Michel Marie François Butor (boo-tohr) is the most popular of the loosely defined group of postwar avant-garde French novelist-theoreticians practicing the so-called New Novel. He was the fourth of seven children; his father, Émile, was a railway inspector. The family moved to Paris when Michel Butor was three, settling in a busy commercial street in a middle-class district on the eastern fringe of the Latin Quarter, close to the universities and literary cafés. Butor’s later public persona has been said to mix bourgeois respectability and bohemianism in something of the same way as the place in which he was reared (he also rebelled spectacularly against his family’s devout Catholicism). He attended the parochial school and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand during the years of the German Occupation. The stagnation of French intellectual life at this time affected the teaching in schools, and Butor turned to intense private study of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, all of whom influenced his later work. He also began to forge connections to intellectual, especially philosophical, circles and to write poetry in the manner of André Breton and the Surrealists.
In 1944 Butor entered the University of Paris, where he earned the equivalents of a master’s degree and a teaching diploma but twice failed the national competitive exams for the doctoral-level agrégation en philosophie. His life took a decisive turn in 1950, when he took a teaching post in Egypt’s Nile Valley. There he wrote his first (virtually unnoticed) novel, stored memories for his travel writing, and set the pattern for his subsequent life as what he has called a “traveling salesman of French culture.”
Butor has an extreme sensitivity to the spirit of different places; his wide-ranging travels have allowed him to explore world history from the perspectives of different cultures. His time as a lecturer in the northern English city of Manchester, 1951 to 1953, is intensely evoked in his second novel, Passing Time. His time as visiting professor at Middlebury College and Bryn Mawr College, 1959 to 1960, produced his attempt, in the prose-rhapsody Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, to capture the clash of color, sound, and light that is America. Teaching engagements in Buffalo and New Mexico led also to Niagara in 1965 and Où: Le Génie du lieu 2 (where: or, the spirit of the place 2). He also traveled in the Far East, Australia, and Europe (particularly Greece). During a trip to Geneva in 1956 he met his wife, Marie-Jo, with whom he had four children. In 1975, he became a professor of modern French language and literature at the University of Geneva.
Butor achieved literary notoriety with his third novel, A Change of Heart, which won for him one of France’s highest literary awards, the Prix Renaudot, in 1957. This great success made Butor a public figure. He has been an advisory editor for the prestigious publishing house of Gallimard since 1958 and has been awarded honorary doctorates in both philosophy and literature. Among other honors, he has been awarded the French Order of Merit. Yet none of this has taken away from the radicalism of his work and his position: On May 21, 1968, he and about ten other writers staged a polite “invasion” of the headquarters of the moribund French Society of Writers; he is a founder-member of the Writers’ Union.
Butor’s creative work since his last “true” novel, the 1960 novel-about-a-novel, Degrees, continued to provoke controversy. When his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, which amalgamates autobiography and fantasy, was translated in 1995 it received mixed reviews. Butor has shifted decisively toward mixed-media and collaborative work, and toward textual collages and “open” form, seeking to undermine the notions of textual authority and linear narration to cast doubt on familiar theories of genre and form and to represent more truly the world-in-flux. Since it is only through stories that one apprehends reality, Butor believes those stories must not perpetuate the falsities of outmoded forms.
Born on September 14, 1926, at Mons-en-Baroeul, a suburb of Lille, Michel Butor is the eldest son and fourth of the eight children of Émile Butor and Anne (Brajeux) Butor. The family moved to Paris in 1929, and Butor began his education in the 1930’s in Parisian Catholic schools. At the onset of World War II in 1939, the Butors moved temporarily to Évreux, then to Pau and Tarbes, before returning to Paris in August, 1940; there Butor remained as a student until 1949. His education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand was followed by studies at the Sorbonne, first in literature and then in philosophy, where he achieved both the license and diplôme d’études supérieures in philosophy but failed to qualify for the agrégation. In 1950, having written some poetry and a few essays, he traveled to Germany (a journey he later commemorated in Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe), taught at the lycée in Sens, and then taught French at El Minya in Upper Egypt. His Egyptian experience as well as his teaching experience is echoed in much of his writing and is an important element in Passage de Milan (which he began writing in Egypt), in Degrees, and, to a lesser extent, in Passing Time.
Butor’s career as an itinerant teacher, scholar, and writer, begun in 1950, found him teaching in Manchester in 1951 (a model for Bleston in Passing Time), where he finished Passage de Milan, and traveling to Tunisia, Algeria, Italy, and Greece, with frequent returns to Paris. In 1955, he replaced Roland Barthes at the Sorbonne in the training program for French teachers abroad. In 1957, he took up a teaching position in Geneva, where he met Marie-Joséphe Mas, whom he married in 1958. In the same year, he became an advisory editor at the publishing house of Gallimard, and in 1959, with three novels and numerous essays in print, he began writing Degrees, a novel that he informed with elements of his own experience as a teacher and a teacher of teachers as well as with his own youthful experience. Butor has written varied critical essays and appreciations on literature and the arts, created long prose-poetic narratives (many of them based on his travels), and turned to operatic, graphic, and cinematic ventures.