Butor, Michel (Vol. 8)
Butor, Michel 1926–
A French novelist, essayist, and poet, Butor is an exponent of the "new novel." His work was influenced in both form and content by Proust and Joyce. His dedication to the renovation and development of the novel encompasses experimentation with the concepts of time and space. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[When] Butor in his fascinating but solemn La Modification (1957) works a dozen different journeys simultaneously into one man's stream of consciousness, we are conscious of both device and evocation: he is manipulating things to make a point, and encouraging us to re-live similar experiences of our own—all of this within the novel. But when Butor in L'Emploi du temps (1956) superimposes two temporal sequences and justifies the superimposition as 'quite natural since in real life one's mental analysis of past events takes place while other events are accumulating', he is both right and wrong. Right to evoke everyone's experience; wrong to justify art and device as 'natural'. Art is not natural. (pp. 204-05)
Paul West, in his The Modern Novel, Volume I (© Paul West 1963), Hutchinson University Library, 1963.
There is hardly a literary genre that Michel Butor has left untouched. He has gained world-wide reputation primarily as a novelist…. It would, however, be a mistake either to ignore his essays and his poetry or to divide the remainder of his books too neatly into separate categories. (p. 3)
Poetry can be sought either by emphasizing framework—as Valéry did—or by opening the doors to lyricism. Butor has confessed to having been overwhelmed by Shelly's "Ode to the West Wind" when he was fourteen. His lyricism seems instinctive, but if, so far, he has not completely forsaken it, his main interest has been in the architectural approach. To him the framework of a work of art is not only that which distinguishes it from commonplace objects and appearances; it is also the means through which thought reflects upon itself and "reality in its totality becomes conscious of itself before it criticizes and transforms itself." To put this in terms of author-reader relationship, poetry is the means the author uses to impose upon the reader an awareness of himself, of his relationships with others, and of his situation—such an awareness being the necessary prelude to a desire to modify his existence.
Passage de Milan, Butor's first novel, is a fascinating book. Although not exemplifying his art in its most accomplished form, it reveals his aesthetic structures and ethical concerns. The title is characteristic in its ambiguity: in French, "Milan" is both an Italian city and a bird of prey (the kite), while "passage" refers to a small city street (mews or alley) as well as to the act of passing by, or over. The rich associations that are evoked by the city of Milan—its material and artistic wealth, and its history of proud independence—are heightened by the repeated passing of what Butor has called a hieratic bird—also thought to be a cruel and bloodthirsty scavenger.
The initial sentence of Passage de Milan, unlike those of later novels, is short, impersonal, and banal, and it can be translated without loss: "Father Ralon leaned out of the window." It is much like the beginning of any number of earlier twentieth-century novels that for the sake of realism attempt to plunge the reader in medias res without artificial preparation. With the next few sentences, however, the particular tone that is Butor's slowly emerges out of the commonplace. What the priest sees as he looks out is a scene of Paris at dusk—a city enclosed by a wall of smog the color of iodine, chestnuts, and old wine. He looks out on a vacant lot featuring two scraggy trees and a pile of junk; the latter seems unchanging, but careful observation reveals that each day some objects are removed and others added, according to the needs of an unknown and mysterious owner—just as mysterious as the people who move into the lot by night, lighting small fires to keep themselves warm. Contrasting with the junk heap, but resembling it in several ways, masses of roofs, gutters, walls, balconies, and windows rise beyond it and reflect briefly the setting sun. Above it all, a kite is soaring; it is early spring. The sentences that render that scene are relatively long and complex; restrictive adverbs and clauses translate the difficulty there is in any attempt to apprehend reality, while several qualifiers, partners in the same attempt, surround the important nouns. The priest enjoys watching the scene at this particular hour of the evening. When daylight wanes he shuts the window, and sitting at his desk, watches the panes gradually cease being transparent and become reflective. As the story unfolds, and the novelist reveals the darker recesses of his being, the novel too, presumably, becomes less like an open window and more like a mirror. (pp. 8-9)
It soon becomes apparent that the novel will deal primarily, not with any of the characters who are being introduced one by one and almost, it seems, ad infinitum, but with the life of the apartment building as a whole. At this point, the significance of what Father Ralon has seen from his window at the outset becomes clear: a microcosm of society, the building, with its numerous floors, inhabitants, and visitors, is analogous to the city; it is also analogous and reducible to the junk pile on the neighboring lot. One need not proceed very far before suspecting that the plot, closely circumscribed in space, will also not extend over any great length of time. Indeed, Passage de Milan begins at seven on a Friday evening and ends, twelve chapters later, at exactly seven the following morning. The framework of the novel is thus provided by time, and time is hieratic: throughout the night, bells of a nearby convent toll the hours; a priest opens the novel, and another priest closes it. As priests of other religions relied on birds to foretell the future, birds are linked to the Ralons; the kite, bird of prey, casts a shadow of death on the house when Father Ralon looks out. (pp. 10-11)
Life is regulated by a complex series of rituals that inhibit communication. Some activity takes place via the back stairs, but this hardly gives the building any sense of unity. The novel, on the contrary, does have unity: this is provided by the tight limiting of time, and somewhat ironically, by ritual—that of the main party given on the fifth floor, supplemented by smaller parties given elsewhere. The entire building is fully conscious of, and affected by, the Vertigues' party. With the exception of the sponsors, however, the occupants of the building are affected as if by the presence of an exterior object; the participants themselves do not merge into the party: they merely contribute their own private worlds of ambition, hate, or desire. The ritual that provides aesthetic unity becomes the mirror that reveals the extent to which rituals can also produce disunity and isolation.
Butor's handling of this situation in Passage de Milan, pointing to weaknesses as well as to strengths, foreshadows an evolution that is shown in his two subsequent novels. Whenever he attempts a certain distance from his characters, he loses his grip on the reader. At one point, in presenting the Mogne dinner party, he attempts to describe the rites involved, rites that result in the complete mechanization of a reunion that should have brought warmth and joy to the participants. He succeeds to the extent that those pages become cold and mechanical; but he fails to the extent that the reader tends to become as bored as the participants. Obviously, Butor does not possess Flaubert's talent for destructive irony. When, on the other hand, he enters into a character's consciousness and uses his gifts for sympathy and empathy, the reader, too, is carried along. The more promising part of the novel begins with chapter VI, during the midnight pause at the Vertigues' party, when a buffet supper is served and the solitary consciousness of each individual adds its melody to a counterpoint of interior monologues that nevertheless make some of the characters aware of the groups to which they belong elsewhere.
If Passage de Milan has plot (and subplots) and individualized characters, these necessary ingredients of fiction play only secondary roles. Structure—that is, the manner in which such ingredients and other materials are combined into the framework—is of primary importance. Here, all the ingredients are overwhelmingly oriented in the direction of failure, which, through the reflective process, acts as a warning; symbolic elements, such as have been pointed out earlier, serve to extend that warning to our society as a whole. Rituals that should bind actually separate…. (pp. 11-12)
Several years later, L'Emploi du temps, a most superior novel, fulfilled the promise implicit in Passage de Milan. In this novel, poetry lies as much in the lyricism of the sentences as in the architecture; a spell-casting tone, intermittently noticeable in the earlier work, is maintained throughout, partly as a result of a first-person narrative technique; the very first words, Proustian in their evocative power, are like the opening chords of a symphony, setting the mood and penetrating into the reader's unconscious mind: "Les lueurs se sont multipliées." Not lights, but glimmers of lights, and quite possibly glimmers of understanding as well. The sentence, vague, harmonious, and tantalizing, stands out as a separate paragraph.
The second paragraph, consisting of a single ten-line sentence, introduces a physical setting from which precise topical references have been omitted. The event described is so commonplace, however, that such omissions facilitate the identification of reader with narrator and enable Butor to concentrate on the structure that will give the action uncommon significance. Seven months previous to his telling the story, the narrator has arrived by train, at night, in a strange city whose faint lights, seen through the window-panes, are those mentioned in the initial sentence. Alone in his compartment, his head numb from the noise of the train, he has been dozing; as the noise abates, his full consciousness returns, and he looks out; it has been raining. At this point, something happens that recalls the beginning of Passage de Milan: the windows are black and covered with droplets of rain—mirrors reflecting small fragments of the weak ceiling light inside the train.
Travel, darkness, solitude—the evocation of these three leads one to suspect that the novel will deal with a quest, and the reflecting raindrops point to an inner quest. (pp. 13-14)
The weak ceiling light in the train matches [the] inner weakness [of the narrator, Jacques Revel], which is thrown back at him by the events he is involved in, like the reflections in the raindrops. (p. 14)
Butor's conjuring up an imaginary city [Bleston] rather than setting his story in Manchester, where he spent two years between 1951 and 1953 (Revel's diary dates coincide with those of the year 1951–52), was probably intended to heighten symbolic values; by inventing monuments and names he has been able to bring in mythical elements that underline his purpose. The arbitrary but plausible span of one year, which allows for no individual future or past, restricting the novel to those events that have taken place within that time, could well stand for the whole of a man's life. That it may also allude to the Christian myth of man is suggested by Revel's early fall in a muddy street, a fall caused by a woman, which indirectly and unconsciously leads Revel to feel responsible for the attempt on the life of one George Burton, who has three personalities and has written mystery stories, for one of which he has adopted the pseudonymic initials J. C. Allusions to classical myths abound: their presence is adumbrated by the novel's division into five parts, reminiscent of the five acts of French neoclassical tragedy, which drew so many of its themes, suitably distorted and assimilated, from Greek and Roman antiquity—and Butor, of course, will provide his own purposeful distortions. These divisions, also corresponding to the five months during which Revel actually writes his journal, are superimposed on the twelve months of his stay and the twelve sections of the city. Each part, in turn, is divided into five chapters, one for each week or portion of week in a month; since he does not write during weekends, each week also have five days. The architecture of the novel thus clarifies its title: an "emploi du temps" is a schedule, but it can also refer to the function of time or to the use that is made of time. (pp. 14-15)
[A] clerk in a stationery store [sells Revel] maps of the city; one of these included an outline of the city bus routes that looked like a mass of tangled thread—the thread that will guide him through the city of Bleston. In that occurrence we have an example of Butor's technique of gradually introducing mythical allusions: a few pages later, reference is made to the labyrinth that was built in one of the city parks, and we must wait another twenty pages before encountering the name of Theseus. Thus a partial analogy is established, buttressed by many other subsequent overt references, between Revel and Theseus, Ann [the clerk] and Ariadne, Ann's sister Rose and Phaedra, Bleston and the Labyrinth, and so forth. There is no real identification, however, nor is L'Emploi du temps a retelling of that or any other myth. Butor's starting point may well lie in the habit, not uncommon in schools and colleges, of tagging classmates and teachers with literary or historical names; in Passage de Milan he used the device fleetingly, and in a situation close to its source, when he had one of the Mogne boys, in an interior monologue, think of his eldest brother first as the Prince of Wales, next as Aeneas, and then as Esau. Whatever the source, the literary value of this was most probably brought home to Butor by his study of the language of alchemy, where "symbols are variable terms, and their grouping clarifies their meaning." The process seems as much related to a poet's belief in the suggestive power of words as it is to a storyteller's delight in myths…. In L'Emploi du temps, Revel constantly seems to shuttle between at least two respondents: at one moment he is a mole burrowing in the darkness of the city, and a migrating bird looking down at the same city from above; he is a virus in a tissue, and a man observing it through a microscope; he is Theseus, he is Cain, and he is also Oedipus.
Like Oedipus, he is a man looking for a murderer. That aspect of the plot is, at the end of part I, imposed upon the reader through the juxtaposition, within a few pages, of a newspaper headline concerning a murder in Bleston, of Revel's purchasing the thriller by George Burton entitled The Murder of Bleston, and of a stained-glass window depicting Abel's murder by Cain. Revel, somewhat in spite of himself, assumes the part of a detective, whose role, precisely according to the author of the mystery story he has read, is "to unveil and to unmask."
Butor is concerned with Bleston not as a city contrasted to the country or the sea, but as a city among cities, as a microcosm of civilization, like Paris in Passage de Milan. The enmity of Bleston toward Revel—and the dangers it harbors—stems from its lulling, numbing, blinding powers. He is threatened with passively going through the comfortable motions of civilized life, just as characters in the previous novel went through the empty motions of their rituals. When he fights Bleston, Revel is undoubtedly a hero. He commits many errors, however, and the question that implicitly dominates the background of the narrative is what to accept and to reject and how to express this rejection of the contemporary world. Consciousness of himself and awareness of what, in the past, has molded his environment and himself will assist him, he hopes, in answering those questions. Like Butor, he writes in order to give meaning to his life; his effort results in partial failure, not because he chose the wrong means but because he must preserve the freedom of the reader in order to allow him, too, to seek a meaning for his own life. The hero fails so that the novel may succeed.
La Modification, Butor's third novel, published one year after L'Emploi du temps, may well have been written to give expression to problems that were originally intended for development in that novel but had to be eliminated for aesthetic reasons. The kind of Joycean symbolism so characteristic of the first two novels is almost completely absent from the third; instead, we focus on the single action of one individual, clearly circumscribed in time and space, actually and symbolically.
The framework is provided by the long train trip from Paris to Rome: the book opens as the main character [Leon Delmont] enters his compartment in Paris and closes as he leaves it in Rome. (pp. 17-19)
Basically, this novel is about bad faith (in the Sartrian sense). Delmont's attitude is related to Revel's…. Actually, Delmont is a Revel who fails to respond to the challenge of his situation—through the first part of the novel at least. He is, apparently, a cultured individual, who upon accepting the agency for an Italian typewriter firm in Paris, first expressed a desire not to be contaminated by his job…. Very soon, however, he became exactly like the men he associated with, and his entire life was changed. That is one of the "modifications" that precede the one that constitutes the main subject of the book. As the word implies, it is only a superficial change, for Delmont's expressed intention not to be contaminated by his situation was merely a gesture in bad faith. His true project entailed the acceptance of the job and everything that went with it…. The affair he later initiated in Rome was a similar type of modification: it constituted neither an authentic rapport between human beings, nor the true rejuvenation and liberation it might have been. (pp. 19-20)
The handling of myth in La Modification is much what it was in the previous novels. Like the plot, it is also less complex; essentially, it is limited to two recurring allusions. First, the careful reader is led to suspect what will happen because of a number of references to Julian the Apostate. Like Julian, Delmont hates the Christian church (here, of course, more specifically the Catholic Church), and like him, he lives in Paris as the representative of a Roman power. The fact that this power, the typewriter firm, is but a perversion and a caricature of the Roman Empire is obviously a commentary on Delmont's life…. Second, and beginning about the middle of the book, allusions to the legend of the Master of the Hunt—"le Grand Veneur," who, clad in black, roamed the Fontainebleau forest on horseback—emphasize Delmont's guilt and desperation. Like the voice of conscience, the fabled huntsman's cries—"Do you hear me?" or "Are you expecting me?"—reverberate throughout the forest.
The impact of La Modification is enhanced by the adoption of a most effective device: the second-person narrative…. What its generalized use does here is to emphasize the accusatory quality present in all of Butor's novels. As a result, this novel reads somewhat as though it were spoken by a detective or a prosecuting attorney showly building up an airtight case against a suspect—who, indeed, is finally proved unworthy of his mistress's love. The second person also allows for an ambiguous author-reader-character relationship, with the reader oscillating between identification with the prosecuting author, or with the guilty character. (pp. 21-2)
In L'Emploi du temps, the effectiveness of Bleston as a symbol is due in no small part to the mysterious life the city exudes from its streets, stones, parks, rivers, monuments, and soot-laden atmosphere. In La Modification, the city of Rome casts a spell on Delmont's extramarital affair, helping to transform it into a myth, even undermining the reality of the city of Paris. (p. 22)
Places—and with Butor places are almost invariably cities—are, to use his own metaphors, sources from which to drink and foreign texts from which selections are to be translated into his native language. Details, seemingly numerous, are chosen either in order to light a spark of recognition within the reader's mind, or for their direct contribution to the structure of the work. An object may be "like an emblem or a caption, none the less explanatory or enigmatic because it is a thing." Objects as explanatory captions have filled the nineteenth-century novel; objects as enigmatic emblems are more characteristic of the contemporary one, and Butor suffuses them with what Aragon, in his surrealist period, called le merveilleux quotidien.
The publication of Le Génie du lieu … signals a turning point. The fact that Butor wrote those poetic essays indicates that he was no longer satisfied that everything could be made to fit into the architecture of a novel. In 1958, he probably reached the end of what might be termed a syncretic period. Since 1958, in addition to critical essays, he has written more and more imaginative works other than novels. He has not only consented to the publication of older poems but has written new ones as well.
Degrés (1960) is a masterpiece. This novel could be viewed as a sort of enlargement of the previous ones in that it strikes more chords which reverberate more deeply within the reader; it also evidences a stylistic refinement, in that the lyricism of his language so noticeable in L'Emploi du temps has been toned down considerably. Most definitely present is what probably must be considered a permanent element of Butor's aesthetics—especially when his critical statements are taken into consideration—the emphasis on a strong architecture.
The initial impetus to the narrative lies in an attempt to recapture the meaning and consciousness of a given hour in the life of a contemporary French lycée, its teachers, and its students, at the beginning of the school year…. A teacher, Pierre Vernier, decides to write the account of that school period for the benefit of his nephew, Pierre Eller, who happens to be a student in his class. (pp. 23-4)
The narrative, told in the first person, is set in motion in solemn, ritualistic fashion: "I walk into the classroom, and I step up onto the platform." Restrained and often matter of fact, the tone, with few exceptions, does not perceptibly change as the story proceeds. The syntax, however, becoming increasingly complex, like that of L'Emploi du temps and La Modification, expresses the multiple interrelationships at hand…. Quite possibly, the train of thoughts described in the longer sentences of the book flash by within the same period of time described by the initial sentence. This, of course, is narrator's time and bears little relation to reader's time; but it does lead us to one of the many important themes of Degrés—the relationship between author's truth and reader's truth. The writer is deceitful, in order to permit the reader to reach authenticity. (pp. 24-5)
Degrés is, in part, the account of a sacrifice: that of Vernier, who accepts death so that Eller might live a better life. Vernier is writing a document for Eller to read later on, when he is better able to understand what happened, and also when he has forgotten what happened. But he is writing for others, too, for anyone who might have been a student in a lycée, or anyone who might even have come into contact with such a person. While this has often been the purpose of the artist in general—to preserve for posterity the memory and the meaning of events that would otherwise be forgotten—two considerations qualify Butor's purpose.
The first reflects ironically on the so-called universality of a work of art. Malraux has remarked that painters imitate not nature but other painters, and that their works are judged in turn through a confrontation with other paintings. The same is true of literature, and Butor acknowledges that books are written for people who have had what we would call a "liberal" education—a rather restricted universality. Hence, the hopeful glance cast in the direction of those who might have dealings with the privileged group.
The second consideration is related to the first and derives from the very nature of the events being recorded. What Vernier is transmitting to a hypothetical posterity is the description of the process by which Western man acquires knowledge and consciousness of the past. In other words, he is providing a description of the transmission and showing how faulty it is. Furthermore, his account is pointedly oriented toward recapturing the spirit of a particular period of the past, the Renaissance. The day that constitutes the focal point of the narrative is October 12, Columbus Day, and what Vernier calls his pivotal lesson deals with the discovery and conquest of America. Among the many texts that are read in his and other classes are a number of passages from Rabelais, beginning with those pertaining to reform in education—and there again the narrative reflects upon itself. As a result, description is once more transformed into accusation; what stands indicted is not only an educational system, for the lycée has a symbolic status similar to that of Bleston, but a whole aspect of Western culture. Implicit in the indictment is a challenge and a hope that we will react against our past as the Renaissance reacted against the Middle Ages, and then proceed beyond those changes that were instituted during the sixteenth century. The reaction that is called for is in many ways similar to that illustrated by Jacques Revel and Leon Delmont; but in Degrés illustration makes way for a kind of exhortation.
Never does Butor expressly exhort, preach, or condemn. It is the reader who, through the juxtaposing of events, descriptions, and quotations, is forced to make certain judgments. The devices used are common enough, but the confrontation of two common devices can produce forceful results. (pp. 26-7)
The architecture of Degrés is one aspect of the novel of which most readers are not aware, and this in itself is an indication of how successfully it has been integrated into the work as a whole…. [The] division into three parts does more than distinguish the supposed narratives given by members of a related family group—two uncles and a nephew; for within the school there are many other such triangles, where the relationships are not so close as in the first, decreasing with each successive group, until the relationships become, so to speak, negative (a colored student, the physical education teacher, and the Catholic chaplain). The three parts are thus divided into seven sections, new characters being introduced in each section: three per section in the first part (including all eleven teachers), two in the second part, and one in the third, for a total of forty-two. The blood relationships of part I become neighborhood relationships in part II, solitudes in part III—mirroring the deterioration of relationships in the main group. As the bonds between characters break up, however, the unity and meaning of the novel become more evident; as accidental connections fade into the distance, Degrés affirms a truer human link among individuals. The breakups that occur are reminiscent of those noticed earlier in Passage de Milan, but they point toward a transcending of the failing relationships, a striving for the universal brotherhood of man. At the conclusion of Passage de Milan one of the characters escapes from Europe. In a loose but significant parallel to such an implied rejection of European values, Degrés, explicitly stressing the merits of non-European civilizations, derides "this exclusivity of civilization which it [Europe] continues to arrogate to itself, despite all the proofs which it has unearthed, and which it continues to seek and produce, nourishing this contradiction, this great fissure, this great lie which saps and undermines it." The antagonism between Europe and the world recalls, on a grander scale, the one between Revel and Bleston. (pp. 28-9)
Histoire extraordinaire is an essay based on a dream of Baudelaire, which the poet told to his friend Asselineau…. What needs to be noted here is, first, the importance given to dreams, a lesson Butor may have learned from the surrealists as much as from Freud; and, second, the similarity there is between the basic patterns of Histoire extraordinaire and of the novels like L'Emploi du temps and Degrés, with their constant interaction between past and present, dream (or fantasy) and reality. Whatever its merits as a critical essay on Baudelaire, this volume may serve to illustrate one of Butor's basic approaches toward an understanding of the interaction between consciousness and events. (p. 29)
Mobile cannot really be forced into any of the conventional categories of novel, essay, or poem, although the last term, remembering how much poetry the novel has absorbed, comes closest to defining it. But instead of imposing a label upon such a work, it might be better simply to keep the rather indefinite description of the subtitle, and call it a "study," so long as one bears in mind the full artistic and musical connotations of the French word étude. A certain amount of virtuosity is implied, and that is surely present in Mobile. (Like the architecture of Degrés, however, it is unostentatious to the point where several critics have accused Butor of being too facile.) The primary component of that architecture is supplied by the many cities and towns of the same name in the United States…. In each state, analogues are thus introduced, provided by such names as exist in other states that are either geographical neighbors or alphabetically contiguous. (p. 30)
The visits [to the various states] are anything but realistic. The chapter on New York is built around the five cities of Salem, Clayton, Franklin, Manchester, and Canton—Salem providing a link with New York's alphabetical predecessor, New Mexico, and the four others echoing the names of cities in a number of other states. In addition, each of those cities provides a shift of locale and a side trip to a nearby state: three to New Jersey, three to Pennsylvania, two to Connecticut, and so on. Conversely, while "in" Vermont or Massachusetts, the reader also makes several sorties into New York. The representation of each state, made up from the total of such visits and side trips, unmistakably achieves poetic truth: for the importance of any state is less a consequence of its geographical size, or any other single characteristic, than of its role and influence in the life of all the other states. (pp. 31-2)
The important thing about Mobile … from the standpoint of its potential effect on the reader is the manner in which the components have been assembled in order to produce the picture, or "representation." Discontinuous accounts of the 1692 Salem trials and of writings by Franklin and Jefferson, newspaper extracts, advertisements, signs, brief statements, names of people, cities, counties, and states form a strange mosaic or, as the text suggests at one point, a patchwork quilt. Naturally, the juxtaposition is not haphazard; as with the states themselves, the basic order is alphabetical (almond through vanilla for ice cream, B. P. through Texaco for gasoline, among others), and a number of complicated modifications are subsequently introduced in order to achieve maximum effect from various confrontations: the procedure is a generalization of the one already noted for Degrés, one that is not unrelated to the surrealist image. (p. 33)
The devices used in Mobile are meant to disturb the reader's complacency, just as they were intended to do in Degrés. They occasionally do more than that and produce something that had been missing in the previous works: humor. Its absence from, say, L'Emploi du temps is perhaps no more disturbing than its lack in Greek tragedy; on the other hand, humor might have relieved the monotony of a few pages from Passage de Milan. Whether Butor has managed to introduce it in Mobile because he does not quite feel so closely involved in his subject or because of greater artistic maturity is a question for which only his future works can provide the answer. (pp. 35-6)
With Réseau aérien (1962) Butor begins experimenting beyond the printed page. This work … is a kind of playlet in multiple-dialogue form involving passengers of airliners all over the globe. Two couples leave Paris for New Caledonia; one flies east, the other west, and both reach their goal more or less at the same time. Dialogues among other passengers, none of whom makes the complete trip, alternate with those of the two main couples until they get off at various intermediate points…. The total impression is one of a choral song of mankind in which unidentified individuals blend their common preoccupations about different things and countries into elemental melodies of love and hate. Trivial concerns, expressed in prosaic fashion, dominate in the early dialogues. Later, as distance, imagination, and dreams affect each traveler, the themes become more basically human; the language waxes lyrical, discursive logic makes way for instinctive association, and ordinary talk is metamorphosed into poetry. (pp. 37-8)
There is much in Description de San Marco (1963) to remind one of Mobile. But where Mobile gave only one of a number of possible modulations based on the same series of states, objects, and texts, and was not intended as an account of actual travels in the fifty states, San Marco, evolving out of a detailed visit to St. Mark's in Venice, stays very close to its subject. On one level, the book mirrors its title perfectly…. Mere description, however, does not satisfy Butor; detailed as this one is, it is obviously not exhaustive, and the nature of the selections and the quality of the commentaries serve to orient the work. (p. 38)
Through their confrontation and out of the wealth of descriptive praise, the ever-present element of denial, so characteristic of Butor, is impressed upon the reader: quite early, he is reminded that the church owes its very existence to a theft (that of the evangelist's body), and in the last pages that butchers' stalls and wooden outhouses once confronted the Byzantine magnificence of the square.
If it is not easy to appreciate or fully evaluate works like Réseau aérien or Description de San Marco from a reading of the text alone, the task becomes nearly impossible where something like Votre Faust (serial publication begun in 1962) is involved. Subtitled "Fantaisie variable genre opéra," it was written in collaboration with the musician Henri Pousseur, at the latter's suggestion…. Fascinated by some of the aesthetic ideas he found in Butor's critical essays, [Pousseur] suggested that the two of them collaborate on a "mobile opera," using the Faust theme as a point of departure. The result, a transposition of the legend to a contemporary setting, pictures the artist—in this instance a composer—as Faust, while Mephistopheles appears in the guise of a producer.
With characteristic ambiguity, Butor conveys the impression that the producer is also directing the very performance we are witnessing. As in Goethe's version, the curtain rises on a "Prologue in the Theater"; for theatrical atmosphere, however, this prologue is closer to the opening scenes of Claudel's Le Soulier de satin. A calculated informality—a discussion of the show that is about to be put on—aims at a closer communion between actors and audience, stage and house, and (in Votre Faust much more than in Le Soulier de satin) forces the action to become a commentary upon itself. With the "Prologue in Heaven" irony creeps in: we are in almost total darkness, and the sound is produced not by the music of the spheres but by a small orchestra on stage playing a traditional canon. (pp. 39-40)
By now it would seem that two familiar themes of Butor's writings have been stated again. The main character [Faust] is trying to compose a work, and even though we already surmise that he will fail in his endeavor, it turns out to be the very one we are watching. Also, the temptation that faces him is that of complacency and inactivity: the conditions of his contract are such as to banish from his mind both care and conscience. Beyond the plot outline, however, and in a fashion that can only be alluded to here, the techniques used in the novels and more obviously in Mobile play a major role. Literary quotations and allusions are supplemented by musical ones, projection screens are added to traditional lighting effects, and liberal use is made of recorded tapes, along with instruments and voices singing or speaking in five different languages. All are viewed as basic units in the work, like words in a poem, and a number of modulations are effected that bring them in contact with one another to produce a series of neo-surrealist metaphors.
The conclusion of part one also marks, for the spectator, the end of the fixed portion of the operatic fantasy. Butor and Pousseur will not proceed on their own but, through the producer-director, request instructions from the audience. This is the most striking feature of Votre Faust: the word "variable" in the subtitle means that a number of versions are available…. Preposterous as the procedure might seem it simply brings out into the open the necessary, tacit collaboration between author and reader or spectator, of which suspension of disbelief is but the indispensable premise. More than that, though, the device serves to emphasize human freedom and responsibility. The manipulation of freedom by an author is a complex and contradictory process, and no matter how well the reader's freedom has been preserved, no matter what illusions one may harbor concerning that of the characters, their fate has necessarily been sealed once the book has been written. Here, the solution to a seemingly insoluble quandary is sought by playing upon the instinctive identification of the audience with the hero and, through that audience, by helping to restore his freedom of choice. (pp. 41-2)
With Votre Faust Butor has perhaps come to the close of a second stage in his creative activities. If his first period was somewhat syncretic and found its expression almost exclusively through the novel, the second one can truly be termed explosive. (p. 44)
A sign of a writer's stature is his power of assimilation. When first reading Butor, one is not tempted to say, This is like Faulkner, or like Joyce, or like Proust. The critic, after some pondering, will begin to see analogies, and scholars will set themselves the task of unraveling threads of the elusive phenomenon known as literary influence. Plots, themes, and techniques will eventually be traced to their sources. On such raw materials, however, Michel Butor has indelibly stamped the seal of his unique art. (p. 46)
Leon S. Roudiez, in his Michel Butor (copyright © 1965 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1965.
Among the best of the postwar novelists, Michel Butor occupies a high place. He is one of those novelists who, by reason of his remarkably controlled language and the seriousness of his literary theory, refuses to allow literature to be considered a diversion. He believes that the authentic work of fiction manifests a new way of being, and this is revealed by the form of the novel. New fictional forms may reveal new things in the world, and new relationships between things and people. In speaking of Finnegans Wake, Butor points out that for each reader such a work becomes an instrument of intimate self-knowledge.
The subject matter of Butor's La Modification (1957) would be suitable for a conventional psychological novel. A man in Paris takes a train for Rome in order to see his mistress and bring her back with him to Paris. During the trip he changes his mind; his project is no longer valid when he reaches Rome. He has been changed by the places he sees from the train, by his compartment in the train, by Rome, where he is going and which occupies his thoughts. All of these matters physical and mental become the real characters of the novel which force Léon to alter his decision. The reasons for his change of heart are complex, and no reader can be sure of the real reason. This is one of the points of La Modification, and indeed of the neuveau roman: it is impossible to reach any specific unalterable truth.
Butor's characters are revealed to us by the places where they live, by those places that oppress them. The hero is quite typically a prisoner. In L'Emploi du temps (1956), Jacques is a prisoner in the town of Bleston for 365 days. In La Modification, Léon is a prisoner for twenty hours in the Paris-Rome express. In Butor's first novel, Passage de Milan (1954), all the inhabitants of an apartment house are imprisoned there from seven in the evening until seven o'-clock in the morning.
La Jalousie and La Modification differ widely in style and manner, but in common they have traits associated today with the nouveau roman. The type of hero who was endowed with a civic status and a biography has disappeared from this new type of novel. Subject matter based upon a continuous narrative and anecdotes and episodes has given way to the description of a world where nothing is stable or certain, and where characters, as we know them in the traditional novel, do not exist. The principal character in the nouveau roman is no one in particular, but he is a figure whose fantasies become a world in themselves, far more real than the world he is looking at.
Thus the art of … Butor shows an emptiness, a hollowness at the heart of reality. The new structure of these novels demonstrates this experience of emptiness and absence. We are never told, for example, that the husband in La Jalousie is jealous, but we may feel this by watching him watch his wife standing beside a man. The function of the vous used by Butor in La Modification is a form of call or challenge to the reader by which we realize that the language of the novel is that of an inquisition, and the reader is being assumed into the stream of consciousness. (pp. 299-300)
Wallace Fowlie, "Michel Butor," in his French Literature: Its History and Its Meaning (© 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 299-300.
The almost simultaneous appearance of the first works of Robbe-Grillet and those of Michel Butor created the impression of a new school, rather than of innovative individuals. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to link these two writers together. Moreover, Butor has taken a theoretical stand very different from Robbe-Grillet's. Rather than trying to find a new definition of limited scope for the novel, Butor has pursued a wide-ranging, ambitious quest extending to the whole of literature. (The French word "recherche," which Butor used to describe his literary program, means "research" in the sense of searching anew, of quest.)
Butor's quest is based less on a feeling that the old forms of expression are worn out than on a feeling that these forms are too narrow and too restricted to express a world that had become extraordinarily enlarged. The writer is thus forced to forge new means of expression. "The quest for new forms of the novel with greater power of integration thus plays the triple role of denunciation, exploration, and adaptation, in relation to our awareness of reality," he wrote in The Novel as Research. Butor's denunciation was not only literary; the old forms, repeated out of laziness, which were blind or untruthful, went hand in hand with a conservative social order. But Butor's main stress was on adaptation; reality, which for Robbe-Grillet was—in an ambiguous way—to be annulled and then used, and for Nathalie Sarraute was to be pursued in the form of authenticity, was for Butor the subject of an optimistic, wonder-struck exploration. He is like Claudel, but with a dry, brittle lyricism. And it is worth noting the importance for both Claudel and Butor of the myth of a "new world," without which the universe is incomplete.
But Butor, the most realistic of the new novelists, has also been the one most interested in form, the one whose language is the most complex and the freest in relation to its subject. Butor's first works were not nearly so radical as Robbe-Grillet's, because Butor was much less interested in breaking with the traditional framework of the novel than with dealing with specific subjects while still preserving a great deal of that framework. (pp. 97-8)
[While] he retained the traditional framework of the novel, Butor's aim in these works was to find an order (frequently symbolized by some kind of schedule) in a reality that seems to reject order in both time and space. Thus, the quest for order acknowledged the lack of order. The past resuscitated in the present is added to the past, or modifies it; the movement of consciousness and of the writing reacts on the object described; the event has to be described from multiple and contradictory viewpoints.
The novel as a quest, a re-search, for order could not end in anything other than failure, and the story of that failure is told in all these novels, in Degrees in particular. But Butor renounced the novel rather than the quest, and he who began by accepting what Robbe-Grillet rejected from the start was to contest far more. Indeed, one cannot use the term "novel" to describe Butor's more recent works, such as Mobile (1962, Mobile) and Réseau aérien (1962, Aerial Network), in both of which he superimposed images and assembled and dismantled linguistic structures. (pp. 98-9)
The audience Butor addresses his works to has become more and more an audience of listeners (we hear tones and dissonant or harmonious voices) or of viewers (we see striking typographical arrangements) than of readers following the thread of a text by an abstract effort of the imagination. He has moved away not only from the novel but from literature, toward a synthesis hinted at in the composer Luciano Berio's Omaggio a Joyce, for example.
Butor has tried to make his style escape from any set pattern. It is almost impossible to speak of a characteristic Butor sentence structure. His sentences are either protracted or succinct, flowing or syncopated, as required by the subject and the psychological time response; they are less comparable to written communication than they are to parts of a musical score or a typographical construction. Butor, like the others, has ultimately given us structures to play with, and we are even invited to make our own choices, to use the elements provided—the scenario to be enacted or the happening to be pursued—to give our own performance. But Butor's game is quite different in spirit from that of the other new novelists because, in the arid landscape of contemporary questioning, his work has something of the "modernist" exaltation of the 1920s. His game is not so much a compensation—what remains in spite of all—as it is a gift of happy discovery in a world that is inexhaustible and continually renewed. (p. 100)
Gaëtan Picon, in his Contemporary French Literature: 1945 and After (copyright © 1974 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1974.
In his latest book [Matière derêves Butor] for the first time uses highly personal materials—dreams, memories—to create the five stories of the work. Each has a title and a recognizable story line, but the action is interrupted and diffused by a host of substructures. Many of these often minute subsections begin with the name of a city … visited by the narrator. Another device used by the narrator is to enclose a slide in a letter, a slide that may evoke associations or a name in literature, such as Chateaubriand, Balzac, Stendhal, Constant, Kafka or Zola. The text is studded with the words or names of members of the author's family that constantly arise in his mind and let him express his love for them or make him call out for their help when he is in anguish. Also used are such techniques of the new novel as repetition, regression and intertextuality. The whole kaleidoscopic view is imbued with mystery and rapidly changing images that defy rational explanation and startle the narrator as well as the reader because they are truly "such stuff as dreams are made on."
The narrator, who calls himself Michel Butor most of the time, seems to be asking the same unanswerable questions that appeared in his earlier A Change of Heart: "Who are you? Where are you going?" With anguish he "watches the screen" where his life story is shown. Simultaneously viewer and person viewed, he experiences rational and irrational forces from the most secret recesses of his mind. As the film progresses, he tries to describe and comment on what he sees. Speaking of "feverish, contaminated or agitated texts," he still strives to interpret what he sees. But unconscious, irrational behavior usually represses critical thinking. (pp. 53-4)
Although in A Change of Heart Butor has already used a dream in which the narrator wanders through a forest that keeps closing up behind him, nothing he has ever written equals the horror of [some of the scenes of] nightmares. Nowhere has he bared his non-rational side and libidinal drives so fully. In fact, he has always endeavored to avoid confrontation with the irrational, unconscious side of life.
Understandably, Butor dedicates Matière de rêves to "the psychoanalysts, among others," where "others" should be taken to refer to the large audience of all those interested in "seeing" what happens on levels of insight revealed only in dreams as described by a lucid man who possesses the words both to convey the experience and the courage to render it in powerful images. (p. 54)
Anna Otten, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Winter, 1977.
In some instances Butor sees the writer in the role of a detective ferreting out an overt or a covert crime such as fratricide. On other occasions he bestows on him the part of a psychologist unearthing original sins and repressed complexes. At all times, however, in his Hermetic fiction, Butor projects in his writer-protagonist the role of an anthropologist engaged in the process of probing beyond the limits of the individual consciousness into the set up of the family, the clan, the age group, the generations and their gaps, the entire nation with its history and ramifications reaching into the buried primordial past common to all humanity….
As varied as his novels may be, whether they feature only one hero or anti-hero such as Delmont or Revel, the Revealer, or a group such as the adolescents in Degrés, or the families in Passage de Milan, they display one common theme: a crisis of identity followed by a partially successful or aborted epiphany. In whichever milieu the plot is set and however the ultimate outcome may be resolved, the main question which arises in each and every one of his works of fiction is how to trace identities. An individual Self is related to ever-broadening circles of relationships in an effort to abolish the feeling of isolation and alienation which surrounds modern man beset by a tendency to ignore or forget his roots.
Butor makes it perfectly clear that his protagonists represent a totality of human experience and are by no means unique. In La Modification the narrator Léon Delmont uses the second person to involve the reader in his ordeal. He is an average traveling salesman at life's crossroads and comes to realize who he is, by some inner Eleusynian experience. Not only is he everyman, but in every child, man or woman he encounters, he sees his own children, wife or acquaintances at some various stage of life. Stripped of the myths he had projected upon them, all women are interchangeable, as he realizes their resemblances and similar gestures on parallel occasions. (p. 32)
Consciousness can be acquired on a personal level as well as on a collective one. Most people live by myths which must be demystified if we are to understand ourselves and others and stop projecting our fears, hates, and prejudices upon them. Butor's goal is to let the reader acquire more awareness by realizing that his common humanity reaches beyond family, clan, nation, religion, or race. He always sympathizes with the Promethean or accursed man who revolts against the subjection of son to father, pupil to teacher, colored to white, present to past. Slavery is archaic, so are conventions, social sham and pious cover up of lies. The disease must be exposed lest it fester in us and explode. Man must face the past and view it dispassionately, as historical fact cannot lie buried without reasserting itself. We cannot even afford to ignore prehistory for in it we will find roots common to all men…. By realizing the tenuous bond between ourselves and the vanishing natural world which is our habitat, we may acquire a better understanding of ourselves and of our milieu, and stand less alienated in the Diaspora of modern cities. We can grow richer and wiser by reversing the trend of distrust and hostility which we project toward our brother whom too often we treat as the "Other." (p. 36)
Adèle Bloch, "Michel Butor and the Social Structure," in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), January, 1977, pp. 32-6.