Michel Butor Butor, Michel (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Butor, Michel 1926–

Butor is a French novelist, essayist, philosopher, translator, editor, and author of children's books. Numbered among the New Novelists, Butor defies true literary classification in his disregard for traditional forms. In an attempt to give his reader 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 time factor to create a complex and highly original fictive language. The influences of Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, and Joyce can be felt in his work. Butor has also made a number of interdisciplinary artistic contributions, working with serialist composer Henri Pousseur to create the opera Votre Faust, supplying a text to the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in Illustrations I, and working as both writer and illustrator with Gregory Masurovky on a 1976 issue of Obliques. He has also collaborated with Maria Grazia Oltolenghi on Tout d'oeuvre, and is the author of numerous essays on music and painting. Butor received the Prix Renaudot for La Modification in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Vivian Mercier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michel Butor occupies a paradoxical situation in what we may call the hierarchy of the nouveau roman. On the one hand, he has written four novels of unquestionable though uneven merit…. On the other hand, he has published a series of brilliant articles on the theory of the novel, to be found in his volumes of criticism, Répertoire and Répertoire II, which have made him at least as important an expounder of the newness of the New Novel as Alain Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute; yet it can be shown that all his novels except the last break very little new ground and owe much of their success primarily to Butor's mastery of those old-fashioned components, plot and characterization.

Naturally, this mastery appears most strikingly in Butor's most popular novel, La Modification (A Change of Heart) [(1957)]. (p. 215)

The scope of the novel is restricted to one man's reflections, memories, dreams, and perceptions during a railroad journey between Paris and Rome which lasts not quite twenty-four hours (21 hours, 35 minutes, to be exact). Within this larger restriction an even narrower one is imposed, for we are not allowed to share this one man's experience directly except when he is occupying a third-class compartment that seats eight passengers when full…. What he does in these intervals outside the compartment is made known to us only by anticipation or by memory, if he happens to remember.

As a result, the reader shares much of the protagonist's claustrophobic reaction to his confinement…. A rather simple grammatical device intensifies the reader's identification with the protagonist: the whole experience is narrated in the second person. (p. 216)

The basic structural element in A Change of Heart is, quite simply, a timetable, a train schedule…. Like every such timetable, it translates time into space and space into time: "This train will stop at Dijon and leave again at 11:18, it will pass through Bourg at 1:20 p.m., leave Aix-les-Bains at 2:41 …"…. (p. 221)

In each of Butor's three other novels we shall find a schema—usually in some sense a timetable—by which time and place are intimately related. The characteristically punning title of his second novel, L'Emploi du Temps (Passing Time …), means "timetable" as well as "daily routine" and, most literally, "use of (one's) time."

In every Butor novel, however, alongside this logical, mechanistic, workaday schema, we can trace a totally different type of structural device: intuitive, artistic, nocturnal. Dreams, myths, rituals, works of art (real or imaginary) are used separately or in combination as analogues of the characters' experience in what we may call the objective or materialistic or daylight world.

In A Change of Heart this nocturnal element consists mainly of a continuous dream which Léon takes up at the point where he had left off, each time he falls briefly asleep during his uncomfortable and exhausting night on the train. This dream or nightmare contains elements of a rite de passage or initiation ritual: Léon is undergoing an ordeal, but more and more he begins to feel that he is on trial; the dream becomes toward the end a vision of judgment. (p. 223)

[There is an] extremely old-fashioned character analysis in A Change of Heart. True, Henriette [Léon's wife] is a dim figure and Cécile [his mistress] an over-idealized one, but this is because we see them only through Léon's eyes. His estimate of them is one of the touches which contribute to an extremely lifelike portrait of a man of forty-five whose neck is being chafed by the marriage yoke. Butor works very contentedly within the French classical tradition of character drawing, presenting Léon as at one and the same time an individual and a type. Without intervening to comment in his own person, Butor can still make us aware of the detached irony with which he often views his protagonist. (p. 225)

A Change of Heart, then, has a great deal in common with the traditional novel. What links it and Butor's other novels most closely with le nouveau roman as a school is the almost obsessive concern with structure, though this seems unnecessary in a work that is already held tightly together by a logical plot. It is plotless novels that need to be given form by the use of schemas or myths.

Other characteristics of the New Novel to be found in A Change of Heart are the readiness to make unheralded shifts from one level of time to another and the interest in "point of view" that leads to the experiment of writing an entire novel in the second person. The employment of stream-of-consciousness technique is peculiarly appropriate in a story whose main action is internal, psychological. (p. 226)

Passage de Milan (1954 …) compresses into its punning title the locale, the catastrophe, and one of the myths with which it deals. 15 Passage de Milan is a seven-story apartment building (with a basement, naturally) in Paris. The little street on which it stands is presumably named after the Italian city, but the French word milan … can mean "kite" in the sense of a bird of prey…. (pp. 226-27)

[Passage de Milan reveals a] schema, which bulks as large in this novel as in the other three. Briefly, it consists of the multiple levels of the...

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Lucille Becker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Butor's] journals stand in the same relationship to other works of this type as do his novels to the traditional novel, for in both he refuses to interpret. Instead, he solicits the participation of the reader whose collaboration becomes an essential part of the book….

Time plays an important part in Où. Le génie du lieu 2, as it does in all of the author's work. Past, present and future are mixed. Weather conditions also figure prominently and impressions predominate of mud in Seoul, rain at Angkor, fog at Santa Barbara, and snow in New Mexico. Above all, the book is governed by an ambivalent love-hate relationship with Paris. There are sections entitled, "I Fled Paris," and "I Hate Paris," but the last words of the journal are grouped together in the form of a love poem to the city to which he is inexorably drawn. "All of the trips I take," he concludes, "are to the beat of your pulse." (p. 443)

Lucille Becker, in Books Abroad (copyright 1972 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer, 1972.

Kathleen O'Neill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michel Butor's Passing Time is a story in which the detective hunts himself. In this circular, self-contained structure any connection with an external reality is tenuous. Is Bleston really so oppressive, or is Revel extremely paranoid? Did he actually commit any crime? The reader cannot be sure, for he perceives reality only as it is reflected in the narrative of which Revel is both writer and actor. Indeed, the only certain reality is Revel's consciousness where he plays criminal, detective and victim simultaneously and where his fate is determined by the interplay of these internal agents, whose behaviour is spurred, but not designed, by external circumstance. (pp. 29-30)

On the most...

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Thomas D. O'Donnell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Butor, as a writer and artist, finds himself in a somewhat awkward position. On the one hand, he subscribes to the theory that his ideal reader must be encouraged and/or coerced to participate actively in the work of art: the reader's effort must be commensurate with that of the author, and Butor finds himself open to accusations of literary elitism and hermeticism. On the other hand, Butor does not accept the human condition as it stands, socio-politically or intellectually. Echoing Rimbaud, Butor insists that life be "changed": "Any literature which does not help us toward this end is eventually, and inevitably, condemned," Ironically, a single theme, that of alchemy, suffices to emblematize the contradictory...

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Valerie Minogue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his various novels, Butor explores the nature of reality and the part imagination plays in our perception—or creation—of it.

In L'Emploi du Temps [Passing Time], many different elements of experience come together in Revel's narrative of his experience in Bleston. His affective experience, for instance, is intimately associated with his cultural experience—his response, among other things, to a detective novel, to various films, to the Theseus tapestry seen in Bleston Town Hall, and to Bleston's two cathedrals. Jacques Revel in Bleston is an individual consciousness set at a point of confluence which he uniquely registers and interprets. (p. 42)

Butor's novel is...

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