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.
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.
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 write a complete account of one hour at the school for the benefit of his nephew, Pierre Eller, who happens to be a student in his class. Vernier desires to capture every ounce of meaning and consciousness that takes place between the students and faculty, but he soon encounters a problem when he realizes that a tremendous amount of background will be necessary in order to make that hour intelligible. He must know what the students have been doing during the summer, what other classes they had attended or would attend the same day, what was going on simultaneously in the other classrooms, the family backgrounds and problems of teachers and students, and so on.
In the second stage of Butor's writing, his focus shifts to creating poetry and novels in which the individual is fully integrated into his environment. The works are characterized by a chaotic element both in the writing and in the lack of focus on any plot or person. This radical break in form can be seen in Mobile (1962), a nonfiction “novel” in which Butor draws a critical but well-balanced historical view of contemporary America as the land of the free and the not-so-free. The work functions almost as a travelogue of America that blends both the factual and the fictional. Mobile places a strong emphasis on the visual, with blank spaces throughout the text and several different typefaces and types of margins. There is no central subject and no linear plot in the work. The prose is organized state by state according to the alphabet and many critics have debated whether Mobile should actually be called a novel because of its drastic departure from traditional literary structures. 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde (1965; Niagara) has been considered by some to be an outgrowth of Butor's travel writing in Mobile because it is set in Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara is divided into twelve sections corresponding to the months of the year, from April to March. The first section introduces two couples visiting the falls and explores their expectations, hopes, reactions, and memories during their vacation. The text jumps from descriptions of flowers to trinkets in the souvenir shops to other couples visiting the site, exploring the meaning and significance of every facet of the place. The title refers to the amount of water that pours over Niagara Falls every second. Butor juxtaposes how the waters of the Niagara River seem to increase their speed before approaching the precipice with the way that an individual's life appears to accelerate with the approach of death. Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe (1967; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape) is a parody of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which Butor fantasizes about a trip to the castle of Harburg in his youth. The castle is filled with an assortment of texts on alchemy and magic. As Butor reviews the books, he begins contemplating about his own development as an individual artist and wonders if he'll ever become anything more than a mere imitator of art.
In his third career stage, Butor becomes a character in his own work and his writing develops a preoccupation with how he interacts with the world around him. This stage is most notably marked by two different series of works by Butor. The first of these—grouped under the title Le Genie de lieu (1958–92)—is a series of travelogue essay collections which trace Butor's travels to the Mediterranean, Egypt, the United States, Australia, and Asia. Ou (1971), the second volume of the series, is a sophisticated account of Butor's voyages to America and the Far East. The collection addresses several of the essential questions posed by Butor throughout his oeuvre, in particular, the literary expression of creative energy. The work also examines the difficulty of representing the world through literature. The second series Matière de rêves (1975–85)—which can be translated as The Stuff of Dreams—is a five-volume set of novels that explore the complexity of discovering a sense of selfhood through one's own dreams. Butor is once again the protagonist of this series as it relates how his dreams allow him to change into different people and animals. The metamorphoses are often traumatic and Butor finds himself in a variety of compromising situations. His family members have prominent roles in these dreams, but they are joined by an array of fictional characters from several literary traditions, as well as by historical artists and composers. The way Butor structures the text in the Matière de rêves series allow the relationship between the reader and the text to mimic the relationship between the individual and the dream-world within the books.
Reviewers have generally agreed that the hallmark of Butor's work is his creation of an active relationship between the author and the reader. Seda A. Chavdarian has argued, “Butor's books are like hieroglyphs that can be considered for their beauty—the surface plot—or deciphered to provide a much deeper meaning.” Butor's most widely acclaimed novel, La Modification, has been embraced by a number of critics, although it is one of Butor's more traditional works. Reviewers have argued, however, that in La Modification, Butor provides his readers with a storyline and a protagonist with which to identify, but is still able to subvert the traditional genre of the novel from within. Considerable critical disagreement has occurred since the form of Butor's works has become more experimental. Some reviewers have praised his work as an important contribution to the genre of the “New Novel,” while others have questioned the very designation of Butor's later works as “novels.” A chief complaint of these critics has been that Butor's experimental works fail to draw the reader in or engage the reader emotionally because of their lack of traditional characters and plot. Marianne Hirsch has asserted, “The reader who makes his way through a Butor work, as one might walk through a cathedral or a city, a museum or an amusement park, coping with fragmentation and disjunction, contradiction and illogic, is, as Barthes suggests in Le Plaisir du texte, a hero in the adventures of our culture.”