Critical Context

Butor is a widely respected French writer who is best known for his experimentation with the novel form. His novels are, for the most part, not novels at all but antinovels. The antinovel, essentially a French form, aims to destroy narrative structure by fragmenting events and non-events and by dislocating logical time frames. This technique makes enormous demands on the reader to make sense of the words by mentally constructing some kind of order. Reading such a novel, then, becomes an active rather than a passive exercise. Butor brings to his theories about the role and purpose of fiction a love and knowledge of art. The result is an innovative work in which the content of writing is fused with the form of visual art.

Degres (1960; Degrees, 1963), L’Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time, 1960), and La Modification (1957; A Change of Heart, 1959), all novels which are set in Europe, have elicited more critical attention than Mobile, Butor’s first novel set in the United States. His most experimental work, Mobile completely does away with characterization and narrative in the traditional sense, as it sets out to capture in one novel the essence of the history, geography, and people of the United States. As a result, Butor creates 319 pages of seemingly endless lists, which give the book a kind of epic quality. One is reminded of John Milton’s famous catalog of bad angels in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). While the list takes the better part of one of the epic’s twelve books, each angel is portrayed with a separate and distinct personality in vignette form. Milton’s range and genius enabled him to create new interest with every line. Butor, however, is not Milton, and his experiments with form seem to contradict rather than enhance content and thereby make his lists seem merely interminable.