Michel Butor Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Michel Marie François Butor (boo-tohr) is the most popular of the loosely defined group of postwar avant-garde French novelist-theoreticians practicing the so-called New Novel. He was the fourth of seven children; his father, Émile, was a railway inspector. The family moved to Paris when Michel Butor was three, settling in a busy commercial street in a middle-class district on the eastern fringe of the Latin Quarter, close to the universities and literary cafés. Butor’s later public persona has been said to mix bourgeois respectability and bohemianism in something of the same way as the place in which he was reared (he also rebelled spectacularly against his family’s devout Catholicism). He attended the parochial school and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand during the years of the German Occupation. The stagnation of French intellectual life at this time affected the teaching in schools, and Butor turned to intense private study of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, all of whom influenced his later work. He also began to forge connections to intellectual, especially philosophical, circles and to write poetry in the manner of André Breton and the Surrealists.

In 1944 Butor entered the University of Paris, where he earned the equivalents of a master’s degree and a teaching diploma but twice failed the national competitive exams for the doctoral-level agrégation en philosophie. His life took a decisive turn in 1950, when he took a teaching post in Egypt’s Nile Valley. There he wrote his first (virtually unnoticed) novel, stored memories for his travel writing, and set the...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born on September 14, 1926, at Mons-en-Baroeul, a suburb of Lille, Michel Butor is the eldest son and fourth of the eight children of Émile Butor and Anne (Brajeux) Butor. The family moved to Paris in 1929, and Butor began his education in the 1930’s in Parisian Catholic schools. At the onset of World War II in 1939, the Butors moved temporarily to Évreux, then to Pau and Tarbes, before returning to Paris in August, 1940; there Butor remained as a student until 1949. His education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand was followed by studies at the Sorbonne, first in literature and then in philosophy, where he achieved both the license and diplôme d’études supérieures in philosophy but failed to qualify for the agrégation. In 1950, having written some poetry and a few essays, he traveled to Germany (a journey he later commemorated in Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe), taught at the lycée in Sens, and then taught French at El Minya in Upper Egypt. His Egyptian experience as well as his teaching experience is echoed in much of his writing and is an important element in Passage de Milan (which he began writing in Egypt), in Degrees, and, to a lesser extent, in Passing Time.

Butor’s career as an itinerant teacher, scholar, and writer, begun in 1950, found him teaching in Manchester in 1951 (a model for Bleston in Passing Time), where he finished Passage de Milan, and traveling to Tunisia, Algeria, Italy, and Greece, with frequent returns to Paris. In 1955, he replaced Roland Barthes at the Sorbonne in the training program for French teachers abroad. In 1957, he took up a teaching position in Geneva, where he met Marie-Joséphe Mas, whom he married in 1958. In the same year, he became an advisory editor at the publishing house of Gallimard, and in 1959, with three novels and numerous essays in print, he began writing Degrees, a novel that he informed with elements of his own experience as a teacher and a teacher of teachers as well as with his own youthful experience. Butor has written varied critical essays and appreciations on literature and the arts, created long prose-poetic narratives (many of them based on his travels), and turned to operatic, graphic, and cinematic ventures.