Michel Butor Butor, Michel (Vol. 3) - Essay

Butor, Michel (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Butor, Michel 1926–

A French novelist and essayist associated with the New Wave, Butor deals uniquely with the dimensions of time and space. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The foreigner in a hostile city, the all-night traveler in a third-class train compartment, the history teacher seeking the essence of history: these are the heroes of Michel Butor, men who seek to comprehend their alien predicaments and who end, perhaps, only by knowing something more of themselves. The knowledge condemns them, making their normal bourgeois lives impossible, for the unity they seek proves to be disintegration. In the hope of attaining some new unity, they turn to writing novels. Their novels, however, the works of which they are the protagonists, provide not re-integration, but a new disintegration, for the act of writing is also discovery, and discovery is multiplicity….

No individual, in fact, can enter the Promised Land by himself: "Individualism in the novel is only an illusion," Butor contends, "but an illusion which has had grave consequences on the theory of the novel, and which we need to counteract today." If we continue to study the individual, we only learn about the group which he represents. Out of this limitation, however, come striking new freedoms: since "the individual in the novel can never be completely determined," both novelist and novel-reader may "take up a position at different points in a pattern" in relation to him, to adopt, that is, different points of view toward him and his situation. Butor calls this new attitude "polyphonic writing." He asks, stressing the analogy to contemporary music, "Should not the transition from linear narrative to polyphonic narrative lead us in quest of mobile forms?"

His own quest for mobility, for polyphonic form, has led Butor to experiment with the handling of time, with a highly personal mythology, and especially with the development of point of view. Each of his major novels is told by its protagonist who becomes a journalist in an effort to recreate some order in his life. As he writes, each narrator looks both forward and back, forward to his imagined order, back to the events causing the disorder. Past and future, and the present as well, merge into a single time, and the present—the time of the journal-keeping—becomes more confused even than the past, less realizable than the future. Each writer is also the creator of his own mythology, a compendium of familiar, almost archetypal myths and symbols which he blends together in a pattern that even he cannot comprehend, but whose total implication increases his fear of the surroundings and of himself. The journal which he keeps may be a symbol of his fear, an acknowledgement of it, or its very source: such is the progression from Passing Time to A Change of Heart to Degrees: in each novel, the point of view and theme are indistinguishable, both functions of disturbed individuals in a disturbed world….

None of the protagonists of Butor reaches the maturity that he so feverishly seeks; each fails in different ways, but together they suggest a vision of disoriented modern man in a universe without order or ultimate meaning. The same myths which gave coherence to the lives of earlier civilizations heighten their disaffiliation from society and from themselves. They come to know themselves only well enough to recoil in horror and fear; they are unable to search deeply enough to achieve a sense of identity. Their circular visions are reflected—even magnified—by the polyphonic form of their narrations: their points of view are both the symbol and the cause of their dismay.

The unity of form and function is characteristic of Butor's entire canon, from his untranslated first novel, Passage de Milan, to his most recent non-fictional experiments. The technique fails in the early novel because Butor does not fully control his widely dispersed point of view, but the failure points the way to his later successes. Passage de Milan attempts to dramatize the events of one night in a Parisian apartment building and to individualize each of its residents; it uses not one but sixty-six points of view. The dispersal does not result in ambiguity but chaos. He acknowledges his failure by identifying in the margin the source of each interior monologue. His later novels would make use of only one source of consciousness and would provide through him the unity that an apartment building cannot offer. He might present varied and even contradictory attitudes, but the confusion would be the protagonists'—a function of their personalities—and not the author's….

[In] Votre Faust, an opera done in collaboration with the serial composer Henri Pousseur[,] Butor seems to have found at last the ideal form for polyphonic narration. The first act of the opera—subtitled "Fantaisie variable genre opera"—is based loosely on the Faust legend and is more or less closed in form, as the Faust-figure contracts with the devil to compose an opera based on the Faust legend. The second act is almost totally open-ended, as Mephistopheles, the producer-director, consults with the audience about the fate of his actors. There are many alternative actions and more than two dozen endings to choose from, so that no two audiences are likely to participate in the same work.

All of Butor's work demonstrates the same need for audience participation, for the kind of innovation in form that will involve the reader in the work of art and help him to see in it his own life. As he wrote in "Le Roman comme recherche,"

the novelist who turns his back on this work, upsetting no set habits, demanding no special effort of his reader, not driving the latter to scrutinize himself and the positions he has long since made his own, is of course going to succeed more easily, but he makes himself the accomplice of our profound discomfort and of the deep night in which we flounder about…. His work, in the last analysis, is a poison.

Such a success Butor has never sought. Throughout his varied career, the need to involve us, to lead us to see our own need for self-awareness, has remained constant. Through dreams and myth, through the creation of a universal time and a universal human voice, through the strange blend of subjectivity and objectivity which characterizes his narrators, Butor has made us all participants in the difficult and dangerous task of knowing ourselves and our world.

Morton P. Levitt, "Michel Butor: Polyphony, or the Voyage of Discovery," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 1972, pp. 27-48.

Butor's aim is to jolt the public into an awareness of its reading habits and to force it to participate actively in the work before its eyes.

This intention on the part of the author has produced open forms in which the reader is obliged to draw on his own experience to complete the picture sketched for him. Following the clues provided, he must reach his own conclusions. These will have a personal validity in every case, and the impression which the work leaves on each reader will differ according to his perceptiveness and curiosity.

Butor believes that all new works contain those which preceded them—that literary effect is cumulative, and that every author has the whole range of earlier writing at his disposal. In Degrés he sets out to use this to fullest advantage, proving to his reader both the advantage of lively and continuous cross-reference in literature and the way in which its theoretical exploration of actual problems may be applied to good purpose….

The book is constructed from the reader's personal resources as the barriers dividing the different authors and centuries are broken down and the experiences of literature are applied to life. As always, the person with the greatest knowledge, depth of awareness, and flexibility will understand most clearly what is happening. There is no solution, no definite interpretation. The reader must make an effort to perceive and correlate information. Butor hopes that the novel will modify first reading habits, then thought patterns, and finally the attitude toward life of his readers. Degrés is an attack on the rigidity of habit and convention.

The texts have two functions in the novel: to enable the reader to increase his understanding of the characters and their personal situations, and to create a realization of the vast possibilities open to man in the world today. Although at first glance the choice of texts seems to consist of the usual school selection, each work throws light on some aspect of the two main themes: progress and the Vernier-Eller saga….

Neither described by an omniscient author nor seen through the restricted vision of one of the protagonists, the relationship between Vernier and Eller is developed by the reader through the texts. The facts fit into every literary work mentioned in Degrés and each one offers additional detail to the original story, thus presenting the feeling between uncle and nephew first from one angle and then from another. No specific interpretation is selected. The possibilities are endless and vary according to the perception and knowledge of each reader. Just as an actual occurrence in life would be analyzed and discussed with more or less accuracy by people who had heard certain of the facts, so the book may be constructed from the reader's personal experience. There is no "correct" interpretation. Vernier, Eller, and the others are as complex as real people. Their personalities are there to be discovered to the measure of the reader's curiosity and ability….

Through the many texts incorporated into Degrés, the themes are explored from all angles, expanding the ideas, suggesting connections, and developing facets of character. The possibilities offered become more obvious toward the end of the book as Butor gives the key to his technique to the reader. References multiply and one word begins to evoke a panorama of implications. Nor does the reader escape criticism. The "passionnante brochure illustrée gratuite" entitled On vous jugera sur votre culture is not mentioned by accident…. Butor is ready to teach his readers, but he demands their full cooperation and a great deal of effort, for there is little comment on the texts during the course of the novel. They are quoted in class and translated for homework, but it is the responsibility of the reader to put the passages to the most profitable use his knowledge will allow, restricting Degrés to the superficial story or enlarging it in his own way to fill out the characters and create his own vision of man's aspirations and possibilities.

Jennifer R. Walters, "Butor's Use of Literary Texts in Degrés," in PMLA, 88 (copyright © 1973 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), March, 1973, pp. 311-20.

Of Michel Butor's many literary activities, including novels, essays and experimental texts, the area that has received the least attention has been his poetry. The publication of this representative selection of his verse from 1950 to the present [Travaux d'approache] … should help to make this work more accessible and better known….

Butor does not believe that his poems are ever fixed or completed and thus all of these pieces have been significantly reworked. "Paysage de répons" and "Dialogues des règnes," for instance, were originally written to accompany, respectively, music by Henri Pousseur and water colors by Jacques Hérold. They have both been stripped of the accompanying art works, radically rewritten and are here juxtaposed and combined in a single text. The result is a striking and original surrealist fantasy entitled "Paysage de répons illustré par Dialogues des règnes."

In contrast with the lush imagery and sonorities of the poem just described, the early poems from the 1950s included in this volume have a stark and enigmatic simplicity. The more recent "Blues des projets" (1969), on the other hand, is composed using the collage technique employed by Butor in Mobile. This variety and spirit of experiment will not surprise Butor's readers: underlying all of these pieces is the same effort "to transform the power, the attack of literature" that animates all of his work.

Dean McWilliams, in Books Abroad, Spring, 1973, p. 321.