Michel Butor: The Freedom of Frameworks

The appearance of a new translation, by Mathilde Merouani, of Michel Butor’s Selected Essays (Vanguard Editions, 82 pp., £10) must be welcomed. The last such selection, Inventory, with translations co-ordinated by Richard Howard, appeared as long ago as 1970. It is lamentable that we have had to wait over fifty years for a successor, and brave of this small British independent publisher to have taken it on, for sales are unlikely to be brisk. Nonetheless, it has to be added that the new volume is a disappointment. This has nothing to do with the translations, which are fluent and readable, with one exception. Ironically, in view of the fact that one of the essays is called “The use of personal pronouns in the novel”, where Butor, adopting the convention of the time, refers to a writer as “he,” Merouani substitutes “they”, so that an essay called in French “Le critique et son publique” becomes “The Critic and their Readers”. What is wrong with “Critics and their Readers,” which, if not totally faithful, is at least grammatical? The same infelicity occurs several times in the text; this would have been a simple solution.

The problem with the selection is that it is so brief and unadventurous. Butor (1926—2016) collected his essays—which he preferred to think of as études—into five volumes called Répertoire (1960, 1964, 1968, 1974, 1982: I will abbreviate these to R plus the number). Previously published essays were revised for the volumes, and their order arranged non-chronologically, so that each volume had its own unity within the development of the series. (Butor wished to avoid the appearance of a random miscellany given by the “too well-oiled machine” of Sartre’s ten-volume Situations.) Inventory reprinted essays, largely from R1 and R2, on Apollinaire, Balzac, Diderot, Faulkner, Flaubert, Joyce, Montaigne, Proust, Rabelais, Racine and Jules Verne. These are only a few of the writers to whom Butor gave close attention: others include Baudelaire, Hugo, Mallarmé, Michaux, Rimbaud, Roussel and Villon. Some of these writers were discussed in more than one essay: indeed, three whole books of lectures were devoted to Balzac, in addition to separate essays. Butor has also taken a great interest in specific genres, notably science-fiction and the detective novel (his first two novels both contain murders).

Merouani’s selection contains no essays on individual writers and therefore gives little idea of the variety of Butor’s enthusiasms. There are only eight items, three of which were included in Inventory, and all of which were included by Butor himself in Essais sur le roman (1967). I have already mentioned “The Critic and their Readers.” There is a speech given at Royaumont Abbey in 1959, an interview with Tel Quel magazine in 1962, and “The Philosophy of Furniture,” a meditation on the role of domestic objects in the novel. These are miscellaneous items, but the other four essays—“The Novel as a Search,” “The Space of the Novel,” “The Use of Personal Pronouns in the Novel,” and “Research on  the Technique of the Novel”—do at least present, in usefully compact form, Butor’s main ideas about fiction. The key theses, which I will discuss in more detail later, are that the world of a novel is self-referential, neither verifiable nor unverifiable, since there is no external reality against which to check its truth-claims; that a novelist’s most important freedom is to experiment with form and structure, especially as regards treatment of time, space, and narrative voice; and that a novel embodies an account of the world in a system of symbolic forms, working both internally (the relationship between the whole and its parts) and externally (the effect on our perception of the world) to reorient our understanding of ourselves. Fiction is thus a branch of phenomenology, because it deals with the workings of consciousness. It follows that “a writer’s life is an integral part of his work.” Unfashionably, Butor believed not only that writing can transform people’s lives, but that it has a duty to do so.  This included himself. In the speech at Royaumont Abbey, he said, “I do not write novels to sell them, but to achieve a unity in my life.”

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The essays represent only a fraction of Butor’s output. His Collected Works run to twelve huge volumes, not to mention three volumes of 150 interviews given between 1956 and 1996. His total number of separate publications is said to run to four figures. I can’t pretend to have read all this—indeed, Butor once jokingly doubted whether he had done so himself—and shall concentrate here on his essays and the four novels which established his early reputation: Passage de Milan (1954), L’Emploi du temps (1956), La Modification (1957), and Degrés (1960). (A fifth, Jumeaux, in epistolary form, about twins and doubles, was projected but never written.) These remain, after all, the most accessible of his writings, and a reader who starts with them might move on to more ambitious, less conventional, texts, whereas the reverse process would be highly unlikely.

In an interview with Le Monde in 1971, Butor outlined his procedure for writing a critical essay.   He reread the complete works of the author in question over and over again, without taking notes, until he almost knew them by heart (he had an exceptionally strong visual memory).  While doing this he read nothing else, except possibly a biography of the author, and (very rarely) a critical study or two. Eventually, when he was completely saturated with his subject almost to the point of collapse, a starting-point would emerge and he would begin to compose and obsessively rewrite, producing as many as fifty drafts of a single page. (His joy at the invention of the word-processor may be imagined.) Each of his novels was underpinned by an elaborate structural scheme involving a comparable effort of preparation. L’Emploi du temps, for example, was completely rewritten from a short-sentence version to a long-sentence one.

Butor continued to write essays long after he had ceased writing novels, and his novels belong to a particular cultural moment. His relationship to the nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s was always tangential at best. This was a “group” whose main characteristic, rather as with the Movement in 1950s Britain, was that each of them denied that they belonged to it. As a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne, Butor might have appreciated this textbook example of the class which is not a member of itself. In the series of interviews with André Clavel, published as Curriculum Vitae (1996, hereafter CV), he grants that he and the others were all influenced by Proust, Joyce, Kafka and Faulkner, as well as by the techniques of cinema, and that they cultivated the mundane and the commonplace rather than grand themes, heroic figures, or high rhetoric: but ultimately, he attributes the concept of the nouveau roman to critics who did not know what to make of the novels in question, who were then aided and abetted by Alain Robbe-Grillet’s polemical essays Pour un nouveau roman, and by Jérôme Lindon, director of Éditions de Minuit which happened to publish all these writers, who played along with the publicity for sound commercial reasons. Personally, he felt drawn to Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute, but his relations with Robbe-Grillet, who perceived him as a rival, were frosty; he classed Robbe-Grillet as an aesthete, devoted to Art for Art’s sake, anxious to preserve the novel from contamination with reality. He took little interest in the work of contemporary novelists: in 1989 he judged that the last major figure had been Georges Perec. Despite frequently insisting that he might yet write another novel, after 1960 he never did so. It was a form he had outgrown.

He had little time for the theorising aspect of the nouveau roman, as enshrined, for example, in the colloquia organised at Cérisy by Jean Ricardou. If we want theory, he once said, we should be content to wait for a theorist comparable to Baudelaire or Proust, whose critical writings had not been surpassed in their respective centuries. As for Barthes’ concept of écriture, that simply became another genre in his view, adding nothing of value to the critical lexicon. At the 1971 Cérisy colloquium on the nouveau roman, from which Butor stayed away (although he did turn up to the one two years later which focused on his own work), Georges Raillard gave an excellent lecture on the “search for totalisation” in Butor’s work. Raillard identified something of fundamental importance here, as he had earlier done in his book on the novelist for the “Bibliothèque idéale” series (1968) in stressing the influence of Mondrian on Butor’s novels (more about this later). Butor adored systems. He was fascinated by alchemy, the kabbala, numerology, myth, and esoterica of all kinds; his life was a search for the intellectual Philosopher’s Stone.  Hence his fondness for encyclopaedic writers such as Rabelais and Montaigne—on whose essays he wrote an elaborate essay arguing that their order was a deliberate design on Montaigne’s part, not haphazard as was often assumed—and for Balzac, who aimed to “write the world” in his epic fictions. In R3, he admires Hugo’s ideal of the genius as a walking reference book, and praises him, together with Shakespeare, as a “cyclical” man, who sums up in himself whole epochs of thought and culture.

This facet of Butor’s character is reflected in the extensive amount of quotation, not only in his essays, but also in Degrés, which has been estimated to contain 135 citations from 35 authors. In Improvisations sur Flaubert (1984), he notes that “a collection of quotations may constitute a work,” since to juxtapose quotations from different authors and centuries will by itself be an act of literary criticism, without any intervening commentary. No doubt Butor had in mind the Dictionnaire des idées reçues, but the remark applies equally to his own critical practice.

The totalizing bent of Butor’s mind drove him to seek a multivalent formal structure for each of his books, and to pursue a kinaesthetic aesthetic. Thus, fictional explorations of space and time are intimately related, respectively, to the visual arts and to music, not just because the events narrated in a novel may take place among several locations and over a certain chronological span, but because fiction can have its equivalents of mass, relief, volume, tempo, dynamics and other more specialised techniques of the other arts. One of his major essays, “The Imaginary Works of Art in Proust” (R2, included in Inventory), shows how the music of Vinteuil and the paintings of Elstir are metaphorically linked, not only to each other but also to the larger architecture of the novel, celebrating “the artist as prism,” concentrating the spectrum of sense-impressions into a single revelatory beam of light, which is the complete work (Proust, himself, of course, is the artist primarily in question). Butor’s post-fictional writing is a series of tireless experiments in the relationship between words and these other “languages,” often undertaken in collaboration with painters, photographers, theatre practitioners, and musicians.

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Butor came to write fiction by an indirect route. His family cultivated music and the visual arts rather than literature. At the lycée Louis-le-Grand in the early 1940s, he was an indifferent pupil, chiefly keen on writing poetry. Thanks to one of his great-uncles, who was a professor of philosophy at the Collège de France, he was able to attend clandestine seminars while still a schoolboy. He found himself torn between Sartre and Breton as intellectual guides, and, in common with his peers, was drawn to Husserl and Heidegger. In particular, the approach to philosophical problems by the fullest possible description of the problem impressed him: “Philosophy in those days led almost inevitably to the novel. To find the solution to the things which troubled us, it was indispensable to alter the position of the problems, and thus to work on language. The best way was to describe.” Fiction opened the way to an investigation of reality which could accommodate the irrational. Dreams figure largely in his work; one of his books, Histoire extraordinaire (1961), is a full-scale interpretation of a dream Baudelaire recorded in 1856, and he also published five volumes of Matière de rêves (1975–85), based on, but not simply reproducing, dreams that he had had. Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967) alternates chapters drawing on his post-war visit to Franconia, where he studied the esoterica holdings in a private library, and chapters recounting a developing dream (Scheherazade was one of his talismanic figures). Not surprisingly, he admired the interchange between the worlds of day and night, waking perception and dream-vision, in Magritte. What surrealism taught him was that a dream is a part of reality, not distinct from it, because it is part of an individual’s experience.

The novel became a vehicle for conveying this total apprehension of the world; in fact, it became a separate world with its own logic, laws, and inner geography. In “The Novel as a Search” Butor comments that, even if someone in the nineteenth century had claimed to know Père Goriot, and accused Balzac of misrepresenting him, this would be irrelevant, because “Père Goriot is who Balzac says he is.” His only existence is in the text. Yet this doesn’t mean that the novel is completely sealed off, in Barthesian fashion, from the external world, for Butor also says, in an essay on Zola’s theories about the experimental novel, that “The novel is the pre-eminent place for experimentation in changing beliefs, in destroying some of them” (R4). It does mean that novelists have total control over the world they create, and their most important freedom is that of form. Butor agreed with D. H. Lawrence that most novels are merely copies of other novels. A conventional form merely confirms a conventional reality: the novelist who wishes to break new ground, to challenge the reader’s view of the world, must find a new form, which is also, paradoxically, a new realism (meaning not a correspondence with the external world but a heightened grasp of the real). In “La Critique et l’invention” (R3) he argues that a truly original novel is a critique of previous novels, and develops the point in terms strikingly close to T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: a text “can only really change the future if it changes the total arrangement of history. The hallmark of fundamental novelty is its retroactive power.” In turn, reading, whether private or in the public form of literary criticism, renews the life of the texts it reads, and to that extent participates in their creativity.

In “Research on the Technique of the Novel” Butor studies temporal structures (linear chronology, flashback and projection, counterpoint, discontinuity) and insists that fictional space is a function of time: “the space in which we live is no more the space of classical geometry than our time is the time of the mechanics that corresponds to it.” For him, a novel exists in Einsteinian space-time rather than Euclidean space as a nexus of inter-related aspects, so that “any movement in space will imply a reorganisation of the temporal structure.” In Passage de Milan, for example, Butor locates the action in the fixed space of a Parisian lodging house (also, as he points out, used by Balzac in Le Père Goriot and by Zola in Pot-Bouille) but moves characters between apartments over a twelve-hour period; in L’Emploi du temps, instead of a night in a building the time-frame is expanded to a year in a city, but the chronology of the action is dislocated by “short-circuits and backward movements, reversals, mirror-games, echoes and the appearance of new voices” (CV); while in La Modification the location is fixed (a railway carriage) but also in motion (the train is travelling from Paris to Rome), the time-span is also fixed (that of the journey) but periodically interrupted (intermediate stations, national borders), and both space and time shift as the protagonist recalls previous journeys in both directions and speculates about journeys to come. Degrés presents this spatio-temporal axis in an extreme form, structured as it is around the system of fixed recurrences embodied in a school timetable, and reflecting the consciousness of a teacher of history and geography, which are conceived as a single discipline in the French system. (Butor was teaching these subjects himself at the time, as well as French and philosophy, at the International School in Geneva.)

In the lecture series on his own work, Improvisations sur Michel Butor: L’Écriture en transformation (1993), given just before his retirement from his academic career, Butor elucidates the ways in which the quasi-musical structure of L’Emploi du temps derives from both the canon and counterpoint, and explains the five different systems, all worked out with mathematical precision, underlying the permutations of physical and psychological movement in La Modification. In Degrés, the existence of the “grid of an educational syllabus” as Butor called it, was ideal; for every character, at any given moment, place, time, classmates, teacher, and topic were prescribed. Yet, as Butor makes clear, he had a secondary didactic purpose in writing this novel: to expose the limitations of the French educational system, potentially a massive agent of social change and transformation, yet adhering sclerotically to a fact-dominated, test-driven pedagogy which rewarded the cramming of short-term memory and left no room for imaginative freedom. The compartments into which the pupils’ education is divided forbid the kind of synthesis which is frustratingly glimpsed in the plethora of quotations from key works of Western culture, which remain fragments that neither pupils nor teachers can unite into a whole.

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For Butor, characterisation in a novel is a function of its internal economy, not referable to the behaviour of people in the external world (compare his remark about Père Goriot, quoted above). In “The Use of Personal Pronouns in the Novel,” he distinguishes “the grammatical person” from “the physical individual.” He thus tends to limit his discussion of character to the question of pronominal reference and narrative perspective, without going as far as Robbe-Grillet, who calls the whole concept of character into question, or Nathalie Sarraute, whose subtle use of pronouns depersonalises the agents (that seems the best word) in her novels. Of course, a novel may mix different perspectives for special purposes. Butor discusses this at length in the chapter on Madame Bovary in Improvisations sur Flaubert. He mentions the celebrated first-person opening and the sudden jolt into the present in the final sentence, but devotes more space to Flaubert’s handling of le style indirect libre which enables the novelist to open up “cracks in the façade,” tricking us into thinking we know whose voice is speaking and then revealing that we were wrong (a device Butor will exploit in Degrés). Such a “mobile” perspectival system forces us to “excavate” the text, to “explore it vertically,” even to strip its successive layers away as with a scalpel: Flaubert “turns the reader into a surgeon.”

First-person and third-person narratives each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but both change the angle of refraction from which we view the story.  One need only think of Proust’s decision to abandon the third-person Jean Santeuil for the first-person À la Recherche, and, within that novel, the unique, disconcerting employment of third person narrative in Un Amour de Swann.  In La Modification, Butor showed that a second-person narrative is also possible, as did Perec in Un Homme qui dort (1967), but where Perec uses “tu,” Butor uses the formal “vous.”  With this device, Butor explains, “there is someone who is told their own story, told something about themselves they do not know, at least that they do not yet have language for”; such a narrative can “portray a true evolution of consciousness.” This is illustrated by a passage at the start of Chapter VIII of La Modification, where the character (named only once as Léon Delmont), but also by extension the reader, is undergoing a “reorganisation of your self-image and your life…gradually destroying your character, this change of emphasis and perspective, this rotation of facts and meanings” which will alter “your position in the sphere of human conduct.”  The novel which Delmont buys for the journey is never read, or even looked at; it is without title or author, the tabula rasa which stands in for the person he is becoming. That new person must be brought to birth by a painful stripping away of sentimental and self-deceiving illusions. As Georges Raillard puts it, Delmont must be made to see that he is “in the process of constructing a novel” about his situation: the cliché bourgeois novel of the eternal triangle, in fact, which is exposed as a tissue of falsehoods by the novel in which he appears.

The choice of narrative person determines the reader’s degree of identification with, or distance from, the characters, as well as affecting the organisation of space and time within the narrative: a third-person narrator is outside the sequence of events, but a first-person narrator is within it, and is more constrained by questions of plausibility. If we view the events through the eyes of a single character, there will be a gap between the narration of events as they occurred and a later re-interpretation of them in the light of their consequences, both of which need to be communicated to the reader; this is the time-lag which Butor explores in L’Emploi du temps by means of the diary form, in La Modification by the interplay between the past (memories), present (new appreciation of their significance) and future (alterations of intention in the light of this new awareness) in Delmont’s mind, and in Degrés by Vernier’s need to learn so much of the background to his work and that of his pupils that he falls constantly behind and never achieves his dream of total understanding of the class he teaches. Vernier’s psychological disorientation is pushed to the limit when, in Part II of the novel, he assumes the voice of his nephew Pierre, who “narrates” from “his” point of view, which is actually the invention of Vernier. Degrés is, in fact, a classic instance in which, “je” really is “un autre”—and we might note Butor’s comment on that famous formula in Improvisations sur Rimbaud (1989), which he takes to be prompted by Rimbaud’s conviction of being an oracular mouthpiece for forces greater than himself: “for the moment he counts for nothing. The voice which speaks through his writings is not yet himself: ‘I’ am someone else, another person who must be sought” before a new era in poetry can come to pass. “That,” Butor concludes, “entails a gigantic task.” So Vernier (and Butor too?) undertakes a Herculean labour in pursuit of a vision of intellectual history which transcends the capacities of a single mind.

Degrés presents a particularly subtle instance of pronominal shift, as Butor himself noted. The referents of “I,” “you,” “he,” and “us” vary depending on the narrative voice: thus, in Part I, Vernier is “je” and Eller “tu”; in Part II, supposedly narrated by Eller, the roles are reversed, while in Part III Jouret is “je,” Eller again “tu,” and Vernier “il,” as if he were dispossessed from his own narrative. Part III claims to be narrated by Jouret, and is commonly taken as such, but Butor explained, in an interview in 1960 to mark the novel’s publication, that in Part III “the first narrator [Vernier] makes one of his colleagues [Jouret] narrate, but during this third part the first narrator gives way to his colleague, so that at the end of the book it actually is the colleague, who finishes the story.” Thus, for most of Part III, “Jouret” is yet another persona of Vernier’s. Not for nothing are the last words of the novel “Qui parle?” To which the answer, according to Jean Roudaut in Michel Butor ou le livre futur (1964), is “C’est je, tu, et il, que chacun de nous constitue.”   An autobiography such as Michel Leiris’ sequence La Règle du Jeu, about which Butor wrote in R1, probes that threefold self in a dialectic between the “I” as subject and the “I” as object, with the result that autobiography is transformed from a hermetically sealed record to a dynamic encounter, not just between the two “I”s but between author and reader, “more and more breaking the circle of his ‘me’ […] scraping away the surface of his ‘me’, he uncovers an ‘us.’”   Had Butor written Les Jumeaux, pronominal ambiguity would doubtless have reached new heights.

I suspect that Butor is satirising his own dream of total narrative in his last novel. (I often wonder whether the polymathic fantasies of Bouvard and Pécuchet may be at the back of his mind too.) The increasingly unhinged attempts of Vernier to encompass, not just the lives of all his colleagues and pupils, not just all the subjects they are teaching and learning, but the entire history of Western civilization, impel him to buy the textbooks they are using and do their work, including their homework, himself, to the detriment of his own teaching, his health, his sanity, and ultimately, perhaps, his life. I see here a self-admonition by Butor, who admitted that he had difficulty in bringing the novel to a close. The ambitions of Vernier and his creator inevitably collapse; no one total account of the world is possible, because everything leads to everything else. “Each event”, Butor says in “Research on the Technique of the Novel,” “becomes the potential point of origin and convergence of several narrative sequences […] not only is it impossible to relate all the events in a linear sequence, it is also impossible to chronicle every single event within one sequence”.

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Art is almost as important to Butor as literature.  One of his most original books, Les Mots dans la peinture (1969), explores the functions of written texts which form part of a painting: for example, the letter of Charlotte Corday to Marat which David reproduces in his painting “Marat assassiné” (adding his own dedication and signature in monumental letters on the bottom of the bath) or the cubists’ use of newsprint in their collages. No painting is completely text-free, unless it literally has no title. Again, the sweep of Butor’s interests in this area is daunting. He stands in a tradition of the writer as art critic going back to Baudelaire, Zola, and Proust, and including, more recently, Aragon, Bonnefoy or Ponge (it’s an important fact about Claude Simon, too, that he started out as a painter). Like his father, Butor was an enthusiast for drawing when young. Pictorial analogies come naturally to him; in Improvisations sur Flaubert he writes that Madame Bovary is to Courbet as Salammbô is to Delacroix, while L’Éducation sentimentale, with its rhythmic technique of overlapping scenes from one chapter to the next rather than keeping them separate, conjures up Impressionists such as Manet or Renoir. The visual organisation of Mobile (1962), his celebration of the United States, is consciously indebted to Pollock and Calder, and in later books Butor worked closely with the printers to devise unconventional visual formats which should match the subject-matter. His essay “Monument de rien pour Apollinaire” (R3) protests against the editorial insertion of punctuation in Apollinaire’s poems, which destroys their syntactic ambiguity, and he explores Apollinaire’s attempts to represent both succession and simultaneity on the printed page, in part by mimetic use of typography.

Butor is a brilliant critic of Mondrian in particular, and, as Georges Raillard perceived, Mondrian’s search for freedom within a strictly controlled framework seems to provide a structural template for each of Butor’s novels. There may also be a personal source. Butor was one of eight children, and in the entry “Famille” in “Alphabet d’un apprenti” (Michel Butor: presentation et anthologie, 2003) he wrote: “The space in which we grew up was considerably restricted. Each of us had, as it were, an area […] from within which it was possible to flourish. In one direction it was too crowded; in another there was space to fill. Each of us therefore had a structure of our own, narrowly bounded by the surrounding family structure.” These comments irresistibly bring to mind his dazzling essay on Mondrian, “Le carré et son habitant” (“The Square and its Inhabitant”), from R3, which was included in Inventory. The recourse to grids, grilles, or subdivisions which features so largely in Butor’s novels (rooms in a building; suburbs of a city; compartments of a train; the lycée timetable) as a means of delimiting, controlling and manipulating the movement of individuals and their sphere of action is a transposition into written form of Mondrian’s visual technique.

Raillard suggested that Butor found in Mondrian’s canvases “the example of a construction which constitutes a critique of reality,” whose literary counterpart would be “a semantic system.”  The non-referential character of certain kinds of pictorial representation seems to give the visual work of art an autonomy denied to literature, but there is a dynamic relation between the internal structure of a painting (or a novel) and its structure in relation to the external world (compare Butor on his family dynamic, above). Butor writes: “For Mondrian, a painting is […] a fragment of that harmonious and balanced life to which he aspires, which he calls into being with all his might. […] The basic problem for the modern painter is not only to denounce the disorder of contemporary reality, by setting against it the spectacle, or rather the promise, of a paradise, a harmony, a future reality, but, by his picture, to lay their foundations of such a thing.” Raillard sees this as a kind of manifesto for Butor’s own work. In a later essay, “Triptyque sur l’évolution de Mondrian” (R5), Butor cites Mondrian’s statement, in a notebook of 1914, that vertical lines represent masculinity, and horizontal lines femininity, and traces the symbolic development of this principle through its destruction of ideal unity to a final asexual synthesis, embodied by the artist and figured in the art. The grids which appear to keep the parts of Mondrian’s visual universe separate are in fact the condition of their ultimate coherence. The same is true of Butor’s novels, whose logical progressions, correspondences, and patterns of cyclical recurrence, far from constraining the narrative, provide the essential conditions of its success. Once again, Degrés may be seen as a partial exception, since the narrative within the narrative (Vernier’s innocent-sounding “description of a class”) collapses under the weight of its own impossibility, and finally destroys the grid which was meant to control it. This is, perhaps, one reason why Butor wrote no more novels. In CV, he explains that he regards the novel as an outmoded form: “The characters are completely imprisoned in their confined space, they are stifled. And then, I believe our society has evolved too far—sociologically, morally, sexually, emotionally—for the novel to be able to deal with it in the future.” The rest of his career was a tireless quest for new forms which could respond adequately to such unprecedented changes.

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I have, I hope, given sufficient evidence above for concluding that Butor is a weighty and innovative writer of fiction and criticism. La Modification continues to be a best-seller, for good reasons. It seems to me the most unified, coherent, and enjoyable of his novels, the one in which he found the perfect formal embodiment for his ideas. The fusion of realism, symbolism, and myth is never strained, as it is, for instance, in L’Emploi du temps, while the writing has a combined lightness and propulsive energy lacking in Degrés, for all the conceptual brilliance of the latter. As critic, Butor wins our admiration for the range, originality, and independence of his thinking. He brings to his subjects a seriousness of engagement which is as refreshing as it is rare. Beyond these two fields, my knowledge of his work is too patchy for me to make a judgement. It may be that he paid a price for departing so far from the cultural mainstream, but whatever the verdict of the future may be, he was certainly not a frivolous time-waster.

He once described himself as “an unknown celebrity”, but French commentary on his work is extensive. Indeed, whole books have been written about L’Emploi du Temps and La Modification alone. The most helpful books I have found in French, despite their age, are those by Georges Raillard and Jean Roudaut, previously mentioned. In English, the chapter on Butor in John Sturrock’s The French New Novel (1969) is outstanding, and the introduction by Elinor S. Miller to her translation of Frontiers, a collection of Butor’s interviews with other texts (1989), is a model of clarity and helpfulness. Mary Lydon’s Perpetuum Mobile: A Study of the Novels and Aesthetics of Michel Butor (1980) has valuable comments, but the best book in English I have come across is Jennifer Waelti-Walters’ Michel Butor: A Study of his View of the World and a Panorama of his Work 1954—1974 (1977). For more recent work, the University of Edinburgh has a section dedicated to Butor on the webpage of its Department of European Languages and Cultures: this includes an extensive bibliography of secondary literature, much of it focused on the novels. Those wishing to explore even further can consult the website Dictionnaire Butor, maintained since 2000 by Henri Desoubeaux with Butor’s active co-operation until his death, and ongoing; it contains archive material not accessible elsewhere. Desoubeaux also edited the three volumes of Entretiens (1999) mentioned earlier. Thus, there are clues through the labyrinth for those intrepid enough to venture in, and the new Selected Essays, however modest in scope, deserves to reawaken interest in this formidably versatile and gifted writer.

Paul Dean

Paul Dean

Paul Dean is a freelance critic living in Oxford, U.K.He is a frequent contributor to The New Criterion. Previous essays on 20th-century French literature by him have appeared in The Hopkins Review.
Paul Dean

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Author: Paul Dean

Paul Dean is a freelance critic living in Oxford, U.K. He is a frequent contributor to The New Criterion. Previous essays on 20th-century French literature by him have appeared in The Hopkins Review.