been greatly influenced by Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce. He has also translated the work of other writers into French. In addition, Butor's belief that different forms of art are intimately connected has led him to make a number of interdisciplinary artistic contributions, including working with surrealist composer Henri Pousseur to create the opera Votre Faust (1968) and supplying text for the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in Illustrations I (1964). He is also the author of numerous essays on music and painting. Butor received the Prix Renaudot for La Modification (1957; A Change of Heart) in 1957.
Butor's work proposes to displace the familiar with the new, both in society and the individual. Critics have often loosely divided Butor's career into three stages. The novels from his first stage confront traditional notions of character in modern narratives and work to diminish the typical importance of the protagonist. L'Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time) employs first-person narration and is structured as a memoir of one year in the life of a man named Jacques Revel. The book alternates between Revel's reminiscences of his early days in Bleston, England, his present life, and finally his revelations about what he has discovered upon rereading what he has already written in the journal. La Modification takes place during a train trip from Paris to Rome. The main character, Léon Delmont, is a successful businessman who has a wife and children in Paris and a mistress in Rome. He is travelling to Rome to tell his mistress that he has found a job for her in Paris and he hopes they can live together after he leaves his wife. During the trip, he thinks about how he will leave his family and what his future life will be like. He begins lapsing between daydreams and remembrances, thinking about his past and his regret that he hasn't been able to make his marriage work. The story ends with Delmont deciding that he wants to give his marriage a fresh start and that he won't visit his mistress while he is in Rome. Butor uses second-person narration in the work, with Delmont constantly referring to himself as vous (“you”). His novel Degrés (1960; Degrees) concerns the various degrees of relationships in a Parisian school among thirty-one students and their eleven professors. The narrative is preoccupied with an examination of the concept of “degrees,” which can refer to the students' academic degrees, degrees of longitude and latitude, or varying degrees of sobriety. The dominant plot revolves around a teacher, Pierre Vernier, who decides to write a complete account of one hour at the school for the benefit of his nephew, Pierre Eller, who happens to be a student in his class. Vernier desires to capture every ounce of meaning and consciousness that takes place between the students and faculty, but he soon encounters a problem when he realizes that a tremendous amount of background will be necessary in order to make that hour intelligible. He must know what the students have been doing during the summer, what other classes they had attended or would attend the same day, what was going on simultaneously in the other classrooms, the family backgrounds and problems of teachers and students, and so on.
In the second stage of Butor's writing, his focus shifts to creating poetry and novels in which the individual is fully integrated into his environment. The works are characterized by a chaotic element both in the writing and in the lack of focus on any plot or person. This radical break in form can be seen in Mobile (1962), a nonfiction “novel” in which Butor draws a critical but well-balanced historical view of contemporary America as the land of the free and the not-so-free. The work functions almost as a travelogue of America that blends both the factual and the fictional. Mobile places a strong emphasis on the visual, with blank spaces throughout the text and several different typefaces and types of margins. There is no central subject and no linear plot in the work. The prose is organized state by state according to the alphabet and many critics have debated whether Mobile should actually be called a novel because of its drastic departure from traditional literary structures. 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde (1965; Niagara) has been considered by some to be an outgrowth of Butor's travel writing in Mobile because it is set in Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara is divided into twelve sections corresponding to the months of the year, from April to March. The first section introduces two couples visiting the falls and explores their expectations, hopes, reactions, and memories during their vacation. The text jumps from descriptions of flowers to trinkets in the souvenir shops to other couples visiting the site, exploring the meaning and significance of every facet of the place. The title refers to the amount of water that pours over Niagara Falls every second. Butor juxtaposes how the waters of the Niagara River seem to increase their speed before approaching the precipice with the way that an individual's life appears to accelerate with the approach of death. Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe (1967; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape) is a parody of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which Butor fantasizes about a trip to the castle of Harburg in his youth. The castle is filled with an assortment of texts on alchemy and magic. As Butor reviews the books, he begins contemplating about his own development as an individual artist and wonders if he'll ever become anything more than a mere imitator of art.
In his third career stage, Butor becomes a character in his own work and his writing develops a preoccupation with how he interacts with the world around him. This stage is most notably marked by two different series of works by Butor. The first of these—grouped under the title Le Genie de lieu (1958–92)—is a series of travelogue essay collections which trace Butor's travels to the Mediterranean, Egypt, the United States, Australia, and Asia. Ou (1971), the second volume of the series, is a sophisticated account of Butor's voyages to America and the Far East. The collection addresses several of the essential questions posed by Butor throughout his oeuvre, in particular, the literary expression of creative energy. The work also examines the difficulty of representing the world through literature. The second series Matière de rêves (1975–85)—which can be translated as The Stuff of Dreams—is a five-volume set of novels that explore the complexity of discovering a sense of selfhood through one's own dreams. Butor is once again the protagonist of this series as it relates how his dreams allow him to change into different people and animals. The metamorphoses are often traumatic and Butor finds himself in a variety of compromising situations. His family members have prominent roles in these dreams, but they are joined by an array of fictional characters from several literary traditions, as well as by historical artists and composers. The way Butor structures the text in the Matière de rêves series allow the relationship between the reader and the text to mimic the relationship between the individual and the dream-world within the books.
Reviewers have generally agreed that the hallmark of Butor's work is his creation of an active relationship between the author and the reader. Seda A. Chavdarian has argued, “Butor's books are like hieroglyphs that can be considered for their beauty—the surface plot—or deciphered to provide a much deeper meaning.” Butor's most widely acclaimed novel, La Modification, has been embraced by a number of critics, although it is one of Butor's more traditional works. Reviewers have argued, however, that in La Modification, Butor provides his readers with a storyline and a protagonist with which to identify, but is still able to subvert the traditional genre of the novel from within. Considerable critical disagreement has occurred since the form of Butor's works has become more experimental. Some reviewers have praised his work as an important contribution to the genre of the “New Novel,” while others have questioned the very designation of Butor's later works as “novels.” A chief complaint of these critics has been that Butor's experimental works fail to draw the reader in or engage the reader emotionally because of their lack of traditional characters and plot. Marianne Hirsch has asserted, “The reader who makes his way through a Butor work, as one might walk through a cathedral or a city, a museum or an amusement park, coping with fragmentation and disjunction, contradiction and illogic, is, as Barthes suggests in Le Plaisir du texte, a hero in the adventures of our culture.”
Passage de Milan (novel) 1954
L'Emploi du temps [Passing Time] (novel) 1956
La Modification [A Change of Heart] (novel) 1957
Theorie du champ de la conscience [translator; from The Field of Conscience by Aron Gurwitch] (nonfiction) 1957
*Le Génie du lieu [The Spirit of the Mediterranean] (essays) 1958
Degrés [Degrees] (novel) 1960
Répertoire: Etudes et conferences, 1948–1959 (essays) 1960
Cycle sur neuf gouaches d'Alexandre Calder (poetry) 1962
Mobile: Etude pour une representation des Etats-Unis (prose) 1962
Description de San Marco [Description of San Marco] (nonfiction) 1963
Illustrations I (poetry) 1964
Répertoire II: Etudes et conferences, 1959–1963 (essays and lectures) 1964
6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde: Etude stereophonique [Niagara] (novel) 1965
Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe, capriccio [Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice] (novel) 1967
Répertoire III (essays) 1968
Votre Faust, fantaisie variable, genre opera (opera) 1968
Illustrations II (poetry) 1969...
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SOURCE: Chavadarian, Seda A. “Images of Chaos in Butor's Mobile, 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde, and Ou.” Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 10 (1984): 49–55.
[In the following essay, Chavadarian argues that Butor's Mobile, 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde, and Ou begin with a sense of order, but progressively degenerate into narrative chaos.]
Butor's work contains great agitation and restlessness that invade every sentence. This power is at times either a positive, energetic force or a negative, uncomfortable tension. His books abound in images of birth, fecundity, energetic whirling that are always juxtaposed to those of death, disintegration, and chaos; yet these forces do not necessarily contradict but complement each other. Rage is usually manifested through violence, cruelty, and chaos. Order is necessitated by this violence and brought about through cult and ritual.
Butor's books share a basic pattern that is characteristically consistent throughout his work. They all begin with a definite goal that disintegrates as we proceed and ends in apparent defeat. Yet this failure is always projected to be a positive experience. In this paper, we offer an explanation of the nature of this negative-positive relationship and the apparent change of form after Degrés, through an examination of a subtopic of rage—chaos—in...
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SOURCE: Pringle, Mary Beth. “Butor's Room without a View: The Train Compartment in La Modification.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 5, no. 3 (fall 1985): 112–18.
[In the following essay, Pringle contends that the train compartment in Butor's La Modification signifies a “microcosm within a microcosm” and reflects the protagonist's view of and relationship to the larger world.]
Twentieth-century novelists frequently use train compartments to represent microcosms of the worlds through which trains travel; French writers are no exception. In at least one novel by Butor, Gide, and Larbaud,1 and in a film by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a train figures prominently. None has been written, however, in which the train is more important than in La Modification by Michel Butor. Its plot traces a rail journey made by Léon Delmont from Paris to Rome in a train compartment on the Paris-Rome Rapide. The commonplace furnishings of the compartment, its passengers, and their luggage, on at least two levels, create microcosms that reflect larger worlds. First, the compartment is a miniature embodiment of the natural environment and second, it reflects Léon Delmont's dawning perception that the world outside the train is orderless, timebound, and disintegrating.
In one sense, the compartment represents a microcosm within a microcosm because it is in one of several nearly...
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SOURCE: Chavdarian, Seda A. “Michel Butor's La Modification: The Revolution from Within.” International Fiction Review 13, no. 1 (winter 1986): 3–7.
[In the following essay, Chavadrian regards Butor as a “literary revolutionary” for playing with narrative conventions within La Modification, arguing that this strategy encourages reader participation while simultaneously challenging the reader's notions of what a novel should be.]
Although Michel Butor has never been a political writer per se, he is very much a literary revolutionary for he believes deeply in the ability of a work of art to change man's place in society or society itself: “Toute oeuvre est engagée … plus elle est profondément inventive et plus elle oblige à un changement.”1 His collaboration with other artists is, in part, a clear example of his willingness to change the traditional boundaries that separate the different fields of artistic expression.
Butor's best known novel, La Modification (1957),2 has obtained its comfortable position in the literary history as his contribution to the “new novel.” Its success is due in part to its traditional format. It satisfies the general public with a character and a storyline that concludes; however, to the careful reader, it offers a more significant story that can remain completely unnoticed if not extracted from...
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SOURCE: Mason, Barbara. “Imitation and Initiation in the Alchemical Dreams of Butor's Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe.” Modern Language Review 81, no. 4 (October 1986): 882–92.
[In the following essay, Mason examines Butor's use of dreams and alchemical symbols in Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe to interpret the artistic experience.]
Returning to the specific interest in alchemy which was made known as early as 1953 with the publication of a review article entitled ‘L'Alchimic et son langage,’ Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe1 written fourteen years later, evokes Michael Butor's experiences as a young man during a stay at the castle of Harburg, whose rich collection of alchemical texts were made accessible to him and furnished his young mind with endless material for thought and dreams. But if in Portrait Butor quotes from alchemical texts and makes what is perhaps his most ambitious use to date of symbolism relating to alchemy, his purpose for doing so is the subject of some disagreement. The question is: has Butor written a truly initiatory work, or is Portrait a pastiche of alchemy? Jennifer Waelti-Walters argues that Butor undergoes initiation according to schemas outlined by Mircea Eliade and then, in turn, offers in Portrait an initiatory text for his reader.2 André Helbo, on the other hand, sees in...
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SOURCE: Mason, Barbara. “Whiteness and Writing in Michel Butor's Works: The Example of Christian Dotremont and Beyond.” Dalhousie French Studies 12 (spring–summer 1987): 37–53.
[In the following essay, Mason discusses Butor's preoccupation with “whiteness,” how it manifests itself in his writing, and how Belgian artist Christian Dotremont influenced Butor's work.]
“Toute page blanche est devenue pour moi le ciel de ton regard.”1 Thus Michel Butor writes in a poem-homage, death-monument to the Belgian artist and head of the “COBRA” group, Christian Dotremont. Indeed, some of Butor's most significant pronouncements on the subject of whiteness and its relation to writing have been made in reference to that artist's work. Whiteness is, in fact, a central preoccupation of Butor's own work where it connects themes of calm and disruption, of amnesia and expression, and where it underlines key questions concerning the possibility and impossibility of writing, the nature of the sign and its relation to the page, or the interplay of black sign and white page, all of which branch into moral and political questions and ultimately become the basis of a critique of an ideology. From the contemplation, then eventual conquest, of the white space of the page, emerges a writing, unique and compelling, that heralds the need for change.
In the course of time Butor has...
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SOURCE: Chavdarian, Seda A. “Problems of Representation in Butor's Ou.” International Fiction Review 14, no. 2 (summer 1987): 100–02.
[In the following essay, Chavdarian interprets Butor's Ou as a discourse on the nature of representation and various forms of creative expression.]
In spite of its tremendous diversity, Michel Butor's work has an underlying current that connects all of it together. While deeply anchored in ethno-cultural and mythological references, his books are attempts to understand and define artistic expression. In his earlier novels, Butor comments on the literary process indirectly through a fictional author, but becomes directly involved later on. Among the many aspects of artistic expression pursued in his work is literary representation. Butor's interest in it dates back to his early works and is closely connected to his concept of genius loci, first communicated to us in Le Génie du lieu (1957). Butor once distinguished modern civilization from the ancients as people of the book rather than of places. Monuments were the ancients' way of giving expression to their reality, their way of “reading” it.1 In this sense, by studying the place, Butor examines the notion of representation. In this study, we shall briefly look at Butor's approach in Ou (1971).2
Subtitled Le Génie du lieu 2, Ou is a...
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SOURCE: Miller, Elinor S. “Butor's Beautiful Decay.” Romance Notes 29, no. 1 (fall 1988): 61–69.
[In the following essay, Miller analyzes Butor's representations of death and decay, arguing that—while our culture attempts to deny the process of physical decomposition that comes with death—Butor treats decay as a process of reunification between man and nature.]
In Explorations in 1982, Butor published the poem, “L'école des gisants,” which he reprinted intact in Exprès (Envois 2) in 1983, adding only an introductory paragraph. The fourth section of this poem is a grim invitation to join Butor in the exploration of a corpse in the process of decomposition. We are warned that this is not pleasant, but “au retour vous deviendrez capables d'admirer cette dénudation progressive des ossements” (171). Butor placed the poem at the very end of Explorations and maintained it in that same final position in Exprès, indicating its special significance to him. Those who believe Butor to be an ever-reliable guide in the quest for the good, true and beautiful, must thus make the effort to understand his vision, however disagreeable the process.
Examining Butor's previous treatments of death reveals three possible categories: (1) as an event in the plot, e.g., Angèle in Passage de Milan, (2) as a device to develop character,...
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SOURCE: Jullien, Dominique. “Intertextuality as Labyrinth: The Presence of Racine in Michel Butor's L'Emploi du temps.” Yale French Studies, no. 76 (1989): 108–24.
[In the following essay, Jullien explores the idea of Racinian intertextuality in L’Emploi du temps.]
Michel Leiris noted that the rigorous construction of La Modification [A Change of Heart] both respects and evades the rules of French classical tragedy.1 The same may be said about the earlier L'Emploi du temps [Passing Time].2 Like the five acts of a tragedy, the five sections of the novel define and design the dramatic progression: L'Entrée, Les Présages, “L'Accident,” Les Deux soeurs, L'Adieu [First Steps, Portents, The “Accident,” The Two Sisters, Farewell]. Each one of these five sections is divided into five chapters. This strong geometric frame obviously acknowledges the tragic model, while submitting the narrative form to the theatrical rule of the three unities. Unity of action: L'Emploi du temps tells the story of Jacques Revel's life in Bleston, the fictitious English city where he worked for a year, and his struggle against its hostile environment. Unity of time: the narration begins with Jacques Revel's arrival in Bleston on 1 September and ends with his departure, exactly twelve months later: “… maintenant mon départ termine cette dernière...
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SOURCE: Pringle, Mary Beth. “Fictions in Fiction: Henriette and Cécile in Michel Butor's A Change of Heart.” International Fiction Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1989): 26–31.
[In the following essay, Pringle evaluates La Modification from a feminist perspective, noting that the male protagonist's perceptions of two lead female characters prevents readers from extensively engaging with these characters.]
While over time a novel stays the same, we, its readers, change. Ten years ago as a student, when I first wrote about Michel Butor's La Modification, 1957 (A Change of Heart) my paper differed greatly from the one that follows. In those days I enjoyed the optimism of having most of my career and personal life before me. I believed (as only someone who had written many essay exams on the subject could) that good men repeatedly face an existentially crazy world, and I was adept at keeping separate my feminist and non-feminist criticism. Léon Delmont, I wrote in that paper, dwells in a chaotic world off the train. During a journey between Paris and Rome, he bravely faces issues of values and life-style. He decides not to bring his Roman mistress, Cécile, to live with him in Paris and not to separate from his longtime wife, Henriette. Although I noted that Léon's decision seems to him “morally and psychologically healthy,” I added—sorrowfully accepting Léon's view of...
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SOURCE: Kline, T. Jefferson. “Degrees of Play in Butor's Degrés.” L'Espirit Createur 31, no. 4 (winter 1991): 32–40.
[In the following essay, Kline explores manifestations of the metatextual and the metacultural in Degrés.]
Since its publication thirty years ago, Michel Butor's Degrés has been read primarily as a construction of networks, systems and quotations intended, as the narrator says, to “make reality enter language.” This “univers cité” as Jacques Leenhardt calls it,1 including 135 allusions to 35 different texts as well as references to 86 works of art, would thus be constructed to allow (despite its dislocations and discontinuities) a cosmology of the knowledge at play in a typical French lycée. Yet despite the remarkable reconstructions of this mass of systems of information by such readers as Mary Lydon,2 these fragments function less and less historiographically but appear increasingly to be compulsively repeated obsessional elements.
Indeed, Pierre Vernier's project is soon beset (and ultimately overwhelmed) by a series of conflicts, first among them the very problematics of representation itself, for, as he says, “il est impossible de représenter la terre avec précision sans la déformer, de même qu'il est impossible de faire passer la réalité dans le discours sans employer un certain type de...
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SOURCE: Silk, Sally M. “When the Writer Comes Home: Narrative Failure in Butor's La Modification.” Style 26, no. 2 (summer 1992): 270–86.
[In the following essay, Silk challenges Butor's critics who view La Modification as a narrative of self-emergence, arguing instead that the narrative voice remains disembodied—“beyond hope of being recuperated”—even at the end of the novel.]
Look around you. Don’t we all have one foot in the air? We all look as though we are traveling. No one has a definite sphere of existence; no one has proper habits; there are no rules for anything; there is no home base.
(Pyotr Chaadaev, Letter on the Philosophy of History)
NARRATIVE VOICE: THE TROUBLE WITH REPRESENTATION
The relationship between art and life examined in Madame Bovary becomes an obsessive concern of the nouveau roman. While Flaubert's heroine reads her books all too literally, suffering from what Valéry would have diagnosed as “literary superstition,”1 the confusing world of the nouveau roman can be attributed to a linguistic inquiry into the crisis in representation through language. La Modification is a text that is as much about finding a narrative voice as it is the story of Léon Delmont's train trip from Paris to Rome. This search...
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SOURCE: Butor, Michel, and Martine Reid. “Bricolage: An Interview with Michel Butor.1” Yale French Studies, no. 84 (1994): 17–26.
[In the following interview, Butor discusses the compartmentalization of the arts and his writing process.]
[Reid]: If I have been eager to interview you and to place this interview as the lead piece of a journal issue devoted to writing and drawing, to the readable and the visible, it is because it seems to me that among contemporary writers, you are the one of those who has most clearly striven to prove the double affirmation which you yourself have formulated: “Painting is also something we read … literature is also something we look at.”2 A similar remark opens a text which you published in 1969, Les Mots dans la peinture. On the subject of words which hold your attention in painting and of which you propose a list (title, signature, address, maxims, rebus, proverbs, various inscriptions in which words are reified), you write, “the presence of these words ruins … the retaining wall our teaching constructs in between literature and the arts.”3
[Butor]: Yes. You know, this is even more clear in France than it is in the United States. Generally in the United States, art schools are part of the university. Any self-respecting university maintains an art museum. It is not true of France;...
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SOURCE: Burton, Stacy. “Experience and the Genres of Travel Writing: Bakhtin and Butor.” Romance Studies, no. 21 (winter 1992–spring 1993): 51–62.
[In the following essay, Burton uses Mikhail Bakhtin's theories concerning narrative and language to explore the significance of travel and cultural difference in Butor's novels.]
Despite its long tradition and popularity, travel literature has only lately begun to receive serious attention in literary history and theory. Until recently, ‘travel books’ were generally treated as light reading, or as biographical artifacts from the lives of great writers; now, their significance as texts about encounters between cultures, sensibilities and imaginations has become strikingly evident. Mary Campbell, Percy Adams and Paul Fussell, for instance, have shown how travel and travel narratives have crucially affected the development of imaginative literature generally, the novel as a genre, and the modern sensibility.1 Edward Said, Dean MacCannell, Rana Kabbani and other contemporary theorists have insightfully and critically examined the nature and implications of travel and the practice of travel writing. While travel literature has long been popular because it provides the ‘exotic’ adventure of ‘discovering the other,’ these scholars argue provocatively that such narratives are significant especially because they so often offer more...
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SOURCE: Oppenheim, Lois. “Animation of the Work of Art: Michel Butor's L’Embarquement de la Reine de Saba.” MLN 109, no. 4 (September 1994): 741–52.
[In the following essay, Oppenheim argues for the aesthetic of Butor's anaesthetic in L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba, which she claims is “both post-modern and not” in its attempt to contextualize the artistic experience.]
… ce quit me gêne, dans le mot ‘création,’ c'est qu'il est lié à une illusion soigneusement entretenue, l'illusion de la gratuité de l'oeuvre d’art.
Despite the benefits the interpretation of literature, as of all art, has derived from its turn toward other disciplines (anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, and so on), critics persist in focusing on those formal parameters of a work that allow not only for it to be situated in time, but according to aesthetic point of view. The aesthetic that defines our modern era is resolutely epistemological, asking, as it does, for a means of distinguishing artworks from real things. In the case of some artists and writers, Michel Butor among them, this aesthetic may more accurately be termed an anaesthetic and the modernist valorization of the commonplace a decisive step toward the end of art. In this essay, I will maintain, as I have elsewhere,1...
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SOURCE: Schenk, Leslie. Review of Le Japon depuis la France: Un rêve à l'ancre, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 360–61.
[In the following review, Schenk praises Butor's compilation of essays focusing on Japan from a diverse group of French intellectuals, but judges Butor's commentary on the selections as “gratuitous and ultimately insignificant.”]
What would the French think if a Japanese, not knowing a word of French, would come to France for three weeks and then write a book explaining the French? I should think they would be enraged. The Japanese, oddly enough, are not enraged but flattered when French Barbarians do precisely that in the other direction. Yet, surely, either nation is more complicated than can be explained by tourists ignoring the local language?
However, condescending to explain Non-French Barbarians to other Frenchmen has been a favorite pastime for generations of French intellos, the most notorious being Roland Barthes with his absurd Empire des Signes, written after his three weeks in Japan and exemplifying the tiresome French gift for spewing out beautiful language without actually saying anything. The eminent Michel Butor is not to be classed with this species of literary fraud. To the contrary, his respectably achieved purpose in Le Japon depuis la France is to set the record straight...
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SOURCE: Hoft-March, Eilene. Review of Improvisations sur Michel Butor: l'écriture en transformation, by Michel Butor. French Review 69, no. 6 (May 1996): 1058–59.
[In the following review, Hoft-March assesses Improvisations as an autobiographical extrapolation of Butor's desire to test and play with man's mental boundaries.]
Much of Butor's writing has been occasioned by cultural encounters with artists, histories, and cultures of another kind, encounters made possible by the deliberate crossing of boundaries. He has frequently demonstrated that writing can and should nudge us to the other side of boundaries that are, foremost but no less formidably, mental rather than real. Improvisations sur Michel Butor might seem less in that bold spirit of transgressing limits were the circumstances of its production not made explicit. For years, bound by professional scruple and tacit academic constraint, Butor never spoke of his own writing in his classrooms at the University of Geneva. Only when colleagues invited him to discuss, as might a visiting lecturer, could Butor step over the “frontière intime” that segregated the personal (his writing) from the professional (his teaching). Improvisations is thus a series of lectures in which Butor breaks established professional limits in order to become the academically distanced subject of his own lessons.
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SOURCE: De Julio, Maryann. Review of A la frontière, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 343–44.
[In the following positive review, De Julio praises A la frontière for pushing boundaries and reconsidering standard distinctions between the self and the other.]
Experimentation with the concepts of time and space has always marked the writings of Michel Butor. From the very first novels Passage de Milan (1954) and L'Emploi du temps (1956) to the more recent essays and imaginative criticism like Improvisations sur Henri Michaux (1985), Butor has sought to reexamine literary devices and the view of reality that they inevitably implied. It comes as no surprise, then, that A la frontière is the title of Butor's latest collection of poems.
Divided into six major sections, A la frontière begins with a meditation on the image of la frontière and the notion of limits. The usual distinctions in lyric poetry between the self and the other are reconsidered in what can be seen as a cosmic context, where a change in self results as much from personal and political shifts as from environmental ones. Border-crossing is internalized in Butor's collection so that the split self now faces a continental divide when it looks into its own heart.
A la frontière is in many ways a cross between a...
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SOURCE: Robb, Graham. “Where to Begin the Feast?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5016 (21 May 1999): 3–4.
[In the following essay, Robb addresses the bicentennial of Honore de Balzac's birth and reviews three works that either directly or peripherally address his La Comédie humaine, including Butor's Improvisations.]
For Balzac, birthdays were a waste of writing time—a day frittered away with the family—and a depressing reminder of how little he had achieved. On his thirty-eighth birthday, still in debt and with six novels overdue, he could see himself returning to his starting point: the garret near the Place de la Bastille where his writing career had begun in 1819. On his next birthday, he swore that by the time he turned forty, all his struggles would be over. Seven years later, the “Catalogue” of La Comédie humaine listed fifty-two titles of “works that have yet to be written.”
Having created a fictional universe with “its own families, places, things, people and events,” Balzac not surprisingly preferred to invent his own birthdays: “I was born in September 1833,” he told his future wife in 1847, alluding to the date of their first meeting in Neuchâtel, “and the proof is that I'm fourteen years old … I'm in love as one is at the age of fourteen.”
For everyone else, Balzac is 200 years old. Conveniently, the...
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SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. Review of Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 631.
[In the following review, Bishop praises Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan for its scope and levity.]
This is a book, composed of nine at once concise and ample half-versified texts, by one of the most delightfully and richly multifocused writers of a century to which Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan is, in effect, dedicated. Illustrated by Joël Leick, Michel Butor's nine daily recordings—the first one, barely warming up, harking back some hundred years or so, notes, “Butin du lundi au fond de la cour: / des clous, des écrous, des grilles et des capsules. / Adieu prétendue belle époque / aujourd'hui voici près d'un siècle / Un pas”—move progressively through the flickering images of the century's “moments,” juxtaposed as they are with the quick contextualizations loosely situating the poet in his still-teeming present: “Butin du vendredi,” for example, “au bord de l'autoroute: / des océans de lames sur le sable, des orgues de couvercles sur l'asphalte, des orchestres de charnières sur le silence, des orgues de vrilles sur le dallage.”
Maginot line, Olympic Games, the Wall Street crisis, Deauville fashion, the dawn of jazz, ballets russes, “yellow stars in the streets,” Hiroshima, bebop,...
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Britton, Celia. “Opacity and Transparence: Conceptions of History and Cultural Difference in the Work of Michel Butor and Édouard Glissant.” French Studies 49, no. 3 (July 1995): 308–20.
Britton argues that Butor and Glissant attribute opposite values to the concepts of transparence and opacity, and that this difference shapes their perspectives on how individuals and communities historically relate to the cultural other.
Butor, Michel, and Jennifer Waelti-Walters. “Michel Butor: An Interview.” Malahat Review, no. 60 (October 1981): 126–38.
Butor discusses travel, transformation, boundaries, and Boomerang.
Hirsch, Marianne. “Michel Butor: The Decentralized Vision.” Contemporary Literature 22, no. 3 (summer 1981): 326–48.
Hirsch traces the development of Butor's work in three stages—confrontation, displacement, and deconstruction—through which, Hirsch argues, Butor decentralizes the coherent narrative self of Western humanism and reimagines “being” as a discontinuous, collective experience.
Kacandes, Irene. “Narrative Apostrophe: Reading, Rhetoric, Resistance in Michel Butor's La Modification and Julio Cortázar's ‘Graffiti.’” Style 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 329–50.
Kacandes examines how the narrative...
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