Michel Butor Butor, Michel (Vol. 161)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Michel Butor 1926-

(Full name Michel Marie François Butor) French novelist, poet, essayist, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Butor's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 11, and 15.

Considered one of the New Novelists—a movement in French literature that questioned traditional modes of literary realism—Butor defies easy literary classification because of his disregard for conventional narrative forms. In an attempt to provide his reader with 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 sense of time to create a complex and highly original fictive language. Butor has often been compared to several of the Nouveau Roman authors, including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Phillipe Sollers, and Nathalie Sarraute.

Biographical Information

Butor was born on September 14, 1926, in Mons-en-Baroeul, France, to Emile and Anne Butor. He received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris in 1946 and 1947, respectively. Butor has taught French in Egypt and England and taught philosophy and literature at several universities in France and abroad. As a writer, Butor has focused on novels and poetry and has been greatly influenced by Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce. He has also translated the work of other writers into French. In addition, Butor's belief that different forms of art are intimately connected has led him to make a number of interdisciplinary artistic contributions, including working with surrealist composer Henri Pousseur to create the opera Votre Faust (1968) and supplying text for the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in Illustrations I (1964). He is also the author of numerous essays on music and painting. Butor received the Prix Renaudot for La Modification (1957; A Change of Heart) in 1957.

Major Works

Butor's work proposes to displace the familiar with the new, both in society and the individual. Critics have often loosely divided Butor's career into three stages. The novels from his first stage confront traditional notions of character in modern narratives and work to diminish the typical importance of the protagonist. L'Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time) employs first-person narration and is structured as a memoir of one year in the life of a man named Jacques Revel. The book alternates between Revel's reminiscences of his early days in Bleston, England, his present life, and finally his revelations about what he has discovered upon rereading what he has already written in the journal. La Modification takes place during a train trip from Paris to Rome. The main character, Léon Delmont, is a successful businessman who has a wife and children in Paris and a mistress in Rome. He is travelling to Rome to tell his mistress that he has found a job for her in Paris and he hopes they can live together after he leaves his wife. During the trip, he thinks about how he will leave his family and what his future life will be like. He begins lapsing between daydreams and remembrances, thinking about his past and his regret that he hasn't been able to make his marriage work. The story ends with Delmont deciding that he wants to give his marriage a fresh start and that he won't visit his mistress while he is in Rome. Butor uses second-person narration in the work, with Delmont constantly referring to himself as vous (“you”). His novel Degrés (1960; Degrees ) concerns the various degrees of relationships in a Parisian school among thirty-one students and their eleven professors. The narrative is preoccupied with an examination of the concept of “degrees,” which can refer to the students' academic degrees, degrees of longitude and latitude, or varying degrees of sobriety. The dominant plot revolves around a teacher, Pierre Vernier, who decides to...

(The entire section is 71,658 words.)