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THE PASSING OF MICHEL BUTOR (14/09/1926-24/08/2016)

*In order to mark the passing of the great French experimentalist, Equus Press brings a critical overview of Michel Butor’s oeuvre from 1950s to 1970s and its modernist heritage.

A general overview of Butor’s multifarious and extremely prolific output would include four early novels, a dozen other book-length works of unique genres, half-a-dozen volumes of essays, an equal number of volumes of literary criticism, a three-volume collected interviews, books of collaborations with visual artists (such as Jacques Monory, Pierre Alechinsky, or the Czech artist Jiri Kolar) and numerous poetry collections. Butor’s creed as a novelist was formulated in his 1955 essay, “Le roman comme recherche,” which maintains a loosely phenomenological viewpoint: he starts by remarking that the novel is a particular form of récit, understood more broadly than its conventional sense of “story,” approaching the status of “discourse” or “narrativity” as such.

For Butor, it is a phenomenon surpassing the domain of literature, being “un des constituants essentiels de notre appréhension de la réalité.” He goes on to broaden the notion of récit to include all discursive structures that determine any individual’s behaviour or knowledge acquisition: “depuis la tradition familiale, les renseignements que l’on se donne à table sur ce que l’on a fait le matin, jusqu’à l’information journalistique ou l’ouvrage historique.” These he terms “récits véridiques,” as their common trait is their verifiability – however, unlike all these, the novelistic récit is marked by its “deliberate invented” nature (Répertoire 1, Ed. Minuit, 1960, p. 7). The very word roman signals, in Butor’s phrase, “qu’il est vain de chercher […] confirmation” – and therefore does not have to rely on external evidence, but generates its own rules and production of reality, becoming an “ideal phenomenological domain.” Butor then turns to the question of form, maintaining that only new form can reveal “new things and relations in reality” and that “traditional techniques are incapable of integrating the new conditions” of contemporary era. This search for new forms, however, is “bien loin de s’opposer au réalisme comme l’imagine trop souvent une critique à courte vue, est la condition sine qua non d’un réalisme plus poussé” (R1, 9). This “realism pushed further” reveals that any application of the novel to “reality” is an endeavour of “extreme complexity,” as it appears that realism within the novel (what Butor also terms its “theme or sujet”), forms a unity with “formalism and symbolism.” This unity, when pushed forward, results, for Butor, in a transformation of the very genre and its approximation of the condition of poetry.

The presence of a temporal pattern in Butor’s work has been implied by himself on numerous occasions and subsequently elaborated by many. The existence, in Butor, of temporal patterns, of cycles, the ritual “of withdrawal, initiation, and return” identified by critic McWilliams here, needs no further belabouring. The point, as has been argued, of utilising these grids and patterns is, for Butor, similar to his great modernist predecessor James Joyce: “Just as it is possible to discover the universality of the Odyssey in the heart of the twentieth-century Dublin, similarly Butor’s novels make considerable use of dreams and mythological symbolism in order to uncover some kind of pattern or structure underlying our acts.”

In Butor’s first novel, Passage de Milan—published in 1954 by Éditions de Minuit—the temporal grid is further enhanced by spatial arrangement – Butor uses the device of the apartment-house setting. The novel’s organisation is symmetrical and neat: The action of Passage de Milan takes place within twelve hours, from seven in the evening until seven in the morning, at an apartment house divided into seven stories. There is a marked vertical segmentation, from the highest level with lofty characters such as abbé Jean—who in the opening scene contemplates the sky, observing the flight of an airplane or perhaps a hawk—to the lowest level, beset by the incessant din of Paris metro and inhabit-ed by the working class. The complicated plot-driven narrative is composed as an almost musical counterpoint of mo-tifs and character actions that get repeated, with variations, floor after floor. Various commentators have also noted the double-meaning of the title, which can refer to both the street where the novel is set, and Passage of the Kite, the sav-age bird of prey connected with abbé Jean’s Egyptian studies. Butor employs the interior monologue/stream of con-sciousness technique to examine the psychic interiority of many of the sixty-six characters that people the apartment house. Surprisingly, no critic so far has commented on Butor’s observation printed on the back cover of the book, according to which “Les événements futurs projettent déjà leur ombre sur nous,” which is almost a literal rendering of a sentence from Ulysses: “Coming events cast their shadows before” (U 8.526). Another Joycean allusion is provided by one of the subplots involving a group of writers attempting a collective work, an imaginary book entitled Les Faubourgs de Trieste, the first long-term locale of Joyce’s exile from Dublin. On a more general level, another modernist trait of Passage de Milan is its simultaneous presentation of the consciousness of people in motion; Butor’s enactment of their dreams, desires and ambitions—similar to Joyce’s—reveals them as hopelessly isolated, non-communicative entities. Butor’s observations on the structuring of Ulysses and the language of the Wake can be taken as insights into his own creative procedure in his first novel. For instance, his insistence on Ulysses being, first and foremost, a novel, expresses the intention of his own first four novels as partaking of the most elastic of forms, his reading of the Wake as structured around lieux communs, in turn, reveals his own activity in Passage as closely corresponding to this description. The lieux communs, in Passage, are formed by numerous colloquial phrases and clichés that circulate in the characters’ consciousness (e.g. “entre chien et loup,” “faire le pied de grue,” “on ne les connaît ni Eve ni d’Adam,” “les vannes sont ouvertes”) and although these commonplaces are not deformed or “fermented,” Butor does achieve some punning orchestration with them. For instance, as Lydon notes, the phrase “faire le pied de grue” (lit. “to make the foot of the crane,” to stand motionlessly and expectantly in one place) becomes echoed when the female protagonist, Angèle Vertigues who is just about to be shot dead is mentally dismissed by another character as “une petite grue,” slang for “slut” or “whore,” but literally a “crane” (in English), which in the French form of “crâne” means “skull.” Such incidents, although relatively scarce, point to Butor’s Joycean preoccupation, with “les moments où, tiens, quelque chose que nous ne comprenions pas se met à se révéler à nous, quelque chose nous devient clair” – one need not fetch the analogy too far to link such pronouncements to Joyce’s epiphany. In fact, the very title of Butor’s book is precisely such an instance of epiphanic double-coding: the showing forth of Horus, the hawk-like sky god, of whom each of the Pharaohs was held to be a reincarnation. And, of course, within the Joycean mythology surrounding A Portrait, there is the “hawklike man,” Daedalus. Among the other broader themes and concepts identifiable as Joycean is Butor’s preoccupation with paternity (the Hamlet theme), fraternity (three brothers of the Mogne family refer to “la tête d’Essau” [Passage de Milan, Éditions Minuit, 1954, p. 149] and speak of “ta main et la sienne” [p. 160], echoing the Biblical allusion to Esau and Jacob from the Wake’s opening), and the family at large. Last but not least, Passage de Milan is an encyclopaedic work, testifying to Butor’s proclaimed ambition of “trying to put everything in it.” And in the context of Butor’s oeuvre, Passage de Milan fulfils the encyclopaedic function, even giving rise to the notion that “his first novel is the matrix of his oeuvre.”

If his first work had come and gone without attracting sales or critical attention, Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, fared much better, effectively launching his career as a writer. Where Passage has dealt with the time span of twelve hours, L’Emploi spans twelve months, detailing the hardships of a young French newcomer to a large industrial city of the English Midlands – evidently based on (and written during) Butor’s own sojourn in Manchester, fictionalised as the city of Bleston in the novel. Apart from Butor’s experiment—along the lines of Robbe-Grillet’s New Novel—with the detective story genre, a few metatextual devices (diary-keeping, novel-writing characters), and a staple mythological intertext with the Theseus myth discussed above by Butor himself, this novel presents little by way of the formal design or linguistic experiment of Butor’s first book, and need not be treated in much detail. Its most markedly intertextual gesture beckons toward Proust’s examination of time and memory, its chief ambition, expressed in the phrase “donner une durée au langage” (Emploi du temps, Éditions Minuit, 1956, p. 88), to Proust’s philosophical bedrock, Henri Bergson.

Butor’s third novel, La Modification, is formally experimental in being divided into three sections of three chapters each, presenting the same mathematical precision as the previous novels while recounting in meticulous detail a train trip from Paris to Rome with great attention to the stations along the way. Its most idiosyncratic stylistic trait is its form of second-person verbal address, Butor’s use of vous throughout the text, and the unprecedented degree of identification with the novel’s hero evoked in the reader. If Passage traced the differences and parallels among multiple consciousness(es), La Modification focuses on its protago-nist Léon Delmont who embarks on a train journey from Paris to Rome in order to leave his family and begin a new life with his mistress, Cécile, only to undergo a “modification” and to end up determined to return to his wife and chil-dren, avoiding any contact with the mistress. Here, Butor’s lieux communs include a series of questions originating in the chief character’s dreams during his all-night trip, raised by the haunting spectre of the Grand Veneur, in fact a ghost of his wife. The questions are “M’entendez-vous?” (Do you hear me?), “Qu’attendezvous?” (What are you wait-ing for?), “Où êtes-vous?” (Where are you?), “Êtes-vous fou?” (Are you crazy?), “Qui êtes-vous?” (Who are you?) – and they function as leitmotifs haunting the narrative subject throughout – also in the scene of similar questioning at the French-Italian border. The occasional wordplay, though muted, is there again, to some comic effect – e.g. in the sentence about the train’s loudspeaker (“Alors une bouffée d’air frais entre dans le compartiment et l’on entend la voix raque d’un haut-parleur qui profère des syllabes méconnaissables” [La Modification, Éditions Minuit, 1957, p. 40]) which evokes the apparition of a sibyl in Léon’s dream via the euphony of “syllabe” and “sibylle” – a word “fermentation” of precisely the kind identified by Butor in Joyce. Most of all, and appropriately for the plot setting, Butor seems to delight in the phrase “être en train de faire” (pp. 83, 85, 120, 196, 205). Another Butorian lieu commun includes having his protagonist determined, toward the end, to effectuate his liberation from his past and present by writing a book – presumably, the book that is La Modification. Ultimately, the “you” address is an appeal upon the reader to undergo their own “modification” into a mental state conducive to creativity.

Butor’s fourth novel, Degrés, has a pivotal status in his oeuvre in standing as the last of what has been called his “Romanesque” period, the last book to date to bear the subtitle roman, in a sense condensing and combining the methodology of the previous three while also anticipating Butor’s post-novel period which breaks with the poetics es-tablished in the four novels. Also, its 1960 publication with Gallimard marks the end of Butor’s most explicit allegiance with the New Novel. Again, the title is ambiguous and rich in meanings. The central narrative situation concerns the various degrees of relationship in a Parisian lycée among thirty-one students and their eleven professors, and the students’ academic degrees. However, their studies of geography, physics or geometry also involve the degrees of longitude and latitude, of heat, and of the circle; their private lives raise questions of degrees of drunkenness; and last but not least, several of the important characters come down with the grippe, which ineluctably necessitates a thermometer. Structural symmetry is here brought onto a whole new level of complexity: there are three parts, each narrated by a different subject and divided into seven sections. The three parts are in a sense variations on the same structure. In the first part the characters are taken up three by three, in the second two by two, and in the third one by one. In each of the triads of the first part, three characters are introduced in each of the seven sections, either two professors and one student or two students and one professor, thus gradually introducing all thirty-one students and all eleven of the professors. The chief meta-literary project involves the professor of history writing down notes toward a true phenomenological description (“une description littérale, sans intervention de mon imagination, un simple enreg-istrement de faits exacts” [Degrés, Gallimard, 1960, p. 22]) which would enable his nephew to attempt a total recall of a single day, his fifteenth birthday. However, embarking upon this project, vaguely modernist in its encyclopaedism, turns out an impossible undertaking for the professor: not only is it impossible to represent reality in language without “intervening” in it himself, he also needs the intervention of his nephew, the addressee of his account – a shift in viewpoint also brings about a change in pronominal designation, the “I” suddenly usurped by the nephew, the professor becoming a “you.” The project exhausts the uncle to the point of reducing him to bed, at which point another professor—of classics—takes over the third part. He becomes the “I” of the narrative, the “you” denotes the nephew and the uncle becomes reduced to a “he” – a veritable confusion of pronouns, so that the uncle’s final question which also concludes the text, “Qui parle?”, is one repeatedly raised by the text itself. Having completed his novelistic tetralogy, Butor went on to produce texts of highly idiosyncratic character, each with a genre, as it were, of its own making.

Only two years after Degrés, Butor published perhaps his most radical experiment, Mobile (1962). Printed on unusually large pages, the text is disposed in what appears to be a highly idiosyncratic manner. Use is made of five different margins, the leftmost concerning the state whose chapter it is, and the others neighbouring states progressively more removed from it, and several typefaces. The text is divided up into fifty “chapters,” one for each state taken in alphabetic order, the time-span of the narrative stretching across forty-eight hours over the spring equinox. Thus the sections for the “daylight” states begin with a “Welcome to—” road sign, which is omitted at “night.” Some pages are thickly covered with print, others are what Butor calls aéré. Lydon has stressed the connection between Mobile and what Butor called (and theorised as) the “book-object,” in which use is made of the spatial possibilities of print distribution and its visual properties, and which challenges the so-called “book-idea.” The form, as is so often the case with concrete textual objects, is mimetic, expressive of its content. It is determined by Butor’s perception of the United States and serves as means of making that country, as he perceived it, present to the reader. Also noted by Lydon is the work’s subtle attempt at circularity: the first page opens with “nuit noire à COR-DOUE, ALABAMA, le profond Sud” (suggesting the blackness and segregation of the South and also potentially refer-ring to the Moors of Cordoba), a peculiar beginning in an alphabetically organised text which seems to omit the letters A and B. However, the last two cities to be mentioned are ALBANY and BUFFALO, and thus “the series A, B, C links the end of the book with the beginning, just as the last word in Finnegans Wake points backwards to the first. Now, the evident difference between Butor’s treatment of language in Mobile and Joyce’s Wake is that there is no “fermentation,” no deliberate distortion, of words. The similarity with Joyce’s procedure, however, lies in the incessant mutabil-ity and fluctuation of the meaning of everyday words: Butor takes special care to pick those US place names that are based on their European predecessors or analogies; and the specifically American keywords, such as Washington or Lincoln, designate now men, now mountains, now cities, now rivers, etc. Mobile is the rare case in Butor’s oeuvre of a lieu commun made into both matter and manner, thereby, to Lydon’s mind, “neutralizing the tendency to consider Mobile either as a literary work or as a representation of the US – to divide it into form and content.” Butler notes that the basic syntactic form is the list, “echoing that of the sales catalogue, quotations from which also have a large part to play in the text and seem to symbolize American consumerism and diversity.” Shortly after Mobile, Butor went on to produce a “texte radiophonique” and an “étude stéréophonique” – Réseau aérien (1962) and 6 810 000 litres d’eau par seconde (1962), respectively. The former is a description of a circuit of the globe by ten aeroplanes, none of which completes the circuit. The latter is a typographical and linguistic convey-ance of the mass of water in the Niagara Falls. Réseau aérien is prefaced by a “note technique,” a body of instructions regarding the “realisation of the text:”

Le texte est conçu pour être réalisé par 10 acteurs : / 5 hommes : A B C D E / 5 femmes : f g h i j. / Les acteurs sont toujours traités par couples auxquelles est donné chaque fois un petit fragment de dialogue comportant six répliques. Les italiques indiquent la nuit, enregistrement sourd avec réverbation. Le signe [aéroplane] indique un bruit d’avion. Le signe [visage] un bruit de foule. Le signe [tunnel] une percussion sourde. Les chiffres qui suivent [les signes] indiquent le numéro de l’avion (il y en a 10). Ils peuvent être réalisés en prenant deux enregistrements du premier prélude du Clavecin bien tempéré, clavecin pour le jour, piano pour la nuit, et en donnant sur le fond du bruit le nombre de notes correspondant ; mais on peut rêver d’une musique faite pour le texte. (Réseau aérien, Gallimard: 1962, p. 7)

In addition to these symbols, two type-faces and four margins are employed, the text punctuated by technical instruc-tions, the “narrative” constantly switching among the actors, planes, symbols, etc. The route of the text is, ultimately, cyclical, beginning and ending at the Orly airport. 6 810 000 litres is prefaced by a similar note, only this time concern-ing the reading procedure:

Les lecteurs pressés prendront la voie courte en sautant toutes les parenthèses et tous les préludes. Les lecteurs moins pressés prendront la voie longue sans rien sauter. Mais les lecteurs de ce livre s’amuseront à suivre les indications sur le fonctionnement des parenthèses et à explorer peu à peu les huit voies intermédiaires pour entendre comment, dans ce monument liquide, le changement de l’éclairage fait ap-paraître nouvelles formes et aspects. Deux voix au centre, celle du speaker, fort, celle du lecteur, assez fort. (6 810, unpaginated)

Echoes of Butor’s notions of the Wake’s “unreadability” and his own procedure of reading it resonate here. Finally, Butor’s most explicitly textual reference to a Joycean avant-texte was realised in his 1967 work, Portrait d’artiste en jeune singe. Joycean already by its allusive title, as Butor explained in an April 1967 interview for Les Lettres françaises, the parody works on multiple levels. Not only does Butor “do for Joyce what he himself has done already” (there is also the intercepting presence of Dylan Thomas), but Butor’s choice of a “young ape” has its own agenda independent of the two. As he made clear in the book’s back-cover quotation: “Dans le titre, sous l’hommage à James Joyce et Dylan Thomas, on reconnaîtra la représentation médiévale de cette éminente espèce d’artiste qu’était l’alchimiste comme ‘singe de Nature’”; underlying his homage to Joyce and Thomas is the figure of the alchemist, that medieval artist whose ambition it was to “ape” nature.

The conceptual connection between the two Portraits, then, is metamorphosis: in Joyce, via the reference to the Dedalian myth in Ovid, in Butor, via the theme of alchemy as the art of matter transformation. There are some more textually specific parallels, too: there is the character of Père “Uriel” Athanase Kircher of the Jesuit order, which played such an important part in the formation of both Joyce and Butor. Lydon also finds “Stephen Dedalus’ lapse into the seven deadly sins and his valiant effort to practice the seen virtues in their stead, with the help of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, as well as his status as a student of the seven liberal arts” paralleled in Butor’s Portrait where the insistence on the magic number seven is “even more pronounced.” Critic Jennifer Waelti-Walters has also drawn attention to the importance, in both texts, of the symbolic presence of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, who, as Butor’s Portrait notes was “souvent représenté par un singe,” and later on, as Hermes Trismegistus, came to represent the god of alchemy. The ultimate narrative parallel—in what are essentially highly different sujets—is that if, at the end of Joyce’s Portrait, Stephen turns eastward toward Europe, then Butor, from a different vantage point but with similar orientation, turns toward Egypt, where, he tells us, he experienced a second birth: “C’était avant mon départ pour l’Égypte, c’est-à-dire que pour moi cela remonte très loin, car l’Égypte m’a été comme une seconde terre natale, j’y ai vécu pour ainsi dire une seconde enfance.” Stylistically, a tentative parallel may be drawn between their treatment of the materiality of language – e.g., in the “Mineralogy” section, a whole page is laid out as follows:

(un moulage en plâtre d’un squelette d’ichtyosaure derrière une vitre brisée),

« mais il y a surtout cette immense collection de minéraux »

(zircons jaune gris traversant des monazites, aragonites en zigzag)

« poussiéreuse, en désordre, nous n’avons pas encore eu le temps d’arranger tout cela »

(il soufflait sur des argentites arborescentes, des bronzites vitreuses, des wolframites brunes de Portugal),

« qui n’est pas bien spectaculaire, les spécimens dépassent rarement la taille d’une noix »

(il époussetait barytines en livre ouvert, cinabres en efflorescences, dolomites rhomboédriques, vivianites bleues) « mais certains sont, paraît-il, fort précieux »

(Portrait d’artiste en jeune singe, Gallimard, 1967, p. 97)

Thus, written almost entirely in a vocabulary foreign to all but mineralogists, the spatial arrangement of this page seems to treat words both literally and metaphorically as pieces of stone in a mosaic-type arrangement.

To conclude this brief overview and homage to the man: here is, on the one hand, a broadly conceived, yet fundamentally important, parallel between Michel Butor’s oeuvre and the monumental modernist projects of the likes of  Joyce’s and Pound’s. Modernism’s conception of time and history follows from its rejection of the diachronic form for the diachronic age of realism, meeting “terror of history” with various modes of description for the human experience in time. The desire, shared by most if not all modernists, to frame a portrait of the modern world as a whole situation, is essentially an epic ambition. And as long as Butor has repeatedly described himself as a writer for whom “the great novels of the twentieth century have existed,” then his work shares with the modernist masters the similarly epic “general area of historical and cultural interest” –Butor’s cultural inventory/“repertory” is of striking depth and breath. The two modernist figures that come closest to this scale are Joyce and Pound – yet any comparison with their poetics yields Butor’s fundamental difference. Not least of which, as McWilliams has noted, is that “Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance come to us in Finnegans Wake and the Cantos in broken, often barely recognizable fragments, brilliant and beautiful, but dead. Butor, on the other hand, has painstakingly separated each layer, joined broken shards, and attempted to resurrect the essential genius of each of these cultures.” Butor also arguably imagines the past in a way fundamentally different from that of his modernist ancestors: if, for Joyce, the Homeric Golden Age occurred some three thousand years distant from the Dublin day in 1904 described in Ulysses and if the echoes and similarities that have survived from that long-dead epoch must necessarily be fragments and ironic, then Butor, on the other hand, “discovered on his first fateful voyage to the cradle of civilization that ancient Egypt was not irretrievably lost in the third millennium BC where the historians had placed it but is alive today.” Butor is a consciously post-modernist and post-Joycean writer who continues in the linguistic and formal experimentation of the avant-garde tradition of “making it new.” It is false to reduce the modernist presence in his writings to his early essays and first novels: modernism and its masters, for Butor, represent much more than youthful figures of emulation to be overcome in maturity; rather, modernist experimentalism is a paradigm to be constantly returned to and re-applied.

David Vichnar, 25 Aug 2016

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
August 2016
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