Michel Butor Butor, Michel (Vol. 161) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Passage de Milan (novel) 1954

L'Emploi du temps [Passing Time] (novel) 1956

La Modification [A Change of Heart] (novel) 1957

Theorie du champ de la conscience [translator; from The Field of Conscience by Aron Gurwitch] (nonfiction) 1957

*Le Génie du lieu [The Spirit of the Mediterranean] (essays) 1958

Degrés [Degrees] (novel) 1960

Répertoire: Etudes et conferences, 1948–1959 (essays) 1960

Cycle sur neuf gouaches d'Alexandre Calder (poetry) 1962

Mobile: Etude pour une...

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Seda A. Chavadarian (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chavadarian, Seda A. “Images of Chaos in Butor's Mobile, 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde, and Ou.Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 10 (1984): 49–55.

[In the following essay, Chavadarian argues that Butor's Mobile, 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde, and Ou begin with a sense of order, but progressively degenerate into narrative chaos.]

Butor's work contains great agitation and restlessness that invade every sentence. This power is at times either a positive, energetic force or a negative, uncomfortable tension. His books abound in images of birth, fecundity, energetic whirling that are always juxtaposed to those...

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Mary Beth Pringle (essay date fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pringle, Mary Beth. “Butor's Room without a View: The Train Compartment in La Modification.Review of Contemporary Fiction 5, no. 3 (fall 1985): 112–18.

[In the following essay, Pringle contends that the train compartment in Butor's La Modification signifies a “microcosm within a microcosm” and reflects the protagonist's view of and relationship to the larger world.]

Twentieth-century novelists frequently use train compartments to represent microcosms of the worlds through which trains travel; French writers are no exception. In at least one novel by Butor, Gide, and Larbaud,1 and in a film by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a train...

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Seda A. Chavdarian (essay date winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chavdarian, Seda A. “Michel Butor's La Modification: The Revolution from Within.” International Fiction Review 13, no. 1 (winter 1986): 3–7.

[In the following essay, Chavadrian regards Butor as a “literary revolutionary” for playing with narrative conventions within La Modification, arguing that this strategy encourages reader participation while simultaneously challenging the reader's notions of what a novel should be.]

Although Michel Butor has never been a political writer per se, he is very much a literary revolutionary for he believes deeply in the ability of a work of art to change man's place in society or society itself: “Toute...

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Barbara Mason (essay date October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, Barbara. “Imitation and Initiation in the Alchemical Dreams of Butor's Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe.Modern Language Review 81, no. 4 (October 1986): 882–92.

[In the following essay, Mason examines Butor's use of dreams and alchemical symbols in Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe to interpret the artistic experience.]

Returning to the specific interest in alchemy which was made known as early as 1953 with the publication of a review article entitled ‘L'Alchimic et son langage,’ Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe1 written fourteen years later, evokes Michael Butor's experiences as a young man during a...

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Barbara Mason (essay date spring–summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, Barbara. “Whiteness and Writing in Michel Butor's Works: The Example of Christian Dotremont and Beyond.” Dalhousie French Studies 12 (spring–summer 1987): 37–53.

[In the following essay, Mason discusses Butor's preoccupation with “whiteness,” how it manifests itself in his writing, and how Belgian artist Christian Dotremont influenced Butor's work.]

“Toute page blanche est devenue pour moi le ciel de ton regard.”1 Thus Michel Butor writes in a poem-homage, death-monument to the Belgian artist and head of the “COBRA” group, Christian Dotremont. Indeed, some of Butor's most significant pronouncements on the subject of...

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Seda A. Chavdarian (essay date summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chavdarian, Seda A. “Problems of Representation in Butor's Ou.International Fiction Review 14, no. 2 (summer 1987): 100–02.

[In the following essay, Chavdarian interprets Butor's Ou as a discourse on the nature of representation and various forms of creative expression.]

In spite of its tremendous diversity, Michel Butor's work has an underlying current that connects all of it together. While deeply anchored in ethno-cultural and mythological references, his books are attempts to understand and define artistic expression. In his earlier novels, Butor comments on the literary process indirectly through a fictional author, but becomes...

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Elinor S. Miller (essay date fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Elinor S. “Butor's Beautiful Decay.” Romance Notes 29, no. 1 (fall 1988): 61–69.

[In the following essay, Miller analyzes Butor's representations of death and decay, arguing that—while our culture attempts to deny the process of physical decomposition that comes with death—Butor treats decay as a process of reunification between man and nature.]

In Explorations in 1982, Butor published the poem, “L'école des gisants,” which he reprinted intact in Exprès (Envois 2) in 1983, adding only an introductory paragraph. The fourth section of this poem is a grim invitation to join Butor in the exploration of a corpse in the...

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Dominique Jullien (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jullien, Dominique. “Intertextuality as Labyrinth: The Presence of Racine in Michel Butor's L'Emploi du temps.Yale French Studies, no. 76 (1989): 108–24.

[In the following essay, Jullien explores the idea of Racinian intertextuality in L’Emploi du temps.]

Michel Leiris noted that the rigorous construction of La Modification [A Change of Heart] both respects and evades the rules of French classical tragedy.1 The same may be said about the earlier L'Emploi du temps [Passing Time].2 Like the five acts of a tragedy, the five sections of the novel define and design the dramatic progression:...

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Mary Beth Pringle (essay date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pringle, Mary Beth. “Fictions in Fiction: Henriette and Cécile in Michel Butor's A Change of Heart.International Fiction Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1989): 26–31.

[In the following essay, Pringle evaluates La Modification from a feminist perspective, noting that the male protagonist's perceptions of two lead female characters prevents readers from extensively engaging with these characters.]

While over time a novel stays the same, we, its readers, change. Ten years ago as a student, when I first wrote about Michel Butor's La Modification, 1957 (A Change of Heart) my paper differed greatly from the one that follows. In those...

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T. Jefferson Kline (essay date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kline, T. Jefferson. “Degrees of Play in Butor's Degrés.L'Espirit Createur 31, no. 4 (winter 1991): 32–40.

[In the following essay, Kline explores manifestations of the metatextual and the metacultural in Degrés.]

Since its publication thirty years ago, Michel Butor's Degrés has been read primarily as a construction of networks, systems and quotations intended, as the narrator says, to “make reality enter language.” This “univers cité” as Jacques Leenhardt calls it,1 including 135 allusions to 35 different texts as well as references to 86 works of art, would thus be constructed to allow (despite its dislocations and...

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Sally M. Silk (essay date summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Silk, Sally M. “When the Writer Comes Home: Narrative Failure in Butor's La Modification.Style 26, no. 2 (summer 1992): 270–86.

[In the following essay, Silk challenges Butor's critics who view La Modification as a narrative of self-emergence, arguing instead that the narrative voice remains disembodied—“beyond hope of being recuperated”—even at the end of the novel.]

Look around you. Don’t we all have one foot in the air? We all look as though we are traveling. No one has a definite sphere of existence; no one has proper habits; there are no rules for anything; there is no home base.


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Michel Butor and Martine Reid (interview date 29 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Butor, Michel, and Martine Reid. “Bricolage: An Interview with Michel Butor.1Yale French Studies, no. 84 (1994): 17–26.

[In the following interview, Butor discusses the compartmentalization of the arts and his writing process.]

[Reid]: If I have been eager to interview you and to place this interview as the lead piece of a journal issue devoted to writing and drawing, to the readable and the visible, it is because it seems to me that among contemporary writers, you are the one of those who has most clearly striven to prove the double affirmation which you yourself have formulated: “Painting is also something we read … literature...

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Stacy Burton (essay date winter 1992–spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burton, Stacy. “Experience and the Genres of Travel Writing: Bakhtin and Butor.” Romance Studies, no. 21 (winter 1992–spring 1993): 51–62.

[In the following essay, Burton uses Mikhail Bakhtin's theories concerning narrative and language to explore the significance of travel and cultural difference in Butor's novels.]

Despite its long tradition and popularity, travel literature has only lately begun to receive serious attention in literary history and theory. Until recently, ‘travel books’ were generally treated as light reading, or as biographical artifacts from the lives of great writers; now, their significance as texts about encounters between...

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Lois Oppenheim (essay date September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oppenheim, Lois. “Animation of the Work of Art: Michel Butor's L’Embarquement de la Reine de Saba.MLN 109, no. 4 (September 1994): 741–52.

[In the following essay, Oppenheim argues for the aesthetic of Butor's anaesthetic in L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba, which she claims is “both post-modern and not” in its attempt to contextualize the artistic experience.]

… ce quit me gêne, dans le mot ‘création,’ c'est qu'il est lié à une illusion soigneusement entretenue, l'illusion de la gratuité de l'oeuvre d’art.

—Michel Butor

Despite the benefits the...

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Leslie Schenk (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schenk, Leslie. Review of Le Japon depuis la France: Un rêve à l'ancre, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 360–61.

[In the following review, Schenk praises Butor's compilation of essays focusing on Japan from a diverse group of French intellectuals, but judges Butor's commentary on the selections as “gratuitous and ultimately insignificant.”]

What would the French think if a Japanese, not knowing a word of French, would come to France for three weeks and then write a book explaining the French? I should think they would be enraged. The Japanese, oddly enough, are not enraged but flattered when French...

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Eilene Hoft-March (review date May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoft-March, Eilene. Review of Improvisations sur Michel Butor: l'écriture en transformation, by Michel Butor. French Review 69, no. 6 (May 1996): 1058–59.

[In the following review, Hoft-March assesses Improvisations as an autobiographical extrapolation of Butor's desire to test and play with man's mental boundaries.]

Much of Butor's writing has been occasioned by cultural encounters with artists, histories, and cultures of another kind, encounters made possible by the deliberate crossing of boundaries. He has frequently demonstrated that writing can and should nudge us to the other side of boundaries that are, foremost but no less formidably,...

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Maryann De Julio (review date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: De Julio, Maryann. Review of A la frontière, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 343–44.

[In the following positive review, De Julio praises A la frontière for pushing boundaries and reconsidering standard distinctions between the self and the other.]

Experimentation with the concepts of time and space has always marked the writings of Michel Butor. From the very first novels Passage de Milan (1954) and L'Emploi du temps (1956) to the more recent essays and imaginative criticism like Improvisations sur Henri Michaux (1985), Butor has sought to reexamine literary devices and the view of reality...

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Graham Robb (essay date 21 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Robb, Graham. “Where to Begin the Feast?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5016 (21 May 1999): 3–4.

[In the following essay, Robb addresses the bicentennial of Honore de Balzac's birth and reviews three works that either directly or peripherally address his La Comédie humaine, including Butor's Improvisations.]

For Balzac, birthdays were a waste of writing time—a day frittered away with the family—and a depressing reminder of how little he had achieved. On his thirty-eighth birthday, still in debt and with six novels overdue, he could see himself returning to his starting point: the garret near the Place de la Bastille where his writing career...

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Michael Bishop (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. Review of Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 631.

[In the following review, Bishop praises Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan for its scope and levity.]

This is a book, composed of nine at once concise and ample half-versified texts, by one of the most delightfully and richly multifocused writers of a century to which Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan is, in effect, dedicated. Illustrated by Joël Leick, Michel Butor's nine daily recordings—the first one, barely warming up, harking back some hundred years or so, notes, “Butin du lundi au fond de la cour:...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Britton, Celia. “Opacity and Transparence: Conceptions of History and Cultural Difference in the Work of Michel Butor and Édouard Glissant.” French Studies 49, no. 3 (July 1995): 308–20.

Britton argues that Butor and Glissant attribute opposite values to the concepts of transparence and opacity, and that this difference shapes their perspectives on how individuals and communities historically relate to the cultural other.

Butor, Michel, and Jennifer Waelti-Walters. “Michel Butor: An Interview.” Malahat Review, no. 60 (October 1981): 126–38.

Butor discusses travel, transformation, boundaries,...

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