Michel Butor

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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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

John K. Simon

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The difficulty in summarizing La Modification, like Butor's other novels, comes not from an excess or an absence of "content" as such, but from the insistent dualism, the simultaneous presence of inner and outer worlds.

The basic analogy that governs the novel is the funambulist figure of the motionless traveler. (p. 174)

[The passenger] Léon Delmont sees simultaneously the reflection of his own face [in the train window] and, juxtaposed, the familiar scenery where he loses himself, through which other trains run, crossing his, transformed into the trains he has taken on other trips at other times.

The idea of a glass separating the individual from experience, the consciousness from act, has become a commonplace of the modern scene. Butor seeks not to give in to either side of an antinomy between the distortions that might be induced from the surface of the glass itself (Robbe-Grillet) and the outside pull of its transparence (Simon). He tries rather to maintain a simultaneous double perspective, the monologue intérieur recording outside movement and the fixity of a personal point of view. (p. 175)

[Butor's realism] consists of a constant, respectful deference to the framework which guides his narrative. His constraining time-spans … and the corollary attitude toward space exemplified by the compartment on rails are elements of a new classicism…. [These] new unities permit free associations and digressions only within the reality of an objective structure. (pp. 175-76)

[In the light of] continuous interplay between legend and banality, the book which Léon Delmont carries into the train offers an interesting subject for comparison, particularly in view of the importance of the theme of language and literature in the novel…. Léon's book remains throughout La Modification the suggestive expression of dualism. While constituting the center of that circuitous theme which makes La Modification the literary project which Léon intends to write as he exits from the train in the Stazione Termini, the book serves as a sort of genie bottle for creating the intermittent dream of the last part of the book. It also serves prosaically to mark the protagonist's place when he leaves the compartment. As a final comment on Butor's position of cautious equilibrium between consciousness and act, the book remains closed throughout the entire trip.

Although it is accurate to say that Butor restores a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, the ultimate reference is to Things. They form that primitive state. Thus the protagonist disciplines himself, frequently repeating, "I must keep my eyes fixed on things...

(This entire section contains 1083 words.)

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that are actually there…."… (p. 176)

Butor's dualism is manifest in the startling aspect of his novel that has been most commented on by the critics: his use of the second-person plural as the protagonist and point of view almost throughout. Although, in a complex and suggestive way, the vous form constitutes an important, positive "freezing" of perspective between objectivity and subjectivity, here too the hierarchy is never in doubt. The exceptional passages in the third part of the novel where the third person abruptly appears warn us that we are in a dream. Curiously enough, this interrupted dream is objectified in accordance with the depersonalizing distance which intervenes.

Thus, paradoxically, the material introduced there, which is associated with the book that Léon does not open during his ride and which would appear, by its nightmarish and mythological aspects, to be pure fantasy, is accorded a reality more objective than the main narrative. In fact, these sequences form an "external" stimulus rather than some hallucinatory product, and the switch is made back to the second person only with the application of these mythic elements to the personal situation. (p. 177)

One would be mistaken in stressing merely the superficial universality or value of identification in the use of vous. Indeed, the universality can hardly be achieved by this means if the person loses abstraction by becoming a recognizable Parisian businessman. Also, paradoxically, identification is weakened by this device which accentuates the distance between the figure in the novel and the reader by calling attention to their relationship. Rather, Butor's intention is to find a point of balance in two delicate areas of the literary process: between the author and the hero and between the latter and the reader.

For Butor, too, the police inquest becomes a prototype. His analysis of the second person as a form of interrogation recalls the fact that, in all his novels, a kind of urgent inquiry is at work, sometimes, as in his first two books, specifically concerning a murder….

The roman policier aspect might lead us to compare Butor with Robbe-Grillet as another manipulator of object clues within the infinite spaces of a witness' mind before the tribunal. Yet, Léon Delmont's prise de conscience is not that of a direct, unlimited consciousness. On the contrary, it is important to note that in the role of vous, he is, as Butor writes, "the one to whom his own story is told." The distinction with the role of witness is essential. If the equivalent of an investigating inspector or prosecutor is speaking, the accent is on the positive quest for the truth rather than on the debilitating first-person confession or third-person detachment. Robbe-Grillet tries to deny in theory both subjectivity and objectivity and thus creates a void filled only by the negatively inspired imagination resulting from this dual distrust. In contrast, Butor plays upon positive elements of both sides in a reconstruction according to Socratic method….

Butor's interest in Faulkner springs not from the theme of the impotent voyeur which has often attracted French critics, but rather from a particular process of narration [which relates those events obscure or forgotten]….

The French author may have abandoned the standard monologue technique because of the artifice which the pretense of immediacy forces upon the author, otherwise shutting off the possibilities of exchange…. Nevertheless, his solution is familiarly Faulknerian…. (p. 178)

[We see Butor] tending toward the dialogue of a whole group … with the resulting aim of depersonalization: "… disassociate more and more that notion [the general problem of personality] from that of the physical individual, and interpret it as a function occurring within a mental and social milieu, in an interval of dialogue." The entire predicament of the literary imagination is, like Butor's non-character, "in communication with an immense historical fissure," and the search for equilibrium cannot be conducted with the limitations and security of traditional aesthetics. (p. 179)

John K. Simon, "Perception and Metaphor in the 'New Novel'," in Tri-Quarterly, (© 1965 by Tri-Quarterly), No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 153-82.∗

Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters

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Michel Butor sees history as a dynamic force which plays a vital role in the shaping of the present. In his works he sets out to challenge the prevalent assumption of stasis and to teach us … how to recognize the patterns which render comprehensible the evolving body of complex material at our disposal….

[One] of the central motifs in Butor's world is that of the museum or art gallery. For Butor … a collection is not a body of petrified works from another age; it is, rather a power source where the past crosses into the present. If we consider a selection of his writings we shall quickly become aware of the importance of the museum as a pivotal structure in every aspect of his work; it is to be found in his criticism, his poetic texts, his fiction, and his drama. Not only does Butor incorporate existing galleries into his texts, but he creates different kinds of museums for himself all the time. (p. 62)

If we concern ourselves … with the usual sort of gallery—that which contains work by artists and artisans—we find that Butor offers us three distinct kinds in his work, plus a discussion of the concept of the museum as he sees it. First, and most obviously, there is the presentation within a piece of fiction of an apparently ordinary museum—a building containing artworks and artifacts: Bleston Museum in L'Emploi du temps and the castles in Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe are the most developed examples. These may be termed the descriptive galleries. Secondly, there are the critical galleries in which Butor explains to us his understanding of the paintings he has chosen to display: these are Répertoire III and Répertoire IV (incorporating Les Mots dans la peinture). Thirdly, come the imaginative galleries—the volumes of Illustrations in which the reader must recreate for himself the absent images, from the basis provided by the text…. (p. 63)

[The] contents of [the Bleston Museum in L'Emploi du temps] could be that of any museum-art gallery of a British industrial town—but if we follow the indications Butor gives us and look at the function of the gallery within the novel, we realize that we are dealing with something a little more complex than a piece of realistic description: the origins and development of Western Europe are laid out for us, and we are taught how to profit from the information offered. Butor has selected exhibits from the major societies which influenced the development of modern Europe, and each chosen fragment illustrates the most important aspect of the civilization it represents…. (pp. 63-4)

We see the exhibits as products of their surroundings—the tapestries, like Revel, are imported from France—and we realize how much influence the past has on the present and the future for the last two rooms of the museum are in some ways Revel's future. We are shown that museums contain the past, render it stable and so more comprehensible than before, but still they express a dynamic sense of questing for greater understanding because of the continual addition of new objects to the collection.

Thus Butor sets up, as early as 1957, the concept of a museum as a place of individual enrichment and growth within a social context. In the next ten years he mentions museums from time to time in his writing … but does not develop the idea himself until 1967 when he situates Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe within the walls of Harburg Castle. Here we are dealing with an existent museum and library and a person who grows visibly as a result of his experiences within them. The young Butor studies the objects around him in conjunction with the books available and thus travels back through the history of the castle in order to understand its situation in the outside world and his own position in relation to the cultural pattern he has discovered. (pp. 64-5)

Throughout Portrait, contemplative and worldly ways of life are constantly juxtaposed. The calm figures of sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider and the coquettish saints of Veit Stoss are found side by side, and the fine altarpiece painted by Bernard Strigel incorporates a similar contrast, for when open it displays scenes of the life of Saint Anne, and closed it shows portraits of a worldly pair, Simon de Montfort and his wife, the Princess von Oettingen. (p. 66)

[The] sources of Butor's own development were drawn from a real museum-library in which he recognized the significant elements. A year after the publication of Portrait, the author produced a different kind of museum, one in which he displayed his own exhibits selected and arranged as he wished; this was Répertoire III. It is in the arrangement of the essays in this book that its claim to the title of gallery becomes clear. Répertoire III opens and closes with a piece of theoretical criticism, the second and third pieces are concerned with the historical and geographical power of a site, the two before the last with an art exhibition and opera, while the main body of the work consists of a number of essays on literature and art. The individual works are seen in a widening context, and again, text and plastic art are presented as two facets of the expression of similar experience. The essays are in chronological order from Hans Holbein to Mark Rothko and present a certain picture of the civilization of Western Europe. (p. 68)

[Museums are] collaborative structures of a certain type where the experience of the past is selected, accumulated deliberately, and arranged in a manner as clear and overtly didactic as possible. Their function in Butor's fictional writings does not differ from the role of his volumes of criticism. In each case we must learn what the collection has to offer and then put our learning into practice in our lives.

Language, art, and artifact are intimately linked for Butor as we have seen. In Les Mots dans la peinture he considers the role of words within a painting and around it; whether these were included by the artist or imposed by someone else, they extend the meaning of the visual image and add precision to it. The chosen words dictate, by their position and form, the relative importance given to features of the work itself. Above all, Butor considers that the words are part of a dialogue within the context of the work. In his own writing, quotation of titles, names, or passages of text serves a similar purpose, differentiation of typeface attracts our attention, and the content of the quotation then supplies us with necessary information, creating new possibilities by juxtaposition within the book or extension beyond it. So Butor puts works of art into his writings, writes about works of art, and finally, writes about words incorporated into and in close relationship with paintings.

It is quite evident that words and images, texts and objects are inseparable in Butor's world. They have a constant and intimate link one with the other as two ways of transmitting understanding and experience. Sometimes, however, they are separated as they were in Répertoire III or, in another way, in Illustrations. Butor believes that individual works of art are also the fruit of collaboration, conscious or unconscious, between the creator in question and his surrounding culture—hence it is not surprising that he has frequently worked together with artists to create books which are the mutual expression of a shared experience. (pp. 70-1)

[The museum in L'Arc] has a very special function because it spells out the role of the museum in any process of development. In L'Arc, No. 39, Butor has created a schema in which he situates the interests and themes dispersed throughout his other books in their true relationship to each other. The museum thus takes its place after Arts et Métiers—in which we look at individual skill and desire to create—and Sites, where these skills have been used in collaboration to establish vital centers expressive of a civilization's concept of its position in the larger plan. Once things have been created, then they can be collected. Musées is to be found in the center of L'Arc's design because it is the pivot between past and present. After it the historical symmetry continues with the collaborative and personal expressions of experience offered by Spectacles and Livres. (And here we find once more the plan outlined for Répertoire III: criticism, sites, the gallery of pictures, theater, and Répertoire itself as the book.) The museum is the link between living man and his context and as such must continually adapt to the shifting relationships between them. To do so, it must constantly attract and encompass new objects which will take their places within it, sometimes forcing a reorganization of its total structure, and which will enable it to describe even more fully the world it is struggling to represent. (pp. 72-3)

[Butor] collects elements of the past, assembles them in such a way that they reveal themselves more clearly as a collectivity than any one fragment could alone, and from this resultant interaction comes a stimulus to new creation. The key to any worthwhile museum lies in the arrangement of its exhibits. Butor's writing has always had a museum structure—the galleries he incorporates within his books are there for themselves, are there as guides within the individual volumes and, above all, as symbols of the whole. Musées is at the center of L'Arc because L'Arc is a schema of Butor's concept of his world. The museum is the point where past and future meet; it is the dynamic force of the present. (p. 74)

Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters, "Butor's Museums," in Contemporary Literature (© 1977 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 62-74.

George Craig

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Michel Butor's explicit re-working of dreams began with Matière de rêves. That has now become the general title, and Second sous-sol is Volume 2. But it is more than a matter of arithmetic. If there are, once again, five dreams with a common formal structure, and even deliberate echoes of the first collection, it is soon apparent that here we are to be plunged much deeper into the stuff of dreams. Where, before, there was an "I" to whom things occurred—adventures, memories, fears, desires—"I" now is simply the name of that which moves through continual, rapid and total change; identity is as far away at the end as at the beginning. Where, in the first series, the private world of family recurred as a reassuringly secure base, it too is now no more than names attached to uncertain presences which flit erratically through the pages.

There can, one might say, be a strong and a weak reason for a shift of this order. According to the strong, M Butor would, both as dreamer and as author, be free to explore these wild and whirling worlds in the certain expectation of an "I": he has, after all, dreamt—and survived the experience; he is a writer with a family; and he can count on his readers' consent. Moreover, on this reckoning, his attempt to find a formal equivalent for the early, chaotic stages of dream-work would be bold and admirable.

The weak reason runs very differently. This way round, M Butor would be drawing illicitly … on the well-attested extravagance of dream processes; and specifically on condensation and displacement.

What is clear is that the insistent challenge of the text makes some kind of resolution indispensable; for here, unlike the world of Surrealist painting …, there is the heavy pressure of duration. Startling images, quotations, memories checkable and uncheckable, private truths or fictions, grandiloquence and irony flood the pages. The dreams end as strange and dark as they began, but the narrating voice moves confidently on, as if its unchallengeable task were to recount everything that makes up a person, from visceral quiverings to the inflections of sentiment and the consciousness of received culture. Then again, the formulaic transitional phrases, which provided such a powerful formal ordering in the first series, have themselves grown in number and density to a point where they form an alternative verbal world to that of the episodes; in one dream, indeed—the central one—taking over from them. No longer do they serve as mere decipherable indicators; rather they claim the autonomy, and the function, of musical motifs in large-scale orchestration….

Within the episodes, by contrast, it is not these outer or conceptual realities which matter. Here the emphasis is on images of incompleteness, disintegration, expulsion and reincorporation—grotesque foetal journeyings across amniotic seas, imaging the double desire of humans for infinite safety and infinite adventure. And sure enough, since this is no abstract exercise, there appear, here and there through the mass of words, autobiographical hints….

Second sous-sol really does take us further down and in, but for all the local brilliance and the occasional poignancy of these "cris manuscrits", it is hard not to feel that M Butor's conscious mind is hoping to impose order on what can never be ordered, since it is itself the source of all ordering. The dominant colour given to each dream remains arbitrary, as does any attempt to render in a single idiom "cet enfer stylistique".

George Craig, "Deep in the Dream-Stuff," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3941, October 7, 1977, p. 1159.


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Butor's narratives characteristically begin with the isolation of his protagonist in one of two ways. The main character is most often cut off from his native milieu and set adrift in a foreign culture (L'Emploi du temps, La Modification, Portrait d'artiste en jeune singe, Mobile, 6.810.000 litres d'eau par seconde). In other instances, he is cut off within his own society by social stigma (Passage de Milan) or by the pressures of his work as a writer (Degrés). Separation prepares Butor's protagonists for the "initiatory ordeal par excellence": the descent into the underworld. This trial, seen most clearly in the references to Theseus, Orpheus, Aeneas, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead in the novels, is endured, either literally or metaphorically, by all of Butor's heroes. (p. 7)

The models which all Butor's protagonists seek to emulate are Aeneas, Léon Delmont's hero in La Modification, and Adoniram, the Nervalian figure who appears in Butor's Beethoven Dialogue. These mythic champions descend to the center of the earth to meet their ancestors and learn from them the secrets of the past and the future. Butor's characters seek that visionary moment when chronology is broken and time becomes spatial: significant but forgotten moments are juxtaposed, and their relationship to each other and the present is understood….

It is in the context of this ritual pattern of withdrawal, initiation, and return that the unique temporal rhythm of Butor's narratives is best understood. (p. 8)

It is significant, in addition, that Butor terminates his narratives in times of darkness. The narratives that occur over one or several days most often end in the early morning hours. Those works based on the unity of the year usually conclude in the waning light of autumn or in winter. Butor ends the voyage in darkness and compels his readers to continue on their own….

The descent into the past can never be a nostalgic return to a comfortable tradition which then becomes the center of our lives. On the contrary, it is often an unmasking of our fraudulent ideas about the past, forcing a reevaluation of our present situation. (p. 10)

There is always an ironic gap between Butor's protagonists and their mythic models: Jacques Revel [of L'Emploi du temps] is not Theseus, nor is Léon Delmont Aeneas. For them to be so and for their quest to succeed fully would require that our civilization indeed have a center, a notion effectively contradicted by all of Butor's narratives. (p. 11)

[The title of Passage de Milan] refers both to the Parisian street in which the principal characters reside and to the passing of the kite, or milan, symbol of the Egyptian god Horus. The title thus directs our attention to the novel's main theme, the meeting of modern Paris and ancient Egypt. (p. 12)

The novel's principal narrative movement is to merge the worlds of Paris and Egypt, both in the characters' conscious and in their unconscious lives. (p. 14)

Egypt functions in the novel as a contrasting surface against which the peculiar features of contemporary Western society can better be seen. (p. 17)

[An] idea that is absolutely central to Butor's historical explorations [is that], paradoxically, the descent into the past … opens the future. Freed from the limiting perspective of the present we discover new ways of thinking and living that we can use as we plan tomorrow…. Butor structures his novel in such a manner that the descent into the mythic past and the discussion of the future occur simultaneously. (p. 20)

Revel frequently describes his exploration of Bleston and our modern culture in terms suggesting an archeological excavation…. This archeological metaphor focuses our attention on the novel's central purposes. Butor is, first of all, interested in exploring, not just the year of a Frenchman in a modern city, but also the cultural forces that lie buried within that city and our civilization (pp. 22-3)

L'Emploi du temps discusses not only the contents of our past but the way in which this past can be explored. The French title refers, first, to the schedule or the organization of Revel's time; it also refers to the use of time, the way which the past can be employed to illuminate the present and orient the future. (pp. 28-9)

Our relationship to the past and responsibility for the present are in L'Emploi du temps conceived in terms considerably more complex than those of Passage de Milan. Louis Lécuyer's liberation from the apartment building and his new beginnings in Egypt are bestowed on him accidentally. To be sure, the simultaneous parallels between his real voyage and his uncle's imagined voyages suggest a relationship between their failures and his success; but his escape occurs, nonetheless, through no conscious effort of his own toward freedom. Jacques Revel's movement toward understanding results, however, from his own dogged probing of his and Bleston's past. The limited point of view and long, tortuous sentences of L'Emploi du temps join our minds to Revel's, forcing us to experience his laborious struggle for consciousness. The tools to understand the past and direct the future are placed in our own hands. (p. 31)

While exploring Bleston's Old Cathedral, Jacques Revel discovers two significant and provocative windows portraying two versions of Rome. Butor's third novel, La Modification, might be taken as a reconstruction and an enlargement of these windows and their themes: the relations between classical and Christian Rome. (p. 32)

The ancient Mediterranean civilizations represent a golden age to Butor's heroes because of the full and open acceptance of man's senses and instincts that they represent. Christianity destroyed this primitive innocence by burdening man with its taboos and guilt. Art and religion serve no longer to "deify our instincts, but to terrify them." (p. 33)

[Delmont's psyche] is a microcosm of his culture: we find in it a mixture of the same contradictory motives and pressures which we have been discussing. At the moment when he believes himself most liberated, Léon is, in fact, acting in a typically bourgeois manner. (pp. 37-8)

Butor's novel is about several different "modifications." A seemingly insignificant rupture of Delmont's usual pattern, the shift from first-class to third-class train accommodations, has important effects. Similarly, the fact that Delmont's trip is made outside the habitual rhythm of his business trips also has its consequences: freed from the commercial concerns that usually distract him from his deeper anxieties, Delmont is forced to confront the truth about the contradictions in his life. Thus, inadvertent physical changes in Delmont's routine help precipitate the larger moral change in the direction of his life. Delmont might well have heeded the warning printed within his compartment …: it is indeed dangerous to lean outside. But there is another modification which is even more crucial in reorienting Delmont's life, the change in the way he sees his past, present, and future.

Delmont's view of time at the novel's outset is symbolized by the railroad timetable which he carries as he boards his train. According to the timetable's linear schema, Paris and Rome exist at opposite ends of a long, black line separated by hundreds of miles of track and hours of travel time. As Delmont proceeds down this line he believes that he is leaving the past, symbolized by Paris at one end, irrevocably behind and moving towards a glorious future, symbolized by Rome, at the other end. The novel recounts events occurring over seventeen years in Delmont's life. As long as these events are kept in their proper linear sequence, separated by many years, Delmont's tranquil optimism is assured. But this one-dimensional model is inadequate: at any point on this straight line he carries countless memories of the past and plans for the future with him. During the course of the present voyage, Delmont recalls or imagines numerous other past or projected trips along the same tracks. These past voyages refuse to rest quietly; they break out of their normal sequence and enter into new relationships with other past events and the present, forcing a new ordering of the future. La Modification records a profound shift in Delmont's way of viewing his earlier life and brilliantly demonstrates the dialectical relationship of past and future.

Time in the novel is organized in seven temporal layers: the present, Delmont's projected hopes for the future, and five sequences of memories from the past. Beneath all of these is the even deeper level of repressed anxieties expressed in Delmont's dreams…. Delmont's dreams, incorporating details from Vergil, Dante, and Michelangelo and projecting his deepest anxieties, interpenetrate several of these levels. (pp. 38-9)

Butor's basic purposes [in Degrés] are the same as in his earlier novels. Pierre Vernier, the Parisian lycée instructor who is the novel's protagonist, shares with Jacques Revel and Léon Delmont the desire to organize and explain the culture in which he lives. He intends to unify the many activities of his lycée students in a single book and, by so doing, to provide a kind of summa of our civilization. The book is written for Pierre Eller, Vernier's nephew and pupil. Vernier hopes that by organizing the chaotic mass of learning surrounding Eller he will provide him and his classmates with a "new awareness" of themselves and their culture. (p. 45)

Revel and Delmont, although they have definite individual characteristics, are intended as representative products of modern Western European culture. In Degrés this broad historical portraiture moves even more explicitly to the foreground. The number of characters is substantially increased over the two preceding novels to strengthen the novel's intent to represent an entire society. Even more important (and more disorienting for traditional readers) are the extensive quotations from the authors and manuals studied in the lycée. (pp. 45-6)

The extraordinary nature of this book, a unique marriage of the novel and a pedagogical compendium, dictates a special methodology. Butor has organized the quoted materials musically, creating themes which reverberate and modulate throughout the novel…. (p. 46)

Degrés differs significantly from Butor's earlier novels. La Modification succeeded brilliantly in presenting a psychologically complex and interesting protagonist, but this success was, in a sense, a failure if readers saw only this individual and not the larger cultural problems he was meant to represent. The characters of Degrés share our attention with the literary, scientific, and popular texts which here replace the earlier novels' artworks as Butor's principal cultural data. The primary repository of our cultural identity has, since Gutenberg, been the printed page and the library. Butor realizes that if he wishes to change our understanding of our culture he must change our understanding of the texts upon which it is based. (p. 54)

Degrés also differs in its narrative point of view. Butor regretted that the omniscient perspective of Passage de Milan distanced the reader from the problems described. The first person narration in L'Emploi du temps joins the reader directly to the protagonist's fevered mind as he struggles toward awareness. La Modification's accusatory second person narration simultaneously addresses Léon Delmont and the reader. Degrés continues this search for a perspective that will transform the reader's passivity into active involvement. Pierre Vernier intends his book as a guide for his young nephew, and, in the first section, he often addresses his young pupil-reader directly in the second-person "tu" form. The second section, seeking to view problems from the pupil's perspective, uses Pierre Eller's first-person account. Vernier wishes to involve his young student directly, but as we soon discover, this involvement is a sham. Eller has not spoken in the second section; rather Vernier has simply continued the narrative in his nephew's name. Eller, who has never been allowed to do more than spy and report on his friends, becomes disillusioned and breaks with his uncle. This break upsets Vernier emotionally, cuts off his information, and contributes significantly to his failure and physical collapse.

The death of this pedagogue-author-narrator is enormously significant not only in this novel but in Butor's work as a whole. It reveals, as we have seen, the impossibility of a single modern figure embracing the whole of his culture in the way that Rabelais was able to do in the Renaissance. More important in the present context, it reveals Butor's disenchantment with the notion of the author who, through a narrator-surrogate within his work, delivers us a neat lesson…. Butor dramatizes the tensions within our civilization by contrasting key texts and events. By leaving these tensions unresolved he encourages our own active consideration of these problems.

It is significant that Vernier's supposedly multiple point of view becomes truly multiple only after his death when Henri Jouret takes up the narrative. The novel begins with the pedagogue confidently ascending his podium and ends with his death and the words "who speaks?" If the novel has been successful, we have heard the voices speaking within our culture and are now prepared to make our own contribution to the discussion. The unique structure of Degrés is of a piece with its themes, for by means of it Butor seeks to rekindle the Renaissance capacities to discover and question. Butor's subsequent works will explore even more aggressively the "open narrative." Degrés, Butor's last novel, anticipates, both thematically and structurally, the experimental American texts that follow it. (pp. 55-6)

With Degrés, his last novel, Butor completed the general outlines of his survey of Europe's cultural roots: Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance. And yet there remained a number of significant lacunae which he would attempt to fill with two additional European texts: Description de San Marco (1963) and Portrait d'artiste en jeune singe (1967). Although these books were published during the same period as his first two American texts, they belong thematically in the European world of the novels…. (p. 57)

At first glance, Description de San Marco bears a striking resemblance to Mobile (1962), the American text that it followed by a year: the same juxtaposition of different texts, margins, and types. On a deeper level, however, the structure more closely resembles that of L'Emploi du temps. Butor's second novel consists of five chapters, the first and last of which are entitled "L'Entrée" and "L'Adieu." They describe Jacques Revel's gradual penetration of Bleston's mysteries, an exploit patterned on Theseus' tracing of the Cretan labyrinth. Description also consists of five chapters, "La Façade," "Le Vestibule," "L'Intérieur," and so forth, which chart Butor's progress into the heart of this basilica aided by an Ariadne's thread of texts and images inscribed on its walls and ceiling. This architectural masterpiece provides lessons similar to those which Jacques Revel reads in Bleston's monuments. Like the Old Cathedral, San Marco recounts the relations between several peoples and several epochs. (p. 58)

Portrait d'artiste en jeune singe (1967) followed Description de San Marco by four years. The book recounts Butor's trip to Bavaria in the summer of 1950, but its flyleaf informs us that this excursion was "also a voyage in time: the eighteenth century was barely drawing to a close in several isolated areas of this region, the twilight of the Holy Roman Empire." (pp. 60-1)

Butor has long been fascinated by this epoch and, in particular, by the alchemical studies it nurtured…. The goal of the alchemical quest was a single work, a "super book" which would unite and explain all reality, physical and spiritual, within a single coherent system.

This quest for an all-encompassing book must surely have struck a responsive chord in Butor; his protagonists—Revel, Delmont, and Vernier—all seek to organize their lives through literature. Butor saw in alchemy an effort to reconcile or transcend the polarity that plagued such characters…. The alchemical synthesis also includes Butor's temporal dialectics of past and future…. Alchemy thus stands as a symbol of Butor's own artistic activity, and this account of his education as an alchemical "monkey" is also the story of his beginnings as an artist. (p. 61)

Both Portrait and Degrés are the stories of an education, and both combine narrative with extensive quotations from the works studied. But the types of education and the texts studied are utterly different in these two books. The educational program of Degrés emphasizes French literature, the Renaissance, and science. The Middle Ages, except for a passing reference to Dante, scarcely appear. Gargantua's letter to Pantagruel, a key text in these lessons, is a joyous cry of relief that the medieval night has finally ended. Portrait, on the other hand, is a kind of "contre-Degrés"; the emphasis is on Germany and Hungary, the Middle Ages, and alchemy. In contrast to the Lycée Taine's sterile positivism, Portrait proposes a program of richly imaginative works. Butor's extracurricular reading list includes the alchemists and a whole tradition of literary fantasy—Jules Verne, H. P. Lovecraft, and science fiction—usually excluded from serious academic programs. Pierre Vernier's pupils, who surreptitiously retreat into fantasy and science fiction, hunger for precisely such a corrective to the traditional curriculum.

Degrés describes the destruction of an artist; Portrait describes the making of an artist. Butor is fully aware of what demons as well as what beauties lie within the irrational and the unconscious, but, like the surrealists, he knows that the true artist must tap these forces and include them if he is to provide a genuine synthesis of our culture. The descent into this darkness has in Butor's case been efficacious. (p. 64)

[Butor's fascination with the United States] is easily understood, for America is especially valuable to a writer seeking to grasp both the past and the future. American history, in its earliest stages, was largely the story of the transplanting of European institutions, values, and vices in the new soil. (p. 66)

The purpose [of Mobile (1962)] is to understand the American mobiles, the motives and drives which cause Americans to act as they do. These answers can be found only by digging into the American and European past. (pp. 66-7)

Mobile differs strikingly from Butor's earlier works. There are no characters or plot in the traditional sense; instead we find fifty chapters, each devoted to one of the fifty states, which provide an abundance of descriptive and interpretive material about this country. (p. 67)

Mobile, like Butor's other narratives, is organized around the temporal unities and the rhythms of light and darkness that they encompass. (p. 68)

The reader may enter the text at any point and read in any direction, but; if he reads the entire text, he must inevitably submit himself to these fundamental day-night rhythms. The reader is now the protagonist and, like Jacques Revel and Léon Delmont, must undergo the initiatory ordeal of the descent into darkness. (p. 69)

The Niagara text [6.810.000 litres d'eau par seconde (1965)] might be seen as an enlargement of a detail from Mobile: an in-depth exploration of a single place which Butor believes to be of considerable importance for understanding America. (p. 75)

The book is organized around the rhythms of the year. Twelve chapters each describe one month in Niagara's year, beginning in April and ending in March. The narrative includes three physical descents into the Niagara gorge, all with ritualistic overtones….

For Butor, the falls represent not only nature's majestic power but its profanation…. Mobile has already shown the vulgarity of American resorts like Freedomland, but the contrast of such ugliness with one of the planet's most impressive natural wonders renders this vulgarity even more offensive. (p. 78)

Butor offers a daring explanation of American commercial and industrial vulgarity; it results directly from America's failure to meet the wilderness's challenge…. Niagara Falls is one of the ugliest places in North America precisely because it is one of the most beautiful. The seductive power of this natural spectacle is too great; since it cannot be destroyed or hidden, it must be defaced. (pp. 78-9)

The subtitle of Ou,—Le Génie du lieu, 2—links this book to the collection of travel essays, Le Génie du lieu, published in 1958. The earlier volume describes those places which occupied Butor's attention during the novelistic phase of his career: Egypt, Greece, Italy, and Spain. This more recent book chronicles the non-European world upon which Butor has focused in the last decade and a half. Ou is a composite work formed of individual narrative and poetic units written and published during the period 1959–71. Created for a variety of different situations and purposes, these pieces have been reworked to form a narrative unity. (p. 85)

The narrative units and the poems describe parallel struggles: the former recounts a physical voyage to the center of the American, Indian wilderness, the latter, the artist's effort to capture the essence of that landscape in words. The poems are penetrated and colored by the narrative journey they punctuate; echoes from the Book of Mormon and Zuni ceremonies appear in these lyrics. Like the prose sections, they record a ritual homage. (p. 92)

On the one hand, [Butor's analyses of American culture] overflow with an abundance of sociological, ethnographical and even botanical and zoological data. On the other, we are constantly aware that this material has been carefully shaped by a distinctive personal vision. The apparent randomness of Mobile conceals a very deliberate thematic and structural design. The main elements of this design, moreover, resemble elements we have seen earlier in the European texts. The author's own face gradually emerges within his American landscape, first as the anonymous French visitor to Niagara and then explicitly as the protagonist of Ou. (p. 93)

Butor necessarily strengthens certain themes to create structural girders that will give his American texts internal coherence and join them to his other works. Butor's American trilogy, despite the radical heterogeneity of its materials, achieves these goals admirably. It extends Butor's historical schema into the modern American Age and presents a remarkably comprehensive view of our culture. The first volume provides an overview and reveals the contradictory pressures contending within the American psyche. The second book, situated in the Northeast, focuses primarily on the white European's commercialism, while the third, located at the opposite, Southwestern end of the country, explores the darker forces of native American culture. Butor's three American texts, taken as a group, provide us with an unusually imaginative, and technically innovative portrait of contemporary America. (p. 94)

Intervalle might well have been subtitled La Modification II. The idea must surely have occurred to the author of the Répertoire and Illustrations series, for Intervalle seems a conscious attempt to return, in 1973, to the situation and themes of Butor's most famous novel. Like Léon Delmont, Marc, a middle-aged Parisian trapped by his bourgeois family, dreams of beginning a new life with Adrienne, a young widow he encounters on a train trip. They meet, privately consider escaping to Venice, and then part and return to their monotonous lives. La Modification reveals the magnetic attraction of Rome in the life of the modern European; Intervalle, the mythic power of Venice. Both books unmask an uncritical submission to these myths as forms of self-evasion. While the earlier book focuses on this dilemma's cultural roots in the past, Intervalle explores its contemporary context and tries to provide an opening on a future free of such self-deception. (p. 95)

The failure of these would-be lovers is … rooted in the historic cultural problems with which we are familiar from other Butor texts. But more than for any previous characters, Marc and Adrienne's situation is embedded in a concrete contemporary political and social context. (p. 98)

Intervalle is a book about travel in which no one moves. It restates and amplifies one of the main themes of La Modification: the denunciation of the naive equation, travel = change. Léon Delmont mistakenly equates a mere physical reorientation, the substitution of Rome for Paris, with moral and intellectual modification. The physical voyage, as Butor has shown us so often, can and should be the occasion for a deeper voyage of self-discovery; but, in many cases, it is simply an excuse for self-evasion. Delmont finally realizes that his attempt to flee his problems was foolish and that the only true change is of one's consciousness. Marc's and Adrienne's travel plans are doomed for the same reasons, although they are only dimly aware of this fact at the book's conclusion. (p. 99)

Butor wishes not only to describe our dilemma but also to find an entry into a solution. The key in this instance resides in the redirection of those energies wasted by escapist reverie toward a forthright examination of the problem. The voyage and literature both play crucial roles in this exploration. Traveling, reading, and writing are for Butor closely related activities. His trips are, as we have seen, essentially the deciphering of a site or series of sites, an act of reading, which then becomes the subject of an act of writing. Our reading of the resulting text enables us to share the initial voyage and discovery. Butor hopes that changing the ways we read his book, a text, will also change the ways we read our cultural situation, our context. This is more than merely sympathetic magic: both activities require the substitution of a free and creative intelligence for the passive evasion of self-awareness. (pp. 100-01)

Intervalle's fictional space expands not only outward but inward, exploring the creative consciousness of its author. Butor deliberately breaks the mimetic illusion and reminds us that the text is an artifact, the creation of human intelligence. (pp. 101-02)

The expansion of the fictional space of Intervalle is made possible by Butor's treatment of the book's physical space. The book's unorthodox typography permits the juxtaposition of its many different elements: Nerval, newspapers, Butor's journals, and the story of Marc and Adrienne…. The book's unusual physical format also serves the further purpose of interrupting the eye in its journey, deliberately sullying the mythical whiteness to which we would retreat. The reader's eye must travel up and down, backwards and forward, in order to make the necessary connections. No reading of Intervalle is possible other than an active and a creative one.

Intervalle, of all Butor's texts since Degrés, is the work which most resembles a novel. There are characters and a romantic intrigue in many ways like that of La Modification. But these similarities with La Modification set in relief important differences, such as textual collage and the exploration of electronic media, and remind us of the distance Butor has traveled in the postnovelistic phase of his career. La Modification contested the linear notion of time, but it did so within the traditional notion of the book; Intervalle contests the linear notion of the book as well.

The goal, as always for Butor, is greater human awareness and freedom. Butor remains hopeful of a future when there will be "neither soldiers nor nuns, nor a waiting room at Lyon-Perrache." If such a day arrives it will be because the book, transformed by experiments such as these, "will in some way have contributed to the abolition of today's horrors." (p. 102)

Butor's interest in the future … has asserted itself with particular strength in the last seven years…. Intervalle raises the hope of a better future and explicitly reminds us that literature will play a substantial role in its creation. These speculations raise two important questions: what shape would Butor have the future take, and how can literature hasten the arrival of this new society?

The specific contents of the future which Butor would wish for us are not spelled out in the same detail as his historical schema of the past, but we can outline a number of key ideas about the future. First, man must be liberated from those forces which presently suppress and divide him. The primary sources of division and repression within our culture have been identified in Butor's earlier texts: they are capitalism and Christianity. (pp. 102-03)

Butor would awaken his audience both intellectually and sensuously. Dulled by centuries of Cartesian rationalism, literature has ceased to be a sensuous experience for us. We no longer see or hear the word; it has become a transparent symbol through which we pass toward a concept. Butor wishes to restore to literature the visual beauty of the illuminated manuscript and the music of oral poetry. (p. 106)

Butor's futurological speculations both on the structure of society and on its literature are vague and suggestive rather than detailed and programmatic: they are intended as stimuli for further thought and experimentation. We note many of the same qualities in the future projected here and in the classic Mediterranean and Indian cultures excavated earlier. The ancient Golden Age and the future Utopia function in the same way for Butor: both ideal societies, equally unattainable in our present world and situated at opposite ends of history, serve as valuable background surfaces against which we can view and judge the present. (p. 107)

For Butor, the writer's relationship to the literary tradition is one of both continuity and discontinuity….

One is immediately struck in surveying Butor's cultural inventory by its remarkable depth and breadth. He has unearthed a whole series of different levels beneath our present civilization: ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, medieval Germany, the Renaissance, and the Age of Discovery, etc. Note also the geographical range: Europe, North Africa, and America…. Butor's nearest rivals in historical and geographical ambition are Joyce and Pound, whose Finnegans Wake and Cantos include materials from an astonishing range of periods and areas. But merely to mention Joyce and Pound is also to set in relief a striking contrast between Butor and his predecessors. Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance come to us in Finnegans Wake and the Cantos in broker, often barely recognizable fragments, brilliant and beautiful, but dead. Butor, on the other hand, has painstakingly separated each layer, joined broken shards, and attempted to resurrect the essential genius of each of these cultures. Most of his narratives focus on a single area, penetrate to its heart, and seek to draw its past into a fruitful relationship with today. The modernist epics, on the other hand, tend to jumble the flotsam and jetsam of many places in a single, dazzling, but bewildering work.

These different approaches point up the fact that Butor imagines the past in a way fundamentally different from that of his modernist ancestors. (p. 112)

Butor has replaced the two-dimensional historical model (a straight line, ascending or descending) with a three-dimensional one: the globe with different historical thicknesses at different points. Time becomes a function of space….

Butor's attitudes toward the future contrast even more sharply with those of the modernists than do his attitudes towards the past…. Butor can face the future … cheerfully because of his confidence in our ability to use the past as we consciously shape our future. His different perspective also results from his ability to see the new technology, which the modernists feared as a force menacing humane culture, as a tool which can preserve and enrich the best of the past. (p. 114)

Mobile, one of Butor's most experimental works, bears the subtitle "a study for the representation of the United States."… There is in this subtitle, as well as in Ou's Sandia Mountain poems and in Intervalle's autocritique, a recognition of the tentative, problematic character of any attempt to match words to external reality. Mobile is not realistic in any naive sense: it strenuously challenges our traditional notions about the way we represent the world to ourselves. The vigorously experimental character of Butor's work, never repeating the same form, each text trying to extend a bit further the power of language to describe our situation in history and society, reveals an anxious awareness of the limitations of language. (pp. 118-19)

Butor has maintained throughout his career a unique double commitment. He chooses, like the great novelists of the past, to focus on man in society and history; at the same time, he seeks to develop structures that will render this situation intelligible to a new age. Past and future, Janus. (p. 119)

Dean McWilliams, in his The Narratives of Michel Butor: The Writer As Janus (copyright © 1978 by Dean McWilliams; reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press, Athens), Ohio University Press, 1978, 150 p.

Anna Otten

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

Michel Butor, in his skillfully written Matière de rêves III, carefully constructs content and form. But here, much more than [in the two previous volumes of the series], he proves himself the master of minute realism as well as of burgeoning fantasy. His work suggests qualities of painting and music. He composes a gigantic canvas on which distant horizons rapidly alternate with the tiniest of shapes, and analogies to reality succeed images of fantasy. In fuguelike counterpoint, philosophical contemplation follows stark satire, the birth of constellations in the night sky comes after the disgusting observation of putrified matter. Yet beyond such polarities lies original unity; death and decomposition are seen within the universal order of life. There is no longer a break between opposites, as in his early works, but a perception of the cyclical nature of matter and man. (p. 70)

Although Butor divides the book into five dreams, which have a certain topical coherence, innumerable threads run through the whole fictional fabric. Intertextuality prevails, as it did in earlier works. Changing perspectives, moods and stylistic and structural devices, repeated thematic fragments and evocative words appear in all five dreams. Words such as germinate, grow, become, burn and decompose reveal the life-death cycle. Echoing Heraclitus. Butor perceives the universe in constant flux. It is change and multiplicity that he wishes to study, not only in the material world but also in the gestalt of man…. Butor moves from a highly limited to an unlimited, totally open, world-embracing perspective. He also moves from the Western emphasis on the individual to the Eastern concept of original oneness.

There is constant oscillation between opposite poles: darklight, soft-hard, ancient-modern, dead-alive, growing-diminishing, moving-immobile, reality-dream…. [Humor] and wordplay inject satire and alternate moods. On every page there are stylistic audacities, unexpected revelations, key words in repetition, great erudition, humor, pertinent allusion, poetic beauty, eloquence and daring visions.

In the last paragraph of the book the narrator states that "you" wish to "capture the total reality" of the world, of which only a small part is known. If this be so, the final word, traces, points back to the beginning of the book, when the narrator was afraid of losing his way—a Way, it seems, that strongly resembles the Tao. (pp. 70-1)

Anna Otten, "French: Matière de rêves III: Troisième dessous," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 70-1.


Butor, Michel (Vol. 11)


Butor, Michel (Vol. 161)