Raymond Bock - an original and unsettling portrait of Quebec, from the hinterland to the metropolis, from colonial times to the present, and beyond. Here is a group portrait of the individual lives that together shape a collective history

Raymond Bock, Atavisms, Trans. by Pablo StraussDalkey Archive Press, 2015.

Atavisms is an original and unsettling portrait of Quebec, from the hinterland to the metropolis, from colonial times to the present, and beyond. These thirteen stories, though not linked in the traditional sense, abound in common threads. Like family traits passed down through the generations, the attitudes and actions of a rich cast of characters reverberate, quietly but deeply, over generations. Here is a group portrait of the individual lives that together shape a collective history. Atavaisms has been shortlisted for the 2014 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature.

“These thirteen ‘histories’—an unlucky number—can be read as individual stories. But they also bear a troubling family resemblance and a collective unity.” —Le Devoir

“Bock’s striking stories traverse Quebec history to reveal the DNA of our collective unease.” —La Presse

Bruce F. Kawin - Brilliantly pitching the aesthetics of novelty against those of repetition, Kawin shows that the connections and rhythm of repetition offer revelations about literature and film, nature and memory, and time and art.

Bruce F. Kawin, Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film, Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.

How do writers and filmmakers use repetition? It is useful when accenting an idea, but, in this original and thought-provoking book, Bruce F. Kawin argues that it serves a more important function as a manipulator of our sense of time and of the timeless. Brilliantly pitching the aesthetics of novelty against those of repetition, Kawin shows that the connections and rhythm of repetition offer revelations about literature and film, nature and memory, and time and art.

Pedram Navab - disturbing and provocative story of Tess, a third-year medical student whose compulsive desire to feel her patients’ pain leads her to destruct her own body by methods both horrific and creative


Pedram Navab, Without Anesthesia, Jaded Ibis Press, 2015.

“Dear Tess, we cut you up today.”  So ends and begins the disturbing and provocative story of Tess, a third-year medical student whose compulsive desire to feel her patients’ pain leads her to destruct her own body by methods both horrific and creative. In this highly original medical thriller, Tess’s narrative intersects with similarly obsessive characters. As a result, the distinctions between fiction and reality, between art and medicine, are called into question. Without Anesthesia spans time periods and settings — from 1920’s Hollywood to late 1990’s New York — and culminates in an ending that Alfred Hitchcock himself would approve.
“Vivid, grotesque and whip-smart.” – Rosalind Galt

Without Anesthesia is an original, sobering, and haunting visceral contemplation of love, anguish, morbidity, obsession, knowing and unknowability, the seen and the felt. The intense desire for intimacy and commune on the part of characters and readers evokes riveting anticipation and obsessive page-turning anxiety.” — Mariam Beevi Lam

“Take Without Anesthesia straight if you can; personally, I required a few shots of whiskey. But layered into this hallucinatory medical nightmare is a moving meditation on obsession and loss. Equally adept at slow-burning suspense and blindside revelation, Navab will keep you transfixed, whether you’re numbed or not.” –Lisa Lutz

Without Anesthesia mobilizes an astoundingly rich and varied body of discourses — film theory, philosophies of aesthetics, medical sciences ranging from psychiatry to cardiology, even a history of excrement — deploying them in ways that transform our ideas about what the detective narrative is and what it might become in the future.... Without Anesthesia gives us what has long been beloved about the most conventional, rewarding, and best of mystery novels: the desire to stay up late into the night and read so as to solve a puzzle that seems, at turns, within our grasp and then suddenly, once again, beyond it.” — Nicole Rizzuto

Without Anesthesia is a vivid, grotesque and whip-smart play with identity, where the simulations of appearance merge with the materialities of the body. Navab immerses the reader in the rich vocabularies of medicine and cinema; which is to say, the languages of the body’s beauty and decay, our obsessions and repulsions, life and death.” — Rosalind Galt

This novel takes you on more twists and turns than a ride through Malibu Canyon. Author Pedram Navab has a diverse professional and educational background (see bio) that gives you a truly unique experience. Without Anesthesia is an unpredictable story of explicit deviant behavior that will not allow you to put the book down till its final page.
Navab's novel reads like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction screenplay with multiple characters contributing to a macro story that is slowly unfolding before your eyes. It has a twist of epic proportions which makes it obvious to see that this novel will soon be adapted to hit the Big Screen. This read is highly recommended if you are a fan of Chuck Palahniuk's proprietary way of stretching the reality of what is to be considered social normality. You will equally appreciate Navab's depiction of manic, sadistic, bipolar characters that eerily reminds us that this fictional story may not be that far from the truth. -  jason cook  

DEVOURING THE GREEN anthology of cyborg/eco-poetry questions the increasingly porous border between the world of machines and the world of nature.Organized around a series of questions drawing attention to how the 21st century has complicated our experiences of nature, the body

Devouring the Green Anthology cover

DEVOURING THE GREEN: fear of a human planet: a cyborg / eco poetry anthology. Ed. by Sam Witt. Jaded Ibis Press, 2015.

The inspiration for DEVOURING THE GREEN anthology arose from the editor’s and publisher’s own investigations into new technologies and ecological disasters as related to the art of language.
We invited a diversity of writers to submit poems addressing the ecological, technical and spiritual related to these questions relevant to the world today.
Jaded Ibis Press searches for provocative poetry that maintains a thread to the past while exploring concerns related to human sentience in an increasingly non-sentient world. To this end, DEVOURING THE GREEN anthology of cyborg/eco-poetry questions the increasingly porous border between the world of machines and the world of nature.

Organized around a series of questions drawing attention to how the 21st century has complicated our experiences of nature, the body, and human activity, Devouring the Green pushes an exciting range of contemporary poets to resist nostalgic, simplified notions of our human place in the world and, rather, to focus unflinchingly on the many ways we entangle with—and, by our presence, irrevocably change—the world around us. The poems gathered here are alternately visionary, wry, celebratory, angry, elegiac, and apocalyptic—dizzyingly broad in their scope and, above all else, timely. This is a wonderfully unique, ambitious, and challenging anthology.”– Wayne Miller

“What a harrowing and ultimately energizing anthology Sam Witt has created in Devouring the Green.  Here, the human merges with the cyborg or, in moments that seem both Whitmanian and darkly fabulist, all of us merge uncomfortably with the natural world we are, simultaneously, destroying.  “Would you call humans an invasive species?”  Witt asks in one of his many prompts that inspired the poets in this collection.  “Are the dead an invasive species?” Wild, visionary, and cacophonous, these poems work to position our selves anew and, so, ask us to think about our responsibilities to others and to our environment in radical, discomforting ways.”– Kevin Prufer


Patricio Pron - a purposefully fragmented mystery narrative, unconstrained by the conventions of that or any other genre. Told “in whispers and with laughter and with tears,” it is a complex look at the legacy and mandate of social struggle in Argentina

Patricio Pron, My Fathers' Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain: A Novel, Trans. by Mara Faye Lethem, Vintage, 2014.

The American debut of one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists, My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain is a daring and deeply affecting story of one Argentine family’s buried secrets. When a young writer returns home to visit his dying father, he finds himself drawn into an obsessive search for a local man gone missing. As the truth—not only about his father but an entire generation—comes to light, the narrator is forced to confront the ghosts of Argentina’s dark political past, as well as long-hidden memories about his own family’s history. Powerful and audacious, this semi-autobiographical novel is a thoroughly original story of corruption and responsibility, of history and remembrance, from one of South America’s most important new writers.

Pron’s American debut can best be described as a purposefully fragmented mystery narrative, unconstrained by the conventions of that or any other genre. Told “in whispers and with laughter and with tears,” it is a complex look at the legacy and mandate of social struggle in Argentina. A young writer with memory loss returns home to Argentina to say good-bye to his dying father, a journalist. In reviewing the father’s files, the son uncovers the older man’s obsession with the disappearance and murder of a local man whose sister was “disappeared” by the infamous Argentinean military dictatorship in the brutal 1970s. In piecing together the mystery, the son-narrator learns that his parents led secret lives as leaders of an underground Peronist resistance movement. This is a melancholy and chilling work of postmodernism, examining family, memory, and what collective fear does to a society. Pron brilliantly draws a line from individual crime, which interests few, to the epidemic of “social crime,” which transforms generations. From a major new voice in Spanish literature, this novel should grant Pron a much-deserved readership in the English-speaking world. --Jonathan Schwartz 

“Patricio Pron is an immense talent, a daring writer with an absolutely unique voice. My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain is a marvel.” —Daniel Alarcón

“Pron’s novel haunts me. [It] turned my heart upside down. . . . [He] is brilliant on the topic of growing up in the aftermath of heroic collapse.” —Marcela Valdes

“Startlingly brilliant. . . . As the book progresses Pron’s intense and exquisitely described interiority of the early parts slowly falls prey to the pull of a personal, communal, and national history that ever more firmly stakes it claims on the narrator.” —The Daily Beast

“A riveting story, elegantly translated.” —Counterpunch

“Radiant and wrenching. You’ll never see Argentina—or fathers or sons or the human soul—the same way again. . . . A sublime accomplishment.” —Carolina De Robertis

“Hugely rewarding—and deeply unsettling.” —New York Journal of Books

“This is a brilliant, unforgettable novel. I was so entertained by Patricio Pron’s inventive, poetic, deranging sentences that I found myself thinking of Lewis Carroll.” —Francisco Goldman

“A beautifully crafted novel, rich in metaphors. . . . My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain draws you in and holds your attention. . . . Pron paints a vivid picture of the aftermath of Argentina’s tortured recent history.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“A modern masterpiece written with beauty and purpose—this is a novel about everything that most matters in the world.” —Deborah Levy

“With subtle intelligence, poetic insight, and exquisite style, My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain confirms Pron’s position as one of the finest novelists writing in Spanish today.”
—Alberto Manguel

“A moving exploration of guilt and memory, and an unflinching study of what History can do to us. Pron opens his eyes where the rest of us would rather close them and keep them closed.” —Juan Gabriel Vásquez

“From a major new voice in Spanish literature, this novel should grant Pron a much-deserved readership in the English-speaking world. . . . A melancholy and chilling work of postmodernism, examining family, memory, and what collective fear does to a society.” —Booklist
Back home in Argentina to attend to his ill father, a young writer discovers the file his father kept on a recent disappearance and probable murder in his hometown. As he goes through the file, the son discovers not only the sordid details of the crime, but also its victim’s connections to Argentina’s Dirty War—during the ’70s when rightist generals disappeared members of the opposition. Although the novel’s second section consists largely of descriptions (repetitive and ungrammatical) of the attack on the hapless Alberto Burdisso, the book is fundamentally about memory and the consequences of its repression. When the writer—a stand-in for the author, whose father’s addenda to the text can be found on Pron’s blog—realizes that his journalist father was actively involved in the politics of that era, he recalls his childhood, filled with lots of hiding and precautions. The more the son learns, the more he remembers, and the resulting novel looks a great deal like the one he imagines his father writing: “Brief, composed of fragments, with holes where my father couldn’t or didn’t want to remember something.” In the face of denial and forgetting, Pron has stitched the experiences of the activists, their survivors, and those who came later into a narrative that ties the individual to collective memory and a family’s history to a nation’s.—Publishers Weekly

How we are haunted by the pain of the past is the powerful theme at the heart of this moving meditation on trauma, memory, and home, beautifully translated from Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem. The shadow of the 1970s Argentinian military dictatorship is cast over the life of the young, unnamed narrator, an Argentine writer who has tried to escape but is pulled back into his past when he travels to see his dying father, journeying from the "dark German forests" to the "horizontal Argentine plain", but also into the heartbreaking history of his family's underground resistance to the military regime. The urge to forget the past - yet the paradoxical pull to remember it - tugs at the heartstrings.
"Children are detectives of their parents", acknowledges the narrator, whose detective work involves piecing together the past through discovered documents telling the story of the mysterious disappearance. His urgent aim is to "try and impose some order on their story, restore the meaning" in order to protect and perpetuate it.
Stylistically, this non-linear, experimental narrative reflects the fragmented nature of memory, with short chapters filled with newspaper reports, dreams, hallucinations: "the question of how to narrate his story was equivalent to the question of how to remember it". The narrator has lost his memory through a combination of pills and pain, leaving him feeling "as if I am my own ghost". Yet it gradually, enticingly, returns, along with his humanity.
This poetic, atmospheric novel is filled with symbolic images: of relentless rain; of being lost in a dark forest. Lying beneath a tangle of hospital cords, the narrator's father looks "like a fly in a spiderweb", caught also in the web of the past.
It's through excavating tiny details that Pron reaches universal truths; through depiction of an individual life that he reflects on a generation's trauma. Throughout, lucidity is juxtaposed with opacity; the precision of his mother's recipes is for the narrator a welcome antidote to the bluntness caused by pain. The "tongue twister" jargon of the ill, the "jumble of words in a head that refused to function", is brilliantly depicted as Pron expresses inarticulacy with real eloquence.
For the peripatetic narrator, books are "the only thing that I'd ever been able to call my home", and this unfolds into a poignant disquisition on the powers of literature. "The true story of what I saw and how I saw it is after all the only thing I've got to offer," wrote Jack Kerouac, an epigraph to the novel, but our narrator's perception is skewed from memory loss. This philosophical novel, which probes the thorniest of ontological and epistemological questions, compellingly displays - as well as explores - fiction's power to unearth the most deeply buried emotional truths. - Anita Sethi

In My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, Patricio Pron’s Argentine narrator isn’t initially interested in the Leftist struggle that his parents devoted their lives to fighting in the 1970s. For the past eight years, he has lived abroad in Germany and has taken so much medication that he has lost much of his memory, particularly memories of his childhood and his parents. After finding that his father has been hospitalized, he returns to Argentina. These early sections are Bolañoesque in that some chapters summarize the plot of bad movies, while others are mere lists of the names of authors and books. The narrator keeps a list of what he likes and doesn’t like so as not to forget who he is. At first it seems like Pron’s novel will be similar to those being written by his Latin American contemporaries—sparse, fragmented, and propelled by an honest voice grasping into the blank spaces of his own past.
Then, Pron’s narrator goes into his father’s office and discovers that his father has collected a massive file that follows the case of a man who disappeared from their town, which the narrator previously considered idyllic and prosaic. Much of the story is told in the form of successive newspaper articles that put the case together piece by piece. But why was his father so obsessed with the disappearance of this man? What was once simple becomes complex; through the case of the disappeared man, the narrator discovers his parents’ connection to the Marxist struggle in the seventies. He learns that many of their comrades disappeared, and that they have been silently carrying a legacy of a defeated generation throughout his life.
He comes to realize that every Argentine born in 1975 “are the consolation prizes our parents gave themselves after failing to pull off the revolution.” Children provide a revolutionary with the cover of a conventional life, serving as protection at checkpoints. Pron’s idea is that those very children ironically inherited a mandate to continue the struggle, but have realized, either consciously or not, that the mandate of social transformation “turned out to be unsuited to the times we grew up in, times of pride and frivolousness and defeat.” This is a sentiment universally relatable for everyone in their thirties or fortes, no matter if your parents fought for Peron in Argentina, Allende in Chile, May ’68 in Paris, or took part in the Hippie generation’s revolution of Love in the U.S. All of us belong to a generation that was defeated before it had a chance to fight, and thus turned to drinking or drugs or a million ways to waste time instead of fighting for social justice, for what is important.
Somewhere along his investigation of the disappeared man, the narrator learns that his father intended to write a book. He imagines that the book his father wrote would have been “brief, composed of fragments, with holes where my father couldn’t or didn’t want to remember something, filled with symmetries—stories duplicating themselves over and over again as if they were an ink stain on an assiduously folded piece of paper, a simple theme repeated.” This is the book that Pron has written. My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain is Pron’s way of carrying out the mandate he inherited from his parents, and his hope is that it inspires others to make similar investigations. - Randy Rosenthal

Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within your own culture, or that live in a certain parallel universe version of a familiar story (yet another reason to read stories that follow common tropes, but come from a different culture or gender perspective). Nearly midway through his My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (lengthy, obscure-poetic-sounding titles being a cross-cultural habit, apparently), Patricio Pron writes what could be found only in rare, specific cases in the US: “At this point, to put it another way, the inevitable shift occurred from individual victim to collective victim.” This idea comes to life in the US in social justice cases, in calls for a victimized group to speak together, to be heard, but in Argentina, for those living or raised in the 1970s, Pron sees an entire country as collective victim, an entire country that endured dictatorship, kidnappings, murders, executions—all falling under the catch-all “disappeared.” None of this is to say that this is a novel to read to learn a clear history of the Argentinean dictatorship and its aftermath; in fact, Pron makes no effort to over-explain references, and in her clear translation, Mara Faye Lethem makes no moves to insert awkward clarifications. Instead, knowledge is deployed as if we already understand, or are willing to do the extra work.
Structured into four sections, each broken down into micro-chapters (another cross-cultural, increasingly common, habit—one hopes for reasons other than making it easier to read), Pron sets out to understand how this collective victimhood works, how the silences of history, failures of memory, and personal losses, all become disappearances. The narrator is a drug-addled young man who has lived eight years out of his home country before returning to Argentina to be with his family during his father’s seemingly impending death, which suddenly, strangely, doesn’t happen. Once there, he begins the process of uncovering and recovery: of his self, the why of his memory loss that precedes the drugs; of his father; of the country’s victims, and how that victimhood infects everything it contacts. The heart and bulk—but unfortunately for the success of the book, not the soul—of this investigation lies in a collection of news reports and photos he finds in his father’s study, all pertaining to a man’s disappearance. Reading through, analyzing, the narrator wants to solve both the mystery of the disappearance and of his father’s obsession with it. Though it occurred after Argentina’s dictatorship, and so does not belong to the vast numbers of “the disappeared,” he becomes another victim because of that haunting past. This is that infection of collective victimhood, and what Pron wants to brave against.
The narrator eventually uncovers that the man’s sister was not only one of the disappeared, but was led by his father into political activism. The attempt to recover her by recovering her brother, this transference, has moved onto the narrator himself, now trying to prevent his own and his father’s disappearances. We see again that collective victimhood, swallowing anyone it can. The way this ghost of history and violence stalks through the novel is compelling, and at Pron’s most convicted and skillful, you can feel its encroachment. It is unfortunate that Pron suffers from uncertainty about how to move with a project he is obviously deeply invested in. Because he is dealing with history, both of the country and of his family, with the blend of fiction and non-fiction, there is uncertainty. It is not the uncertainty of the reader, or of a writer questioning how to blend the two, but the uncertainty of a writer unsure if he should. It’s one thing to blend fact and fiction to stare down a culture’s identity, and another to devote a work to questioning the morality of blending the two—but to be unable to choose and not center the complication itself, to want both, weakens to the work.
The collection of newspaper scraps, indented as long quotations and written in reportage style in a claim to non-fiction, make up the significant portion of the My Fathers’ Ghost and this too is unfortunate. They are not only less interesting to read—in fact boring, repetitive, at times—they don’t cut to the quick of Pron’s themes and concerns, precisely because verisimilitude lurks over them. Though they are a necessary core for the novel’s structure, Pron thrives, both in style and substance, in the rest of the book, where fiction takes over.
This structure, of a confused young writer obsessed with a crime and pouring over the evidence, any detail—the number of inhabitants of a town, latitude and longitude coordinates, etc.—possibly mattering, the failure of police, a haunting sense of lurking violence, all point to influences, most pointedly detective novels, and, endorsed by Pron himself, Bolaño. The influence of Bolaño is strong, but Pron is talented enough not to let it dominate. There is no singular moment that is a recognizably specific Bolaño moment or a sense of mimicry, and it is likely the honest comfort with this influence that allows it to work naturally, and for differences, even responses, to spring up. For all of the ways that Bolaño’s characters swing between obsession and detachment, they aren’t usually detached from their obsessions. Pron’s narrator is and moves his investigation through a near fugue state, his obsession separate from him. He only follows, hoping the fugue will clear.
On the other hand, the connection with crime stories is, surprisingly, given Bolaño’s openness to the genre, one the narrator, and seemingly Pron, rejects, even as it swallows him and the novel: “the resolution of most detective stories is condescending, no matter how ruthless the plotting, so that the reader, once the loose ends are tied up and the guilty finally punished, can return to the real world with the convictions that crimes get solved and remain locked between the covers of a book.” This of course is true not of most crime stories, but only of the simplest, the laziest—the type seen in television procedurals. Not only that, but the fight against this mode of the genre, the celebration of the lost detective with no answers, has been ongoing for decades at least, so there is nothing interesting in openly acknowledging it as if it were new and it becomes a claim to complications that aren’t there.
In the end, the novel becomes, for a large middle section, too dependent on a strategy that is neither interesting, nor something that Pron or the narrator seem to believe in. As much as there is little belief in the form, Pron shows a lack of trust in his own clarity, or in the reader. The numbered micro-chapters are not fully sequential. In the first of the novel’s four parts, numerous numbers are skipped, to show the narrator’s fractured memory, but we see this already, and are told it. Later, in the throes of his investigation, the narrator falls ill, and feverish, the numbers skip again, or repeat or backtrack, but again, we know he is losing clarity, and there is no specific reason for each interruption of order.
Yet it should again be emphasized, clarified, anticipated in future books, that when Pron moves away from blocking out his narrative around these newspaper clippings, when he focuses on fiction that’s based on non-fiction rather than non-fiction playing itself off as fiction, My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain gets deepest into its own questions, and finds multitudes. Pron’s narrator wonders how to take on the national identity of Argentine when he has seen the symbols of that identity abused, used “so many times in circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that we didn’t have anything to do with and didn’t want to have anything to do with.” This feeling is so overwhelming that he includes a World Cup1 victory in the same sentence as a war. He wants to be able to embrace an Argentinean identity at the same time as a writer’s identity, while “That a writer could be Argentine and living is a fairly recent discovery.”
The explorations of such questions, some of which fall away as the focus tightens on the newspaper clippings, are more crafted, more affecting when Pron gives his writing free reign, unburdened by the sense of obligation to the idea of “how it actually happened.” In an early passage, Pron’s narrator ponders his relationship with his parents, trying to find how to compare, describe it, and comes to: “Children are policemen of their parents, but I don’t like policemen. They’ve never gotten along well with my family.” In one moment, the focus is his direct relationship with his parents, in the next a simile goes awry and takes him in a dangerous, fearful direction, plunging to the past. The obliqueness, the potential strangeness of fiction, gives reason both to read deeply, and to invest in Pron’s mission of uncovering Argentinean history—personal, familial, and political: a childhood game of killing frogs becomes both the child’s version of unknowingly participating in the violence of his country and the adult’s attempt to reconcile; the fever dreams give us images such as a transparent fish, with a “fistful of autonomous organs with no center of command,” which we cannot do anything but associate with our narrator.
My Fathers’ Ghost is an effort to tell a story that has previously been passed over in silence, while knowing that this secret knowledge is not one of power or liberation, but one that comes with danger and suffering: “You don’t ever want to know certain things, because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Pron’s desire is to fill the silence, not with noise but with clarity and truths. Near the end, the narrator reminds of us inheritance, “My father had started to search for his lost friend and I, without meaning to, had also started shortly afterward to search for my father.”
This inheritance is not only of a search for what has been lost, but also a complicated relationship between the lost, what happens when the lost is found, and the consequences of expression. When talking with his sister, the narrator attempts to gently mock their father for always going out to start the car alone instead of waiting for the kids. The mocking ends when his sister reveals the truth, and the debt that the son owes the father: “journalists were getting killed by car bombs; he went out alone every day to start the car to protect us.” Added to this debt, which came into existence only with revelation, is the narrator’s belief that his choice must be “the truth” or “a compassionate lie,” with the latter being one of escapism and blindness. There is also, and it is glimpsed at times here, a form of lie, fiction, that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the truth. That power is compromised in My Father’s Ghost, a compromise established in Pron’s decision to give his parents veto power over his book. Those glimpses into a deeper soul for the book give one hope that Pron’s next work will be more decisive, expand on seedlings planted here, and for an American reader, give hope that a young American writer can speak to the silences that have overlaid the American atrocities of the last decade.
1 The appearance of an unnamed Maradona, an “obese caricature of a soccer player,” in an airport, wearing a T-shirt with himself on it, is a nice moment of literature and soccer overlapping, a call to Three Percent’s upcoming “World Cup of Literature”. - P. T. Smith  

Much of My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (the title taken from a Dylan Thomas poem) is fact-based, and the first-person narrator's biography (and that of his family) closely resembles that of author Patricio Pron. It's a shame: Pron shows considerable creative flair and solid writing chops, but rather than taking full flight in fiction he grounds his story entirely in actual occurrences and, 'important' though this story may be, the use of real people and events here limits Pron and his story(telling).
       One of the first things the narrator makes clear in the book's opening section is that he is not well-tethered to the past. He has made himself rootless -- describing preferring to crash on other people's couches, rather than having his own place, not for financial reasons but simply out of personal preference -- and notes that he has almost no memory of the entire first decade of the new millennium:

my consumption of certain drugs made me almost completely lose my memory, so that what I remember of those eight years -- at least what I remember of some ninety-five months of those eight years -- is pretty vague and sketchy
       My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is a novel of memory and remembering, of reclaiming the past (and of determining identity). Worried about losing his own memory, the narrator has even compiled a list to: "hold on to a couple of things I wanted to keep" -- a useful little life-summary covering less than four pages.
       The narrator is adrift, but a family crisis shakes him out of this. His father is in hospital, very ill, and so the narrator returns to his native Argentina after a long absence to be with his family. Once there, he finds a folder with newspaper articles, notes, fliers and other material, labeled 'Burdisso', dealing with the (real) 2008 disappearance of one Alberto José Burdisso. The long second section of My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain presents much of this material dealing with this case -- the disappearance of the man, the search for him, and then the inquiry into what happened to him, and why.
       There are, of course, echoes of Argentina's terrible history of the 'disappeared' here -- including, in the reports, observations such as: "Nobody knows anything. Nobody saw anything, nobody heard anything" (with the narrator trying also to interpret the material, trying to read into it all the many motives behind the phrasings and information, and the general atmosphere the situation had led to). As it also turns out, the missing man had a
sister -- who was 'disappeared' in 1977.
       For the narrator this folder leads to a journey into the past -- not so much his own (though that is addressed as well), and not only the recent one covered by most of the material in the folder, but rather that of his father. As he realizes:

My father had started to search for his lost friend and I, without meaning to, had also started shortly afterward to search for my father. This was our lot as Argentines. 
       At the beginning of the novel, the narrator had stated:
Children are detectives of their parents, who cast them out into the world so that one day the children will return and tell them their story so that they themselves can understand it.
       That's rather an over -simplification and -generalization, but clearly his return to home and homeland -- and the finding of the material his father had collected -- gives him the necessary push to delve into his family's history, including what his parents did in the 1970s.
       The narrator sees the material his father collected as possibly: "the materials for the novel my father had wanted to write and never did", and My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is a very creative re-working of this material, enhanced by Pron's own embellishments -- numbered chapters out of sequence; dream-episodes; a variety of family history, as well as the present-day perspective.
       It's all quite well done, and some of the writing is splendid. Much is too obvious or simplistic -- it takes a lot to pull off a claim like: "Children are detectives of their parents", and Pron doesn't come anywhere close -- and presumably much is too personal for Pron to write with the necessary (or at least preferable) distance. One hopes that he got this out of his system, allowing him to turn true fiction (rather than this fact-based sort of stuff).
       My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is a nice show of obvious talent, and certainly of some interest -- but, ultimately, limited by its grounding in fact. - M.A.Orthofer

A young man living and working in Germany returns to his native Argentina. His estranged father is in the hospital, unconscious and presumably dying. His mother, brother and sister are there, but the young man knows he is returning not because of an impending death but because he has come to understand he doesn’t know his father, and that means, in many ways, he doesn’t know himself.
There’s little to be done at the hospital, so the young man sits in his childhood home, and finds a stack of folders of reports and newspaper stories on his father’s desk. It was as if his father left them there for the son to find. He begins to read, and finds himself confronting not one by several mysteries. The articles are in chronological order. An older man disappears; a search is mounted; eventually his body his found and suspects arrested. What connection is there to his father?
And then he finds it, and continues reading, finding more connections, and then discovering the connection was not to the dead man but someone else, and the lines of connections start in the 1970s, during the military dictatorship, the time when thousands of people of the wrong political belief disappeared.
My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron defies easy classification as a genre. It is a mystery, but more than that. It is a political novel but deeper than that. It is also history and biography, autobiography and memoir. It defies classification likely because it is a story told the only way a story addressing what it does can be told – swirling all these genres together because The Argentina of the 1970s and its aftermath can only truly be recognized as a swirling of genres. Recognized, but not understood.
The father is a journalist; the son is a writer. The son examines the material in the folders, and considers writing a book.
“…I wonder what he would think, as a journalist and therefore someone who paid much more attention to the truth than I ever did. I’ve never felt comfortable with the truth. I had tried to stonewall it and give it the slip…I wondered, still and again, what my father would think of my writing a story I barely knew; I knew how it ended – it was obvious it ended in a hospital, as almost all stories do – but I didn’t know how it began or what happened in the middle.”
But he knows how it ends, and that is at least something.
Pron, a native of Argentina, lives and works in Madrid as a translator and critic. He’s written four previous novels and three short story collections, and received several writing prizes.
In My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, he has written a riveting story. Its factual, straightforward style, relying on short chapters and truncated news reports, moves the story quickly. And when it is done, we ask ourselves if we truly can know how the lives of our fathers shaped our own lives, especially when our fathers, and mothers, are caught up in circumstances that seek to obliterate and disguise memory. - Glynn Young

efiance of a tradition easily evolves into one of its own. In Latin America, the famed Boom generation, which in the early ’60s catapulted the continent’s literature into the global consciousness, has spawned a legacy of resistance. Sometimes it was a coordinated effort, complete with a manifesto: the ’90s witnessed the Crack and McOndo movements, both of which asserted their independence from magical realism and other Boom-era legacies. Other times, the resistance established itself through one author’s originality, as was the case with the sui generis Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. Now, a few younger writers have begun exploring something newly distinct: how memories of traumatic periods can shape the perspectives of a generation.1
Three works from this younger generation come out in translation this year: Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, released in January; Patricio Pron’s My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, which appeared this month; and The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, which will be published in August. All roughly the same age, these three novelists represent different parts of the continent: Both Pron, an Argentine, and Zambra, who is Chilean, were born in 1975; Vásquez, born in 1973, hails from Colombia. Each writer grew up during the end of a calamitous era in their country’s past: For Pron and Zambra, it was a military dictatorship, while for Vásquez, it was a drug lord’s dictator-like presence.
Similarities extend into the works themselves in their treatment of memory, the distinct experiences of parents and children, and the use of the first person. But where Pron and Zambra rely on metafiction for a more intellectual and less captivating investigation of remembrance, Vásquez creates characters whose memories resonate powerfully across an ingeniously interlocking structure. While all three novels register a shift in thematic emphasis for Latin American fiction, only Vásquez creates a compelling literary work—one where an engaging narrative envelops poignant memories of a fraught historical period.
Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, his third novel, resembles his other two, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees.2
All focus on a writer dividing his time between melancholy and nostalgia, the vicissitudes of a romantic relationship, and some sort of metafictional experimentation. But Zambra’s true hallmark is conciseness: Ways of Going Home, the longest of the three, runs only 139 pages. The structure of the novel (which echoes the one found in Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), alternates between the content of a novel-in-progress and the life of the novelist character. Going from one section to another means seeing either slight fictionalizations of events or even explicit re-workings of them: Eme, the novelist character’s lover, emerges with the lightest of fictional touches as Claudia in his novel; a late-night conversation between mother and son in the novel repeats, almost verbatim—although the fictional one extends, allowing for a different resolution.
Placing the novel-in-progress adjacent to the life of the novelist can create some confusion—a nice reminder of the perils of our own process of remembering. But ultimately the opportunity to create interesting tension between fiction and what we remember is relatively unexplored. Zambra employs a historical backdrop to inject depth into his customary metafiction instead of using metafictional techniques to probe history. That’s not to say he doesn’t offer any insight into the historical circumstances; it’s just that he does not use the novel’s most salient feature to do so.
Elsewhere, however, there are flashes of elegance as Zambra reckons with the past and his partial understanding of it. “Although we might want to tell other people's stories,” the narrator of the novel-in-progress muses, “we always end up telling our own.” This is a bridge between sections, but it’s also a comment on Zambra’s own position as a novelist: He’s only able to tell the story of a time when he likely failed to comprehend all that was going on. Another quote, this time from the section relating the novelist’s life, makes this point even clearer: “While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in the corner. While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes. While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.” These are the novel’s best lines. They also seem to better explain what Zambra tries to capture with his metafictional technique: the difficulties of understanding and explaining the omnipresent effects of a past you barely recall. One of the novel’s four sections is labeled “Literature of the Parents,” while another is “Literature of the Children”; these few lines not only display Zambra’s poetic sensibilities but also sum up the intergenerational differences in a more concise and affecting way than his metafiction ever does.
The relationship between parents and children also motivates much of Patricio Pron’s My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain.3
“No one in my generation had fought; something or someone had already inflicted defeat on us and we drank or took pills or wasted time in a thousand and one ways as a mode of hastening an end,” the narrator explains. Later, he sketches the differences in starker terms: “I understood for the first time that all the children of young Argentines in the 1970s were going to have to solve our parents' past, like detectives, and what we would find out was going to seem like a mystery novel we wished we'd never bought.”
But this mystery novel suffers from a lack of subtlety. The son, who narrates the novel and whose unreliable memory Pron hastens to establish, suggests how children “try to impose some order” on their parents’ stories. The son returns to Argentina from abroad to see his ailing father, a former newspaperman, in the hospital. While in his father’s study, the son discovers a file of newspaper clippings and photographs that, taken together, appear to recount the recent disappearance of a man whose sister also disappeared during the dictatorship—a sister, the son has reason to believe, his father likely knew. The story then becomes, as Pron reminds us too often, one of multiple searches that create a satisfying symmetry.
What most distinguishes Pron’s novel from both Zambra’s and Vásquez’s is its resemblance to the truth.4 Pron drew so heavily on his parents’ own past that he agreed to their request for veto power over its publication in Argentina, although they didn’t exercise their prerogative. This information about the novel’s autobiographical content comes only in the epilogue, which means the reader suffers through 200 pages strewn with unremarkable ruminations on how to craft a narrative that’s actually largely true.5

Reflections on the process of assembling the narrative have the potential to be interesting, but the novel’s strange allegiance to the confusing and complex truth causes it to sag.

If Pron and Zambra try too cleverly to complicate their storytelling with clunky metafiction, Vásquez proves himself to be one of its master craftsmen. Instead of juxtaposing contemplations of the past alongside the present, Vásquez intertwines historical storylines and the present day, which allows characters to reflect on their memories and the arc of their history.6
Taken together, the six tightly plotted sections of The Sound of Things Falling cover nearly four decades of Colombian history.
The novel’s principal narrative follows Antonio, a young law professor living in Bogotá who befriends a man named Ricardo Laverde. After a traumatic incident, Antonio meets Ricardo’s estranged daughter, Maya, who explains to him how Ricardo inadvertently paved the way for the rise of the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. During the course of a weekend, as they exchange stories about different parts of Ricardo’s life, Antonio and Maya realize how much Escobar’s reign—“the difficult decade”—affected them. As Antonio describes it, theirs is the generation “that was born with planes, with the flights full of bags and the bags of marijuana, the generation that was born with the War on Drugs and later experienced the consequences.”
Toward the novel’s end, Antonio remarks that “people of my generation” ask each other about events from the ’80s, “which defined or diverted [our lives] before we knew what was happening to us.” He continues: “I’ve always believed that in this way, verifying that we're not the only ones, we neutralize the consequences of having grown up in that decade, or we mitigate the feeling of vulnerability that has always accompanied us.” These lines capture a generation’s struggle with an unpleasant past, and, more importantly, they acquire their affective power because they’re spoken by an “I” who’s earned our sympathy—not by one caught in the middle of a metafiction.
In the middle of 1991, over two years before he would be killed on a rooftop in Medellín, Escobar turned himself in—only to go to a prison he built for himself and from which he later escaped.7
In the end, Pron and Zambra expose their narrative structure too explicitly—not an innately unworthy goal but one that does not make for breezy reading. Yet Vásquez, without metafictional ornament, achieves a similar narrative honesty with expertly portrayed characters and lean, interwoven plots. (Perhaps it’s not surprising that his protagonist, unlike those in Zambra’s and Pron’s novels, isn’t a writer.) Vásquez examines what Colombians tell each other about their past; Pron and Zambra end up telling us more about themselves.
Despite some shortcomings, Pron and Zambra display clear talent in their works: With the former, it’s usually a fine phrase newly describing something like a recognizable stage of a relationship; with the latter, his understanding of narrative rhythm often outweighs his heavy-handedness and distracting fondness for simile. Zambra’s next work will almost certainly appear in English, and some publisher should introduce more of Pron’s stories to an American audience. But the most interesting works to come out of the continent in the next few years—at least concerning memory and its influence—might not come from Pron, Vásquez, or Zambra but from Mexican novelists beginning to address the drug violence currently plaguing their country and the mark it will leave. - Sam Carter

We are told that the events described in My Father's Ghost is Climbing in the Rain are mostly true. We're also told that the novel's narrator (unnamed in the text, but I'll give him the author's first name since he claims to be telling us his own story) is unreliable. He warns the reader that his words can be taken either as truth or invention since he is incapable of distinguishing one from the other.
Patricio is a journalist who has an uneasy relationship with the truth. Entire years are missing from Patricio's memory, so it's fitting that some chapter numbers are missing from My Father's Ghost -- chapters skipped over, like the chapters of the narrator's life -- while other chapter numbers are out of sequence or repeated, presumably reflecting Patricio's scattered thoughts. Patricio blames the gaps in his life on the medications his psychiatrist was dispensing, drugs that made him feel like he was "floating in a pool without ever seeing its bottom but not being able to reach the surface." The reader soon discovers, however, that Patricio's memory loss is a form of self-protection. Patricio grew up in Argentina, "a country called fear with a flag that was a face filled with dread." The terrors of life during Argentina's rule by a military dictatorship are best forgotten, but the novel is about Patricio's compulsion to remember.
After eight years in Germany, Patricio returns to Argentina to say goodbye to his father, who is languishing in a hospital bed. In his father's study, he finds a folder labeled Alberto Burdisso. Its contents describe a simple-minded man who has disappeared from El Trébol, the city where Patricio spent part of his childhood. Burdisso had been awarded reparations for his sister's disappearance three decades earlier, money that led to his death. As Patricio reads through the file's contents, he learns that the city he believed to be idyllic is in fact sordid, sullied, and sad.
Patricio takes us through the file, document by document. His investigation of the file becomes an attempt to find his father "in his last thoughts." In this, Patricio is like other Argentinians of his generation, solving their parents' pasts like detectives, "and what we were going to find out would seem like a mystery novel we wished we'd never bought." Yet literature is a "pale reflection" of, and cannot do justice to, the beliefs and ideals of his father's generation. In real life, unlike novels -- and particularly in Argentina during the 1970s -- mysteries go unsolved, crimes go unpunished, and the world outside the book is not "guided by the same principles of justice as the tale told inside."
Not surprisingly, in searching for his father Patricio begins to find himself. He comes to realize a truth: "You don't ever want to know certain things because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own." At the same time, he becomes convinced that he needs to tell the story of his father's generation because their ghost "was going to keep climbing in the rain until it took the heavens by storm."
All of this is an excellent premise for a novel. Patricio Pron nearly pulls it off, but in the end, the excellent story he tells is just too slim to attain such a lofty goal. What we learn about the father is fragmentary (intentionally so, given the novel's structure) and superficial. The narrator tells us that "what my parents and their comrades had done didn't deserve to be forgotten," but we learn very little about their struggle. At the same time, Patricio shares few of his recovered memories with the reader. The novel ultimately reads like a preface to a greater story that needs to be told, but it isn't told here.
That isn't to say that I disliked the story Pron tells. There are some stunning sentences in My Father's Ghost, the kind that make you pause and reread them two or three times. Not all of My Father's Ghost works (a series of brief chapters that describe Patricio's fever dreams add nothing to the story), but through most of the novel, Pron's intense prose is riveting. Viewed as a slice of life, the beginning of a journey yet to be completed, this small novel is quite rewarding.  -

Well I am on netgalley and don’t often choose a book ,but when I saw this book ,which I had mentioned a few times in recent months was up for review I just had to choose it ,Pron has been on my radar for a couple of years  .He featured in the Granta  best  new Spanish language writing collection from 2011 ,and in fact  he was one of the writers And other stories was reading back in 2010 .So  Patricio  Pron studied in both Argentina and Germany ,before becoming a correspondent for a Le capital where he spent a lot of time travelling Europe ,eventually settling  in Madrid ,he has won a number of prizes for his books .This is his first novel to be translated into English
As I flew toward my father ,toward something I didn’t know but which was disgusting and frightening and sad ,I wanted to remember what I could about my life with him .There wasn’t much .
Patricio returning home to his dying father .
So My fathers’ ghost is climbing in the rain is a book about families and There past in Argentina .The story focus on a son who has found out his father is dying, back home in Argentina  the son is a writer the father was a builder ,so he returns to Argentina from Germany .Father and son have a strained relationship and have grown distant over time .The son returns to his parents house and  while looking round finds documents ,maps clipping  regard an incident in the past ,that his father was obsessed with an incident and the one man and a girl .This leads the son on a journey ,Patricio finds out about his parents past and what happened in 1977 the height of the time called the dirty war in Argentina . Patricio the son is unaware of what his parents did during this time and via this journey into the past he discovers more than he expected and maybe ends up closer to his father .A journey though a man death in 2008 back to a girl who “disappeared” by the junta and what was a father search for justice . Pron handles the past of Argentina with subtle tones through a family story .
The folder was thirty by twenty-two centimetres ,made of a very lightweight cardboard in a pale yellow colour .It was two centimetres thick and enclosed by two elastic bands that once been white but at this point had a slight brown tone :one of the bands held the folder from top to bottom and the other along its width which made them form a cross ; more specifically a Latin cross
Patricio finds his father collection of clippings and things .
Pron manages to  fit nicely in my thoughts on Argentinian fiction ,between a number of  other Argentinian writers I ve read in recent years. The father and son relationship could be a grown up version of the narrator in Marcelo Figueras Kamchatka  which I reviewed here set during the time ,one could imagine Patricio as a grown version of Harry the narrator of that book .Carlos Gamerro is another writer which  springs to mind both his books I have under review here , are crimeesque without being crime more as in this case as one man’s quest for the truth is like a master detective searching for the smoking gun , in Carlos Gamerro case , what happened in the dirty war in Open secret and during the Falklands in The islands ,also a wider sense in spanish language writing to look back on past events recent books by Lhosa ,Marquez ,Cercas and Goytisolo have all looked at the recent past with honest eyes and breadth like My fathers ‘ ghost is climbing in the rain does .Pron book evokes the past in the present and is wonderfully held together in English by the translator Lethem .We also see how father and sons can be distant over time but when the layers are peeled away are one and the same .
Hvae you a favourite book  from Argentina ? - winstonsdad.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/my-fathers-ghost-is-climbing-in-the-rain-by-patricio-pron/

My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain draws you in and holds your attention like a crime novel, and it certainly has its share of crime. But this absorbing new work by Argentine writer Patricio Prons is too complex to fit into any ready-made genre. 
Largely autobiographical, the story revolves around a young Argentine writer living in Germany, estranged from his native country. Lost in a drug-induced oblivion, he is a drifter bereft of purpose and possessions. His memories of childhood are a fog — a family of plastic dolls from which the father was missing, a car accident that nobody wanted to talk about. However, his alienation begins to dissipate when, upon learning that his father is dying, he flies home to be by his side. 
Now that the older man lies unconscious in the hospital, his memories irretrievably buried in his mind, the writer realizes that he hardly knows him and will perhaps never learn the truth about his earlier life. A journalist and a political activist in his younger years, the father, like the protagonist — and the entire country — has avoided talking about the past. However, while rummaging through his parents’ house, the writer finds a cache of documents — newspaper articles, photos, notes — that thrust before him his father’s past political commitment.   
The documents report the murder of a certain Alberto José Burdisso, a janitor from the provincial town of El Trébol. Burdisso received reparations from the government for the death of his sister Alicia during Argentina’s “dirty war,” the period of state terrorism perpetrated by a military junta from the 1960s until the early 1980s. His murder seems to have resulted from a mundane scheme to cheat him out of his money. But why, the protagonist wonders, would his father be interested in the case? 
The key turns out to be Alicia, whose story reveals the father’s role in the resistance against the military junta. The writer realizes that, in a sense, he and his siblings were actually “covers” for their parents, for as the junta tightened its grip, resisters had to blend into the social landscape to avoid being killed, and children conferred an air of ordinariness on a couple. With his father’s death, the story of his heroic struggle against tyranny will be lost. The father had always wanted to tell the story in a novel, and now his son will take up the task. 
But it cannot be a genre novel because such novels require a pre-established structure, with pieces that fit nicely together and lead to a logical conclusion. Instead, this would be “a narrative in the shape of an enormous frieze or. . . of an intimate personal story that held something back.” That is the story we are now reading, in which memory and forgetting are engaged in a constant tug-of-war, and the account isn’t quite coherent.
The writer does not endorse his father’s cause. He recognizes that the brand of Peronism that his parents defended was deeply flawed and would never have led to the socialist utopia they envisioned. Instead, he celebrates the spirit of the men and women who defied the dictatorship and continued to struggle in spite of the storm that threatened to engulf them. Even after his father dies, that spirit or “ghost” will continue to climb in the rain.  
Pron tells his story deftly, teasing the reader with enigmatic remarks that demand explanations that never come, or else come much later. For example, at the beginning of the book the narrator comments offhandedly, “I don’t like policemen. They’ve never gotten along with my family.” But it is not until the end that the reader begins to grasp the full meaning of that statement. 
Pron conveys his protagonist’s struggle to remember and piece together past events through a disjointed narrative that skips from topic to topic without transitions. Fragments of memories sometimes reveal key information that will become relevant much later. For example, at one point the protagonist recalls his father cutting a puzzle up into tiny pieces to make it almost impossible for him to put together. The message the father is trying to convey is clear: The world is an incoherent and unintelligible place. Sometimes Pron skips or repeats a chapter number to further stress life’s incongruity: things just don’t follow a logical pattern. The elusiveness of truth is his overarching theme. 

My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain is a beautifully crafted novel, rich in metaphors and not devoid of humor despite its troubling subject. Pron paints a vivid picture of the aftermath of Argentina’s tortured recent history, of a family and an entire nation in denial about the horrors of the past. But if the father’s generation is reluctant to face its failures, the younger generation must seek and face the truth. At the end of the novel the protagonist throws away his pills. He will no longer see Argentina through a drug-induced haze.  He and his contemporaries can no longer remain indifferent to the past. - Bárbara Mujica

Michel Butor - a classic of first-generation French postmodernism, a nouveau roman.Butor weaves bits and pieces from these diverse sources into a collage resembling an abstract painting or a patchwork quilt that by turns is both humorous and quite disturbing

Michel Butor, Degrees. Trans. by Richard Howard. Dalkey Archive Press, 2005. / Simon and Schuster, 1961.

On Tuesday, October 12, 1954, Pierre Vernier, a teacher in a Paris lycee, begins setting down an account that is to be a complete record of the life lived by himself, his students, and his fellow teachers. He begins by meticulously recording what he already knows of his students, their relationships to one another, and the books they're studying. Then he's forced to enlist his nephew—who's in his class—to report on the private lives of the other boys. To record all reality, he must know all that has passed, is passing, and will pass through his pupils' minds. Degrees is an extraordinary novel exposing one man's obsessive project, the impossibility of its completion, and the damaging effect this obsession has on both Vernier and those who surround him.

It is painful to report as much, especially here at the outset of this review, one of whose ostensible purposes is to attract readers to a classic of first-generation French postmodernism, a nouveau roman that was for many years unavailable in English and, even when it was, was not widely discussed. Yet it necessary to reveal that this is a novel [1] concerned with writers and writing. Its main character / protagonist / hero / narrator is a writer, and every dramatic action in the book both originates and terminates in “the literary.” The aesthetic, social and moral quandaries all authors face are accorded some reflection in its pages, and, with the turn of each page, the novel grows in self-consciousness, as if such awareness-of-being-aware could accumulate in measurable deposits, like the nacre in a pearl. And make no mistake: objects matter in the world created by this novel. For this novel proposes to be a manuscript, and a rescued one at that; this manuscript’s (re-)assembly in the form (one both ideal and literal) of a book is not just a plot point which the reader is asked to mark, a scope through which the reader is to track and focus the novel’s action. The making of this particular book (that is, the manuscript “within” the novel) is something only we, as disinterested yet absorbed readers, can achieve. We aren’t just reading pages, reading in the sense of digesting them. A page of this book, once read, is much like a page once it has been written upon. It grows in thickness under the influence of our attention, just as it must have swelled with ink and sweat and  the pressure of the author’s hand as it was being composed. Each page thus acquires a distinct texture and profile, and can be stacked, will lay flat, but each page lends its own disarray to the sequence of pages being so collected. Each page will lay less “true” than it did when it was only blank, and the array of pages each reader puts aside (or places behind him/herself) rests disjointed and askew.
Of course, these analogies hold true in any given reading experience. “My” reading experience is necessarily different from “yours”, and even if we are reading the same title, ours are, at the experiential level, different books. This is no triviality in this novel. No wonder, then, that this novel is ultimately less concerned with the process of writing than one might be led to expect, despite the fact that this novel is never not a novel-within-a-novel, or, more accurately, a book-within-a-book. Rather, this book—not the novel named in the title, but the book bound within the frame demarcated by that title, secured by these covers—is consumed with the aspirations writers have for their work. It is rife with intent and rotten with dreams of efficacy. It is a book conceived of as a book, not a “text”, not “writing”, yet it is acutely aware that its fate is to be construed as such. This book is an instrument, and the novel itself, Michel Butor’s Degrees, is the case in which that instrument sits, secured in its own impression. Even should that instrument go missing in the course of its use, as does occur in Degrees, any given examiner could still identify it by its general contours.
The novel’s plot is rather simple. Its setting is traditional, Balzacian: that space where the domestic and the communal, the family and the polis, overlap. Likewise, read, as one might a conventional novel, for theme, Degrees is another re-staging of the conflict between ambition (or freedom) and obligation (or destiny). There is a man, a schoolteacher, a bachelor, an uncle, a generalist, an author, and thus a specialist, only courtesy the accident of his own choice: he has come to the conclusion that he must do something with his life. There is a woman, one whose love for this man is almost certainly real, yet less substantial to him that the prospect for relatively normative social relations her confidence in him represents. (The uncle’s binary: a book, or marriage.) She becomes a reluctant muse but a willing agent of coercion. And then there is the actual object of the uncle’s affections, a boy, his nephew, the end of his book, the reader the uncle-author-etc. most desires to address even though he is, at least initially, both blind and deaf to this overture, until he is recruited as a collaborator, a schoolboy happy with his scouting and reading of adventure stories ultimately seduced into the adult world of plots, information-gathering (as opposed to learning), dissembling. The man’s name, the uncle, is Pierre Vernier. The woman, Micheline Pavin. And the boy, the nephew, is also named Pierre: Pierre Eller. And there is the project that implicates them all, that, in representing their relationships as “accurately” as possible will inevitable transform those same relationships, a book with Pierre Vernier has begun write. Vernier’s stated intention is to capture, with perfect comprehensiveness, a singular moment in time—occurring on Tuesday, October 12, 1954 [2]—the exact dimensions of which are never clarified, and this moment’s significance for himself, an insight he wishes to pass on to his nephew. Vernier wants to “gift” to Eller his (Vernier’s) own authorial retrospection, an omniscience, even if a limited one: a capacity to exist outside the story yet still be sustained by it. Vernier assumes that his nephew is unable to apprehend (much less comprehend) his situation, and how all the “degrees” or relations of the title touch him.
Of course Vernier’s project quickly exceeds itself. He ignores consciousness altogether at the start, attracted instead to a schematic, one gilded with Euclidean proportions. For he, and he alone, has noticed that, in Eller’s class, a surprising pattern obtains, linking non-exclusive sets of uncles and nephews into “triads” of teachers and pupils. But, by the time Vernier is well into the project, he can no longer avoid the problem of consciousness. His book cannot perfectly replicate these triads without preserving his nephew’s unawareness (or is it inconsideration?) of them. Vernier realizes he must include Eller’s point-of-view in his manuscript, that he must write as if he were Eller, so that his book may also serve as a means of recovering—using the archaeological tools of objectivity—what will be an elapsed subjectivity.
“I was drinking my coffee at the Mabillon, thinking about these notes which I am writing for you [The operative metaphor is one not original to this novel: life is a class, a long, long learning opportunity; or, life is patterned after the lycee.], for the person you will have become in a few years, who will have forgotten all this, but for whom all this and a thousand other things, will come back to mind by reading this, in a certain order and according to certain forms and systems that will allow you to grasp and fix it, to situate and appreciate it, which you are incapable of doing for the moment, lacking that system of references which we are trying to inculcate,
so that a new awareness can be born in you [And there are unsavory hints throughout the Degrees of Vernier's and Eller's relationship being somehow illicit, of it involving a kind of perverse insemination.], and so you will become able to grasp precisely this enormous amount of information in which, as in a muddy and tumultuous river, you move, ignorant, swept away,
that slides over you, wastes itself, loses itself, and contradicts itself,
that slides over us all, over all of your schoolmates and all your teachers who are mutually ignorant of each other,
that slides between us and around us.” (72)
Unfortunately, the experimental protocols of science are incommensurate with the unprovable hypotheses of fiction, and Vernier suffers in his vying to make them achieve some conformity [3]. In order to “capture” his nephew’s point-of-view, Vernier must know what Eller knows, and he enlists his nephew to gather information, largely concerning Eller’s friends and schoolmates, otherwise unavailable to him. The necessary divide between teachers and pupils, even between adults and children that are blood relations, one that ensures the uneasy coexistence of those social orders, has been breached. The great danger, of course, one that Vernier has discounted or accounted himself immune from given the magnitude of his project, is that this boundary that separates childhood from adulthood is one of power. And one does not cross this boundary without exercising some of that power, and thus without unleashing what the pressure between those opposed forces, authority and vulnerability, helps to confine. What Pierre Vernier, Micheline Pavin, Pierre Eller and every other character in this novel is about to experience is worse than any inversion of the accustomed power dynamic. They all must now contend with an author convinced that this dynamic is a phenomenon that can be written over, rewritten, without forfeiting its legibility.
1. Whenever the term “novel” appears in this review, please understand that the reference encompasses not only the genre as we routinely conceive of it—a long-form story—but also the entire social enterprise of such fictions as well, at least here in the West.
2. We sometimes forget how old Postmodernism is—and, by extension, how long the theoretical pillars of our “contemporary intellectual moment” have stood.

3. The nouveau roman has been criticized as phenomenology posing as fiction. This is a case better argued elsewhere, and some other time. When those scales are tipped towards some balance, however, I feel I can predict with some confidence that Degrees will be called as a witness by both the defense and the prosecution.
Part 2:
I should like to be able to restore to your memory this moment, this hour which is already so far in the past for me that, despite the attention I was paying to you, to your whole class, I am capable of recovering with certainty which gestures you might have made, at which moments you were listening, at which you were distracted.
To help you realize what you yourself have been, in other words, where you come from, in other words where you are going—what is the vector of your present—I must already make a great imaginative effort of reconstruction, I must put myself in your place, try to see myself through your eyes and consequently let you speak, thereby destroying the equilibrium of this narrative.”  (104)
Continuity is a terribly fraught (and freighted) phenomenon in Michel Butor’s Degrees. Perhaps this is why the heart of this novel, 150 and counting pages of description and temporal shuttling, adopts the rhythms of a stream-of-consciousness narrative. But what Pierre Vernier takes on faith—that the stream-of-conscious narrative mode had led to discoveries about how the human mind actually works—was always just a metaphor, a Modernist myth (even though we know who authored it: William James). One of the catastrophes unleashed in Degrees—formally, narratively—is its fictional author’s inability to live up to the terms of that myth. Contemporary digital subjects such as ourselves have mostly embraced the notion that consciousness is in fact discontinuous, inherently particulate, but Vernier would no doubt deem it a negative theology. Anything short of a waveform, of constant surging, must be counted a loss of essence. How much worse for Vernier, then, that, under the burden of making the medium of language equal to the preservation of a present, that his energies are depleting, and his focus is wavering.
We know that Pierre Vernier is trying to create his nephew’s, Pierre Eller’s, future for him. But we should also consider that, simultaneously, Pierre Vernier is desperately trying to propel himself out his own loneliness and stagnation. Inevitably, tragically, however, Eller’s future almost perfectly resembles Vernier’s own present, as if Vernier can only vacate the latter by ensuring that someone else takes his place then / there. Mired in confusion and regret, trapped in a profession that conflates rote memorization with the transmission of culture, Vernier feels the pangs of what it means to be in the midst of life, and his desire to embark on some quest to recover an experience of connectedness is one he imagines (only with more confidence than that verb typically connotes) his nephew will someday experience as well. And, as the reader’s own suspicions grow, the brazenness of Vernier’s motives becomes almost blinding. Whatever his aims, Vernier eventually learns that love cannot supplant power as the basis for human relations as easily or as without repercussion as he would like. Such a transformation is not on the order of the metamorphoses that make dreams potentially magical. In the realm of actual, not imaginary relations, power is a volatile, toxic substance, and prolonged contact with power has a wasting effect whose first symptom is a kind of ecstasy. [1]
The impossibility of Vernier’s project and the consequences of its realization wrench him past the limits of exhaustion and, now almost homeless, he becomes ill, perhaps terminally so. But what of young Pierre Eller? He, too, is broken by this experience. Vernier’s project becomes public, and Eller is accused by one of his classmates of sharing a suspect and unhealthy intimacy with his uncle, of spying, of being, in effect, a gossip. He has no choice but to reject his uncle, and in a public and rather emotional self-exposure. Yet even this blow to the project must be incorporated into its design. In the novel’s final third, a second uncle, Henri, assumes responsibility for the project and attempts to bring Vernier’s manuscript to some stage of completion, if not wholeness. But all Henri can really do is honor the project’s failure, and document, should it occur, the reconciliation of uncle and nephew.
“Not only is there no question of my finishing your uncle’s book, of completing the project which he had undertaken and which crushed him, but no longer even any question of continuing it; it is a ruin; in the construction of this tower from which one was supposed to see America [read: a new world], something was generated that must have made it explode; he couldn’t erect more than a few pieces of the walls, and then that conflagration occurred which not only suspended all labor, but undermined the very ground upon which the walls were being raised, and that is why all that is left for me to do, confronting this fragment of a consciousness and of a future music, is to shore it up a little, so that the passer-by may suffer from it, so that the things around it, so that this state of incompletion, of ruin, may become unendurable to him, for in these twisted beams, in this dilapidated scaffolding, the sun changes the rust to gold, and the wind…” [2] (347)
The last words of the novel are Vernier’s, but the subject of the novel’s final recognition is ambiguous.
“Your uncle Pierre will not write any more; I am the one who will tell you that this text is for you, and it is Micheline Pavin to whom I shall entrust it. You are both bending over his bed. His eyes are open, but it is you he is looking at, he pays no attention to me. I greet him; he murmurs:
‘Who’s that?’” (351)
The simple answer is that it is Vernier who does not recognize himself. A more complex (but not necessarily “better”) answer requires that we look over our own shoulders as we read. Yes, what is at stake in Degrees is the entire social architecture that novels, as a form, have created and continue to replicate. [3] We are, without question, in the realm of “fiction as ideology” here, and, even more so than in Robbe-Grillet‘s Magritte-like anti-novels, the nouveau roman’s debts to Surrealism are made a demonstration of. In part because Butor has chosen to dramatize one individual’s struggle to become a sort of one-man avant-garde. But among the insights the novel has traditionally provided, one stands out for its precariousness: it is through reading novels that readers most closely approach an appreciation of how much our lives are governed by the pettiness—the moral poverty—of human relations. Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Ulysses, even Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (or, if you prefer, his The Twenty-Seventh City): all of these novels show us, in new ways, how the “small things” in life tend to loom over all else. The genius of Degrees lies, in part, in that its surfaces are completely free of Surrealist tropes. There is nothing miraculous or overtly puzzling here to distract us from the ravages of the revolution which the author (Pierre Vernier, not Butor) is plotting. Not to be too Romantic about it, but this appreciation is as much an encounter with the sublime as that provided by any mountainscape or opium reverie. However, the difference separating these sublimes is that, in the novel, and in Degrees in particular, it is through the act and experience of reading that we are confronted with our own responsibility for the wreckage spread out all around us, and with the fact that to witness the wreckage is to cause it all over again.
“I am the one who will tell you that this text is for you…” That address, the second person (indulged in so memorably by Butor in his La Modification [A Change of Heart], the most renowned of his novels in France, and the most difficult of his novels to locate in its English translation) is crucial here. For we are reminded that, as readers, our allegiance was never really with the narrator—with Vernier. In making our way through this book, the position we have occupied is Eller’s, a figure with whom we are familiar but to whom we have no genuine access. Eller has been mediated out of existence; he is the ghost that haunts this work. To get our eyes on Vernier’s manuscript, we must shoulder Eller aside. Who are we when we read? In the case of Degrees, we must pretend to be, in some respect, that “you,” even if only so that we may ultimately refuse to be so identified. If reading is an indeterminately hybrid consciousness, with each reader simultaneously but partially occupying the mind of the author, the narrator, the character(s) and him- or herself, is reading capable of a conscience? Are these lessons intended for Eller for us to learn, are these changes in perspective just there for the usurping? Is Vernier’s totalizing system—his teleology—one we should want to reconstruct, even as just a plausibility, a model?  Should Vernier have written what we have just read, or just passed on by? It is a fair question, but so is the one that logically follows from it: is it really for us to have read what what we have read, as we have it, in the hopes that it has mattered?

1. Throughout Degrees, Eller and his classmates circulate a copy of Fiction Magazine, a periodical full of adventure, science-fiction and fantasy stories. It is not quite a comic book, but the narratives we are able to glimpse in its pages (a paragraph here, an episode there) serve to represent the popular culture of the time as well as any comic book might. Those same narratives, seemingly sensationally, almost amoral in their pursuit of suspense, also serve as an ironic commentary on Vernier, his project, and his “evolution” / “mutation.” Butor, as it turns out, was the most ethical (as well as the most sentimental) of the writers associated with the nouveau roman, and he seems either to have had the most misgivings about the form, as the implicit comparison between his novel and the “non-literary” narratives of Fiction Magazine suggests, or to have satisfied his need to explore it more quickly than any of his peers. Since Degrees (itself over 50 years old), Butor has turned instead to a kind of documentary poetics. A prime example is Mobile (also available from Dalkey Archive), a book that, oddly enough, accomplishes those daring feats of perception that lure Vernier to his downfall.
2. One doesn’t read Degrees for the qualities of its language. While “arid,” the adjective employed on the back cover blurb to the Dalkey Archive reprint of this title, seems too harsh, it does at least connote some sense of the fragility of Butor’s prose. It may not be beautiful per se, but we must treat it with as much care, maybe even reverence, as anything beautiful, lest it break. Richard Howard’s translation expertly preserves this same quality. In fact, Howard’s rendering possesses a strange translucence; it feels as if the original French is always hovering, just at the threshold of perception, behind or on the other side of the English. It is semi-spoiled or ruined English. English and French have come into contact here, each language, like an acid or base, weakening the bonds of the other’s vocabulary and syntax. What remains are the hard centers of words; the softer edges have melted into a patina. The scarred parts mingle, beginning to organize themselves, but they don’t so much constitute a new language as they suggest an irrevocable Urtext. Butor’s novel is, after all, multi-lingual, and the problems of translation—a hermeneutic, not a paraphrase, as Howard understands—do occupy its characters.
“(you were picking your way through the pages of the dictionary, seeing the text not as a continuity, but as a succession of words, each of which required an exhausting effort),” (305)
Lyricism in such a work has to be hard-won, can only emerge from a Bresson-like texture of banal repetitions. In the case of Degrees, the recurring quotes from Homer, Rabelais and a variety of textbooks are the punchlines of this routine, with Vernier’s own highly Classical, Latin and Greek-inflected, philologist’s diction providing the set-up. And one is almost moved to laughter by Henri’s description of what has become of Vernier’s manuscript. The pity is that it is the kind of laughter most commonly used to cover up embarrassment.
3. The contemporary world which the nouveau roman believed itself to be capable of representing—shattered and discontinuous; sick with history; unable to offer the comfort and / or assurance of a coherent master narrative; urban, alienated, populated by actors (one hesitates to say subjects) anxious or ambivalent about or even simply undetermined in their humanity; in short, post-Enlightenment, post-Holocaust—was no fully realized futurity at all. Rather, it was the hangover of a past. The “dispensing” gestures ascribed to the nouveau roman were a kind of wish-fulfillment. The past cannot be so easily rubbed out of the present. The nouveau roman is, in one sense, an interrogation of a premise that previous avant-gardes, particularly Surrealism, had taken for granted: again, that alterations in imaginary relations could actually provoke substantive and predictable (read: desired) alterations in “real” relations. Moreover, that human beings, themselves crippled by their own relationship to temporality, could ever really develop a workable strategy by which to do anything more than remember, repeat and project. To make time actually exist. Rather than read nouveaux romans as formal descriptions of what had come to be, this reader can’t help but read them instead as diagnoses of the relative impossibility of anything “new” coming to be at all. And the novel itself? It is what guarantees this impossibility. The nouveau roman writers were all very cognizant of (or convinced that) it was the kind of narrative promulgated by 19th Century novels that had created the set of conditions that made the 20th Century happen. Try as they might, Butor et al. could not write a novel that somehow forgot that it was a novel. (Not even Blanchot could achieve this.)  And it is far from certain that this was ever an achievement those writers wanted for their work. If the novel as a form was no longer suited to reflecting real conditions, while salvage it at all?  Why this odd conservatism? How contemporary can a novel actually be? Perhaps it is better to think of the nouveau roman writers as reverse engineers, de-articulating the novel so as to determine how it was we arrived at this future (“now”) out of all the possible futures suggested by a form, one of whose raw materials is possibility. Each nouveau roman is a kind of portable laboratory, a controlled experiment with one or several of the formal qualities of narrativization. If everything is fiction, then meta-fiction is no game (a quintessentially pragmatic and American attitude, anyway). Meta-fiction is the stuff of life and death. Were the nouveau roman writers arguing, then, that their contemporary world was one especially attuned to the imaginary super-structure of reality, of the power of myth (“authorless narratives”) still disseminated and disseminating, of just how much artifice had always already been organized? Hardly. But these claims ring hollow when bulleted out in a manifesto, when they assume the pose of rhetoric. So—and the nouveau roman writers seem to have arrived at this consensus without indulging in any discussion, much less debate—instead the author’s task is to treat readers to a very uncomfortable experience of the consequences of those ideas. Each individual nouveau roman, manifest as a book (so clever, so surreptitious, yet frank, really… like a lockbox in the shape of a folio… there are echoes here of Joseph McElroy‘s A Smuggler’s Bible, McElroy being probably the only of the first wave of American postmodernist novelists to really “get” the nouveau roman… and is it any accident that Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production was published about the same time that the nouveau roman was heading into its ebb?), is a non-book, is a complete violation of the expectations invoked by its appearance as such, is not depersonalized but overrun by multiple readings (the “author’s” primary among them), is a literalization of what is, in everyday (waking?) life, consensually metaphoric, and thus innocuously true.Joe Milazzo

Once again we start with a title that has various shades of meaning, in this case from the degrees on a thermometer (several of the characters contract flu) to the degrees of a relationship and, doubtless, several other possible meanings. We also have a formal structure - three sections each with seven chapters. The three image is taken even further with various threesomes appearing in the story. The story, however, is far more complicated than the previous novels and, as it will be Butor's last real novel, it does raise the question as to whether Butor might have thought that he had written himself into a corner.
Pierre Vernier is a teacher of geography and history at a French high school. His nephew, Pierre Eller, is a student there. Vernier decides to write a full account of a specific day in the school, namely 12 October 1954. This day is both Columbus Day (and Vernier is teaching the discovery of America) and also Eller's fifteenth birthday. The aim is that Eller will be able to look back at the account in later life and see exactly what happened. The first section of the book is Vernier's first-person account. Of course, he soon realises that he cannot know everything that is going on in the school at that time on his own so he gets his nephew to help and his nephew will - maybe - write the second part. Nominally, the nephew is reporting on what his uncle has reported on, only from his perspective. However, it soon seems that it may not be the nephew writing after all. What is clear is that the whole project is too overwhelming for Vernier and both his school work and personal life suffer. He turns to drink and has a breakdown, while the third part is taken over by Henri Jouret, also Eller's uncle and also a teacher at the school. Meanwhile, Eller's reputation with the other students has deteriorated as he is seen as telling all to the teacher. His own personal situation likewise deteriorates, causing problems between Vernier and Eller's parents.Butor could have made this very complicated and, to a certain degree, it is. Against the background of the deterioration of the health and relationships of Eller and Vernier we do get the narration of events, linked, as always in Butor, to a mythological background, with the discovery of America being the key one. However, with his reference to Rabelais and education, it is clear that Butor is taking aim at the entire current Western method of knowledge and may be one other reason why he abandoned the novel after writing this one. It sort of works, even if you have to stick with it and the point Butor is making is clearly an important one. - www.themodernnovel.com/french/butor/degres.htm

Like A Change of Heart (see 1960 bulletin, p. 911) which won the Prix Renaudot and the earlier Passing Time (see 1959 service, p. 63), M. Butor's latest novel is a highly experimental work of technical virtuosity. It is set in a boys' secondary school in the Paris of today and divided into three sections. The ""conceiver"" of the story is M. Varnier, a teacher who has as one of his pupils his young nephew Pierre Eller; Pierre also has as a teacher his other uncle Henri Jouret. Varnier becomes obsessed with this relationship and finds that there are several other such relationships in the school; he conceives a narrative built upon five sets of triads (each containing 2 teachers and one student bound in an uncle-nephew as well as teacher-pupil relationship) and, in Part One weaves back and forth within a time span of a few years, describing the exact locations of the people in each of these triads at any given moment-indicating what it is they are reading, studying, and thinking. Part Two covers the exact same period as Varnier thinks that his nephew Pierre experiences it, and Part Three again goes over that period as told by Jouret, the other uncle. Through subtle devices, we begin to realize with some horror that Varnier's obsession with the project and with his relationship to Pierre is driving him beyond the limits of integrity and that it will have a scarring effect upon Pierre. In spite of the technical brilliance and originality of construction throughout, the characters are always digits in this complex equation. For the avant-garde readers only.  - Kirkus Reviews

The Prehistory of Constrained Writing
Reading Muchel Butor's "Degrees" (1960, English by Richard Howard, 1961) after reading surrealism and Oulipo -- two movements that came before and after Butor -- is a disorienting experience. (Oulipo was started the year this book was published, but Butor was not a member.) The book is pervaded with self-awareness: the narrator sets out to chronicle what is taught in every classroom of a Lycee, and the grammar, prosody, and structure of the novel follow his self-imposed task. On the face of it, that is compatible with Oulipean constraints, but there is no authorial self-awareness here (the author does not appear), only narrative self-awareness. The result of the obsessive and hopeless attempt at chronicling every student and every classroom is endless juxtapositions of fragments of dialogue, which are in effect surreal; but the narrator (and the implied author) take no special pleasure in the unpredictable and meaningless sequences of unrelated facts, the way a surrealist would.
(At one point Butor's own voice leaks into the text, when the narrator says that just as it's impossible to represent the Earth on a map without distorting it, "it is impossible to represent reality in speech without a certain kind of distortion." That isn't something the narrator (a geography and history teacher) would have said, and he then adds, in parentheses: "(this latter, obviously, I didn't tell you in class, it's an idea that came to me as I was writing"). The "me" and "I" in that last clause are clearly the author, not the narrator. This is the sort of thing that Oulipeans would find obtrusive, because it breaks the fourth wall and in effect changes the novel's game: but it apparently didn't bother Butor. Maybe he thought he got away with it, that he didn't make his readers think of him.)
Here is a sample, which also shows the layout, in which paragraphs break in the middle of sentences:
" I had just drawn a diagram on the board to explain the time zones, how it is midnight a the antipodes when it is noon in Paris, and it was when I turned around that I saw the furtive movement of that hand, of that arm hiding itself behind Michel Daval's shoulder, which itself was half concealed by that of Francis Hutter in the first row, who was looking at his book open to an illustration on this same subject, comparing his diagram with mine, making an obvious effort to understand,
then looked at the face of the clock I was pointing at while explaining that an hour corresponded on the clock face to thirty degrees, but that if the twenty-four hours of the day were put there as sometimes happens, and not only half of them as is customary, then each one of them would occupy exactly fifteen degrees, like each of the zones on this great clock which is the earth.
And during the English class, Alain Mouron went on examining this diagram that had remained on the blackboard, the circle representing the terrstrial equator, another, smaller circle underneath, then the sun surrounded by its beams, one of them longer than the rest, ending in an arrow with the word noon, and at the top the word midnight almost at the edge of the board.
At his left, on the other side of the window, between two branches..."
[pp. 38-9]
This sort of description, which leaps between subjects, times, and places, and keeps up a level of detail that continuously flaunts its boring endlessness, is at first like Perec's "Life: A User's Manual" or the opening of Robbe-Grillet's "Voyeur." But this isn't systematic, plotted encyclopedism like Perec's, or psychologicaly inflected myopic inspection as in Robbe-Grillet. It's the narrator's "project," which he proposes as a gift to his nephew, who is also one of his students.
Reading "Degrees" is like seeing poststructuralism just at the moment it was born, conscious for the first time, but not at all calculating about that self-awareness. The book is calculated in the sense that it's plotted -- I imagine hundreds of white cards, and cork boards pinned with notes -- but not in the sense that it believes expressiveness comes only from disruptions in the expected narrative.
The narrator's attempt to list every student and every class in the eleventh grade doesn't work: naturally, because it's endless; but also unexpectedly, because the author is not fully in control of his own book. I will consider just three points: whether Butor expected readers to keep count of all the characters; what counted for him as a complete description; and how he describes the narrator's reasons for doing such an exhausting and unrewarding thing in the first place.
1. How closely did Butor expect his readers to follow his narrative?
In the first few pages it seems Butor toyed with the idea of what would soon become a sort of Oulipean extravagance: it seems he makes nearly impossible demands on the reader's memory and attention. Here is part of a sentence whose subject is a student named Limours:
" Sitting in front of you, in the first row, Limours casually arranges on his desk his spiral-bound notebook... [skipping two lines]
he too a pupil, this year, of one of his uncles, Monsieur Bailly, who at this moment is making his seniors on the floor above read Keats's sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
(Chapman: 1559-1634):
'Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez.'
(Cortez, or Cortes: 1485-1547),
'when with eagle eyes
'he star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.'
(Darien: southernmost part of the isthmus of Panama),
a first cousin of both Monsieur Mouron, father of Alain Mouron who is in this class, and of Madame Daval, mother of Michel Daval sitting to your right, who is leaning over to ask you for a blotter, because his ink bottle, badly corked, has begun to leak all over his hands."
[p. 10]
When I encountered sentences like this, I tried at first to keep notes, and I think Butor expected that response. It is not clear to me when he thought his more diligent readers would give up taking notes, because there is no clear division between the systematicity of the opening fifty or hundred pages and the hopeless attempts at systematicity in the book's final hundred and fifty pages, when the narrator is finally broken by his impossible task. In later constrained writing it is often clearer when a reader is expected to pay close attention, and when it's better to be carried along by the flow of facts that cannot ever be tallied.
2. Incomplete descriptions
The narrator interrupts his chronicle a dozen times or so in order to tell us how exhausting it was, and to describe his purpose, and update us on his progress. In one such passage he says his notes are "a literal description, without any intervention on the part of my imagination, a simple account of precise facts..." (p. 46). Note that "literal" doesn't mean "complete," but it isn't clear what counts as adequate.
I was repeatedly struck, in a way that I think Butor did not anticipate, by lapses in the supposedly complete descriptions. The game as we're given it in the first dozen pages is more or less this: we'll be told the names and families of every student and teacher in the Lycee, and we'll be given samples of what is said in every classroom. The passage I transcribed at the beginning is an example of the upper limit of detail: the diagram in question is conjured well enough so a reader can picture it. The second passage, with the quotations from Keats, is normative throughout the book: we're given couplets or single lines, just enough to conjure the subjects of each class. This brief kind of evocation is consonant with the narrator's purpose--he intends to give his nephew a mnemonic that he can read in later years.
The problem is that Butor doesn't seem to have thought out exactly how these longer descriptions might work with the briefer ones. At one point the narrator draws a sextant on the board--and that's all we're told. We can't picture it, or imagine how he discussed it (p. 33). On the same page we get the commonplace about how the globe can't be projected onto a plane without distortion, something it's unlikely the students got at that stage in their study. Other times we get summaries of talking points:
"(the various stone ages, the invention of pottery, the discovery of metals, all those tremendous obscure migrations...)" [p. 36]
Apparently Butor didn't want to put Greek letters into his book, but that decision doesn't make sense, because Greek is the subject of one of the classes. As a result students are sometimes said to write "in Greek characters" (p. 42). The narrator skips things he knows (as in the previous quotation), but he also skips the things other teachers say when he doesn't know their subjects. He quotes Italian, but little German, and he has almost no interest in the science or gym teachers. Only one or two passages have any math, and it is the simplest algebra, without context (p. 100).
The result is a cross-section of the Lycee that is a portrait of the narrator's interests, exactly opposite to one of his stated purposes. (Later in the book there are two more narrators, but oddly their interests and expertises coincide with the principal narrator's.)
3. What is the narrator's purpose?
The account the narrator is building is therefore not "complete," but "literal." He says at one point that he has tried "to rely as much as possible on what I know with certainty" (p. 46). He wants to avoid "irremediable doubt" (p. 67) and be "serious" (p. 55). So the project is about facts, and it's about the possibility of avoiding "imagination." (Although later the narrator admits he has needed to make "a great imaginative effort" to write his book, p. 104.)
It remains unclear why the narrator cares only for "facts." He notes that the families of students and teachers form three groups (p. 54): but why should he care about that? Why should just this collection of "facts," some abbreviated, and other less so, some entirely absent, constitute a full description? He says that in order for his book to make sense to his nephew, it needs to be written "in a certain order and according to certain forms and systems" (p. 72). One of those "systems," it turns out, is the "system of triads" (p. 101). But why should triads be a "system," and why are "systems" necessary at all? There are other "systems," and at one point the narrator ponders whether he'll have to adopt entirely different ones (pp. 101-2). But that doesn't explain the need for systematicity itself.
The narrator says events and people have to be "situated": but why? And why is the complex, run-on grammar and kaleidoscopic temporality of the book an optimal sort of "situating" (p. 78)? The narrator says his book is to help his nephew "realize what you yourself have been... where you come from, in other words where you are going," and in that sense "Degrees" is a compulsive biography in the line of Flaubert.
At one point the narrator proposes a wider purpose for his book: "I am writing up [these notes] in your behalf," he says, "and in behalf of your classmates too, less directly, and--through you and them--in behalf of all those who were or will have been eleventh-grade students and even--I think I have to go this far--in behalf of everyone who has any relation with people who have gone through eleventh grade..." [p. 87]
This hardly makes sense. If he'd ended by saying "in behalf of everyone who has tried to remember a day, or a year, of their life in full detail," that might have made sense. By implication he is also saying "in behalf of myself, to keep myself sane." But as it stands this passage is anomalous, illogical (it contradicts the entire rest of the book, which is just for the nephew), and unconvincing. It is the book's most interesting passage. - James Elkins


Michel Butor, Mobile: A Novel, Dalkey Archive Press, 2004

Considered by many to be his greatest book, Michel Butor's Mobile is the result of the six months the author spent traveling across America. The text is composed from a wide range of materials, including city names, road signs, advertising slogans, catalog listings, newspaper accounts of the 1893 World's Fair, Native American writings, and the history of the Freedomland theme park.

Butor weaves bits and pieces from these diverse sources into a collage resembling an abstract painting (the book is dedicated to Jackson Pollock) or a patchwork quilt that by turns is both humorous and quite disturbing. This travelogue captures--in both a textual and visual way--the energy and contradictions of American life and history.

“A gifted disciple of French anti-novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Butor is notable because he uses a different technique with every book and turns out intense and interesting fiction just the same.” - Time

“With a lexicographer's zest for words, Butor . . . captures the tone of American clichés, suggests an almost dizzying sense of space and variety, and brings into ironic juxtaposition elements of primitiveness and sophistication that are part of the American myth.” - The New York Times

Michel Butor is one of France's better anti-novelists. He recently lectured at Bryn Mawr and travelled cross country; thus the biographical backdrop for his ammoth Mobile. As the title would suggest, these prose libre impressions of America are full of mercurial movements: there are endless variations of endless catalogues, of birds, farms, towns, cities, Freedomland, Disneyland, Monticello- you name it. This is known as the totality of reality. Quilt-fashion the pages knit in and out of Brochure poetry (""the Pacific trillium, white petals and green leaves in threes""), ragmatic tidbits (""where you can order apricot ice cream in the Howard Johnson Restaurant""), Chamber of Commerce history or geography (""LEBANON, county seat of Russell County""), local color (""get gas at the next Caltex""), national culture (""the illuminated face of Jayne Mansfield""). These too are done over and over again- only the monickers for real estate change. This is known as parallelism. The narrator, for want of a better term, has his thoughts italicized: I Was dreaming of San Francisco. I reached San Francisco. I am dreaming of San Francisco. There are also descriptive states of consciousness (Butor has studied phenomenology) and banal monologues- this is known as rendering the commonplace, what Heidegger called ""babble"". In between you'll find Dramatic Negro/White fragments like Faulkner; ironic juxtapositions like Dos Passos; imagism like Carlos Williams; and the slapdash activism of Jackson Pollock to whom the record is dedicated. An amazing work, an epic work, like a literary A & P. It is also un grand bore. But perhaps that's the point. Maybe mechanized; materialistic America is a bore. However, another Frenchman thought differently and he gave us the isest assessment we've had. But then he knew nothing of the avant garde. His name? De Tocqueville.  - Kirkus Reviews

Freedomland prospectus:“Excitement! Adventure! Education!
Cross the centuries from Colonial New England to the pioneer West, from the Mexican border towns to the Great Lakes ports, from Cape Canaveral to the Northwest Passage! Chug the picturesque Old West on an early iron horse, explore the Northwest in a fur trapper’s canoe, soar 70 feet above the earth in a mine oar bucket . . . tour through America’s waterways and wilderness on the most thrilling new rides ever designed!
Over forty authentic themes to make history
live again at Freedomland! . . .”

As I write this, the 45th President of the United States has been in office for just over two weeks. Watching the country of my birth from north of the 49th parallel where I have lived since I was three years old, it does feel as if one has wandered into the freak show tent at the Circus-at-the-End-of-the-World. Reading Michel Butor’s Mobile at this moment in American history, frames much of what we are currently watching unfold from an eerie perspective. When the French avant-garde writer was travelling the newly connected highways of America in 1959, he could not have known how very timely all the pieces of information he was gathering, fragmenting, and reconstructing into this ambitious experimental work would still seem more than half a century on. Or perhaps he did. In much of today’s rhetoric, it sounds as if there is a desire to return to some ideal USA, but if Mobile is any indication, that ideal never existed. It is a myth, like the many myths celebrated and reproduced at the grand, but very short-lived, Freedomland Amusement Park.
Subtitled “A novel” in the Dalkey Archives edition I read, the original subtitle offers a more accurate indication of the project at hand: Study for a Representation of the United States. Butor draws from a wide range of materials to create, or allow for the creation of, a representational framework for looking at America. He incorporates substantial excerpts from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, reports from the Salem witch trials, traditional and treaty records from Native American history, newspaper accounts of the 1893 World’s Fair and more, but one cannot emerge from this journey without an appreciation of an expansive land, rich in history, natural beauty, and diversity.
As eclectic and idiosyncratic as the nation he is attempting to capture, Mobile reads more like a poem than any manner of traditional textual prose. Even the larger textual pieces are broken up and juxtaposed against other materials including an extensive collection of place names, signs, facts, ethnic newspaper and radio programming, travel boards, catalogue descriptions, Audubon bird portraits, and Howard Johnson ice cream flavours. There is a rhythm and an awareness of pattern that binds the work together within a strict overarching structure. He follows an alphabetic rather than geographic guideline from state to state, plays up the seemingly endless recurrence of place names, and links sections across time zones:
The sea,
razor clams,
littleneck clams,
                    Washington clams
A white Oldsmobile driven by a young, tanned white man in a pineapple-colored shirt with coffee polka dots (55 miles), “How much longer? Two hours?”—Dead Indian and China Hat Mountains.
The sparkling snow.
SPRINGFIELD. . . . and three o’clock in
SPRINGFIELD, Mountain Time, on the desert plain of the Snake River,
near the lava fields,
                     already four in
SPRINGFIELD, Central Time, where you can order black-currant ice
cream in the Howard Johnson Restaurant.
The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
“The New York World,” April 9, 1893:
“Ward McAllister has given careful attention to the question of how New York society will be treated in Chicago during the World’s Fair. He is disposed to think that fashionable persons in this city need not fear anything but the best treatments at the hands of Chicagoans . . .”
Quoted by John Szarkowski: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan.”
The trains coming from New York.
The trains leaving for San Francisco.
Dedicated to Jackson Pollock, Mobile is often described as an unclassifiable work. It is clearly not a study in the formal sense of the word, though by standing back from the flow of fragments, a picture of the country emerges in the patchwork text. There is the sense that Butor harvested this wide range of sources and arranged them to allow the rhythm and flow of language paint a colourful portrait of the United States. It feels dynamic, natural, even when it is the intentional cleverness and humour that catches your eye. But then, it is this same playfulness that makes Mobile such a wonderfully fun read. I especialy enjoyed his use of catalogue listings, as in this pairing of an advertisement for paint-by-number kits with the description of a set of panties:
 “…With this set you receive two Rembrandt water-colors. Panels in pairs, 40 oil-colors in vacuum-sealed glass jars, four superior quality, washable brushes. Net weight: six pounds. . . .”
Or, through Sears, Roebuck & Co., and assortment of seven knitted nylon or rayon panites artistically embroidered with the days of the week:
                      “. . . Choose from
– white for Sunday,
                      – The Last Supper, with The Sermon on the Mount,
– yellow for Monday,
                     – Autumn Landscape, with The End of the Day,
– blue for Tuesday,
                      – Sunset at Sea, with Homecoming,
– pink for Wednesday,
                     – Thoroughbred, with The Foxhunt,
– white for Thursday,
                     – Scenes from Swan Lake, ballet,
– green for Friday,
                     – Venus and Adonis.”
– black for Saturday,
“please include hip measurements,”
This book is not, of course, all light and fun. There are deeply disturbing passages. Segregation is still a reality in many regions (“For whites only”), and the selections from Thomas Jefferson’s writing on the intrinsic inferiority of the black and red races are uncomfortable to read. In the light of the current concern about migrants, the ethnic and cultural diversity captured on Butor’s travels are telling (The Arabs who read “As-Sameer,” The Armenians who read Gochtnag,” The Chinese who read “China Tribune.”) Yet it is all bound together through the repetition of place names from state to state, and the famed ice cream selection at that classic highway stalwart of the era, Howard Johnsons. In the end, filtered through the lens of an outsider, Mobile succeeds in tracing a fractured songline across the heartland of America. - roughghosts


Michel Butor, The Spirit of Mediterranean Places, Trans. by Lydia Davis, Marlboro Press, 1998.
read it at Google Books

This book gathers French writer Michel Butor's essays on his travel in the Mediterranean. Included are pieces on Cordova, Istanbul, Salonica, Delphi, Crete, and northern Italy, as well as an extended essay on Egypt--where, when he was 24, Butor spent a year teaching French in a secondary school. Michel Butor is one of the leading exponents of the avant-garde writing that emerged in France in the 1950s.

A collection of dense, dreamy travel essays, first published in France in 1958, by an acclaimed poet, critic, and proponent of the ""new novel."" Butor's travelogues, like his novels, excel in exact descriptions of physical states. Here, landscapes are often reduced to geometric patterns; Cordova is remembered for ""the cleanliness of the sun and the coolness of the precise shadows it cast, triangles or trapezoids changing proportions according to the day and the hour."" Other places whose patterns Butor traces include Istanbul (an ""Oriental Liverpool""), Salonica, Mantua, Ferrara, and Minya in Middle Egypt, where he passed eight months as a French language instructor. Sometimes the descriptions are impossibly gaseous or vague; of Istanbul, Butor claims in a typical French hyperintellectual inflation that ""this city was at the origin of everything, it has left its mark on everything."" On the other hand, when he grounds himself in humble memories--for instance of the New Year's Eve he was stuck in a small village in Crete without a bed, and suddenly ""everything began to be quite wonderful""--Butor can be amusing, vivid, and quick to capture the essence of an alien land. The final and longest essay, on Egypt, is especially lovely, with its description of fields ""like aquariums filled with liquid wheat."" Certainly not the book to pack as a nitty-gritty sightseeing guide, but here and there, in prose that is always beautiful if not always lucid, this does fulfill its promise to convey the ""spirit"" of Mediterranean lands. -  Kirkus Reviews

Michel Butor, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.

Like James Joyce's and Dylan Thomas's similar titles, Butor's novel is autobiographical in nature and explores the way a writer develops. Shortly after World War II a young man travels to a castle in Franconia housing the second largest private library in Germany. There he discovers a multitude of stimuli for his imagination: a castle once the site of celebrations and executions, the old library, mineral collections, rooms decorated in mythological themes, and an exiled count who has a passion for highly original games of solitaire.
Days are spent in the library steeping himself in the literature of alchemy, whose great theme was transformation. At night, the young man dreams he is in an adventure that begins as a vampire story and ends as a tale from The Thousand and One Nights, in which a young man is transformed into an ape.
Bordering between autobiography and elements of Gothic horror, this "caprice" shows the development as a young man of one of France's most important contemporary novelists during and just after World War II. Though as readers we have as hard a time as Butor himself in separating fact from fantasy, we see the young Butor on the edges of the intellectual and artistic circles of his time (Martin Heidegger and Andre Breton make brief appearances), but we witness this in an ominous, sinister atmosphere where we expect Dracula to step from around the corner at any moment, accompanied by Abbott and Costello
The ape of the title is (at least in part) Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic, the inventor of writing and the record-keeper of the dead. Magic, writing, death, Egypt and apes all come into play in Butor's experimental 1967 novel, now available in English for the first time. The narrator describes a life of study in Paris that is interrupted when a Hungarian professor commands him to speed to Germany to deliver a book to a mysterious poet (here think Jonathan Harker). Once there, he stays in the castle of H?with the Count W?. During the day, he peruses the collection of minerals and an impressive private library (including books on theosophy, alchemy and records of executions); in the evening, he plays bizarre, complicated variations on solitaire with the Count; and at night, he dreams. There is "no way of detecting a lie or an error in the story of a dream," says the narrator, "I prefer to deliberately reconstruct them." His dreams of a beautiful student murdered by a vampire who then transforms the narrator into an ape eventually mingle with stones, alchemy, executions and solitaire, all of them whirling around each other until dreams and reality spin out of control. Given the narrative chaos of the novel, it should come as no surprise that Butor is inevitably mentioned with the likes of Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and other practitioners of the nouveau roman. Although his experiments with structure and blurring the boundaries of reality are admirable, their novelty has worn thin and, unfortunately, what's left doesn't really compensate.  - Publishers Weekly

A champion of the French nouveau roman, Butor here describes his development as a writer, but this novel does not resemble Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In post-World War II Germany, a young man visiting a castle's large private library finds much to stimulate his imagination: mineral collections, rooms decorated with mythological themes, a list of the executions that took place there, and a count who plays card games like role-playing games. Characters appear and disappear in dramatic ways, and at night the young man dreams he is an ape. The reader gets a surreal vision of everything and everyone in the colors of the mineral collection. This novel is entertaining, but it may be hard for the casual reader to follow. For literary collections. - Ann Irvine

Butor's self-styled ""caprice,"" first published in 1967 in France, is an autobiographical fiction in vintage nouveau roman style--though the refracted, elliptical, thickly descriptive narrative isn't all that ""new"" anymore. A sense of mystery pervades Butor's (after The Spirit of Mediterranean Places, 1986, etc.) slim book, which is filled with huge parenthetical asides and occult allusions. A certain Doctor H--, a ""master of ghosts,"" befriends the young author, whose name (Butor) means ""furniture"" in Hungarian. Attending a lyc‚e course (on the problem of God) in Paris during the Occupation opens a whole new world to the narrator, a world of artists and intellectuals, a world in which he is ""an ape."" He reminds us that Toth, the Egyptian god of writing, was often portrayed as an ape, so when he begins a long dream sequence, we are to understand his literal transformation as an ape. Meanwhile, Doctor H-- refers him for a job in Franconia teaching Count W-- how to read French. At the Count's castle, the young man immerses himself in texts--alchemical treatises, The Thousand and One Nights, records of executions--all quoted from liberally. A strange card game repeats itself in the manner of the trick in Last Year at Marienbad. And interspersed throughout are the narrator's dreams of dreams from those years--fabulistic interludes in which a vampire turns him into an ape who stuns everyone by writing in the style of Hegel, Marx, and Jakob B"hme. Amidst much shape-shifting and many monsters, he becomes secretary to the rector of a university. It all ends in an incendiary heap and a mysterious promise to head for Egypt. It's easy to see from this dense but unrewarding text why the French New Wave in fiction is now left to academics, who may have a penchant for such pointless curiosities. - Kirkus Reviews

Michel Butor, Frontiers, Summa Pubns, Trans. by Elinor S. Miller, 1989.    read it at Google Books

Frontiers by Michel Butor (translated by Elinor and Warren Miller)is a collection of essays, poems, journal excerpts, and interviews with one of the luminaries of the New Novel movement in French literature. The author speaks eloquently of his concern for the survival of the earth in an era of growing indifference to other peoples and nature itself. Contains a useful bibliography of Butor's writings and suggested critical studies of his life and work.

Inventory : Essays by Michel Butor

Michel Butor, Inventory: Essays, Simon And Schuster, 1968.

It is no accident that when Butor published his fourth novel (a novel, incidentally, about the making of a novel in the protagonist's head--or to quote Butor: ""Degres is a book constructed in a passion for right angles""), he also published a collection of essays. A selection of these essays, along with some later ""studies and lectures,"" are now made available to the English reader in Inventory, about which his editor and translator Richard Howard remarks: ""The criticism of Michel Butor is an inventory of expressive possibilities, a renewal of invention."" This is also a good summation of Butor's style of fiction: a mathematical exploration of moods, modifications, time lapses, states of consciousness and correlations, rather than any dramatic rounded development of theme, action, characterization. ""Armed with that instrument, that compass, or if you prefer, that provisional map, I begin my exploration, I begin my revision. . . ."" Butor is very brainy, and much of what he has to say, whether of a general nature (the four theoretical essays on technique, research, space, and ""the book as object,"" are indispensable for an understanding of the nouveau roman), or of particular figures (Balzac, Chateaubriand, Proust, Rothke, Pollock, Mallarme, Pierre Boulez, Mondrian) is unquestionably brilliant, provocative, and adventurous. He is, actually, far more dazzling than either Sarraute or Robbe-Grillet (whose critical studies are much better known), and in something like the impressionistic portrait of Apollinaire he makes highly original use of structuralist methods or effects. But like everything emanating from Paris these days, the pretentiousness is extremely keen (how can anyone believe the following: ""I catch myself mentally humming Stockhausen or others; soon I shall hear it being hummed"") and the assemblage of insistently diagrammatic insights often induces weariness and disaffection in the reader. - Kirkus Reviews

Michel Butor, Passing Time, Simon and Schuster, 1960.

I have to preface my review of Passing Time with the words, "though I'm not usually a reader of mysteries or a fan of puzzles...." This book is on some important level both a mystery and a puzzle, even though its unsuspecting reader may not set out with the intention of reading mysteries or solving puzzles. Passing Time exists within the boundaries of some literary tradition which I dislike calling post-modern but lack a better alternative--a tradition that allows an author to make use of such disruptive narrative tricks as nested or crisscrossing frames of reference, stories-within-a-story, and disjointed time. The novel's title hints at its theme--time. Its presentation of events in time is profoundly disrupted. The time spanned by the primary narrative is one year, perhaps a year in the 1950s. The place is a city in England, perhaps Manchester. Though it plays with time-sequences, Butor's novel is not science fiction. In fact there would be no point in mentioning science fiction at all except that Passing Time seems to have influenced a massive and literary sci-fi novel from the 1970s, Samuel Delaney's Dhalgren. Not only do both novels use all the disruptive devices listed above, but they use them in similar ways. This fact in itself is not an indication that Passing Time influenced Delaney when he was working on Dhalgren. But there are other similarities (for example, the metaphors both writers used when describing the sky) that indicate that the earlier novel did influence the later one. A reader who has read them both is likely to finish each with a feeling that there is a literary puzzle to be solved by a second (or possibly a third) reading. But what a difference the two decades between their writing made! Passing Time leaves the reader with a greater assurance than Dhalgren that the puzzle has an actual solution. Passing Time has yet another advantage: you could lend it to your mom! - jnminni@voyager.net   

As with his previous work, the title is deliberately ambiguous. As the English title has it, it can mean passing time, in a vague sort of way, but it can also be a more formal work time sheet and, indeed, the hero of the novel, Jacques Revel keeps a formal schedule/diary. The book is in the form of his diary and is divided into five sections, one for each of the months he writes his diary. The sections are also divided into five, one for each weekdays of the week. Revel is staying in Bleston, a dreary English town, presumably based on Manchester, where Butor worked as a teacher. Revel is working as a translator of commercial correspondence and he finds the job dreary, the weather awful, the town dull and the food disgusting. In short, he is not enjoying himself. By the time he starts his diary, he has already been in Bleston seven months.
Butor's great skill is to have Revel both search for himself - he is lost in Bleston in more ways than one - but also uncover, or try to uncover, the city of Bleston for what it is. As a fictional city, Butor is at liberty to create the architecture and infrastructure of the city but also at liberty, as he does, to create its mythic structure. The city, as any strange city can be, is also a place to fear. The first friendly face Revel meets is Horace Buck, an African immigrant, whose knowledge of English is as poor as Revel's. More particularly, as a black man he can be threatening and, initially, is. Though he befriends and helps Revel, he remains a threatening figure, linked to a series of mysterious fires that break out in the city. Indeed, the symbolism of fire and water is strong throughout the book, with the rainy, foggy city and its river, contrasted with the mysterious fires as well as various other images of fire.Revel soon finds himself caught up in a mystery of which he is unsure whether it is real or fictional. Not only are there the mysterious fires, possibly started by Buck, there are various convoluted stories, linked to Bleston and its people and artifacts. In particular, there is the detective novel, Le Meurtre de Bleston [The Murder of Bleston], with the crimes in the novel being linked to real crimes and also linked both to Revel's real friends but even to scenes in the stained glass windows in the cathedral. Revel finds the real identity of the pseudonymous author of Le Meurtre de Bleston [The Murder of Bleston] and tells his friends but when the author is run down by a car, things start getting really complicated. Indeed, it is this clever intertwining between what is real and what is not, between the past and the present, which, in itself, reveals the city of Bleston, that makes this novel so interesting. While Butor said he was not writing a nouveau roman, the use of the detective story, the idea of the labyrinth and the attempt to find a new dimension are clearly nouveau roman themes. Whether it is or it isn't, it is still a very fine novel, indeed one of the best post-war French novels, and very well worth reading in its own right. - www.themodernnovel.com/french/butor/emploi.htm
A tantalizing, sometimes tiring, ultimately inconclusive and in that sense defeating experimental novel is just as subliminal in its technique as the earlier A Change of Heart (1959). Here, freighted with impressions, blurred by indirection and the superimposition of the past on the present, Jacques Revel, a young Frenchman in England for a year, records his stay in Bleston, intoning his dislike of this drab to desolate industrial city. While on the one hand he makes friends with James Jenkins, with whom he works, and with two sisters- Ann and Rose Bailey (and resists a guarded attraction to both), he also identifies his hatred of Bleston with a Negro- a chance encounter, and with his interest in the pseudonymously written The Bleston Murder. An acquaintance with this book's real author also results in his careless revelation of his name and is responsible for the ""accident"" which almost kills the writer; Revel continues to annotate and connect the unknowns and half truths, but leaves the country- and the reader- with little beyond the record of an alien's estrangement..... An ""auditing"" of experience which has earned a valid comparison with Nathalie Sarraute and which will indicate the restrictive nature of the market. - Kirkus Reviews

Michel Butor, Niagara, Trans. by Elinor S. Miller.  Henry Regnery Co., 1969.

Michel Butor's 6 810 000 litres d'eau par seconde bears certain similarities to each of his earlier stereophonic works, but is much more than a reworking of established techniques. Generally thought to be difficult, as indicated by the title, which arouses interest without revealing the subject matter, the work has a complex and masterful structure. Against a background of gradually accelerated time, emphasized by appropriate sound effects, an Announcer leads a tour of Niagara Falls. Alphabetically identified characters play out predictable roles as newlyweds, second honeymooners, and the lonely ones. A Reader recites throughout Chateaubriand's classic description of the Falls, constantly recombining the original words in canon form. The initially forbidding typography with three typefaces and three margins creates the possibility of multiple readings. Each part is preceded by directions enabling the reader to alter the text, increasing the volume for some characters, drowning out others. Thus, theoretically, one could read any one of ten texts: "mobile readings," revealing each a different work. This mobility, with the typography, creates an "intellectual chord," not possible otherwise except in music. The subtly colored polyphonic mobile brilliantly serves to express Butor's view of the human condition, reflected in his stereophonic vision of the Falls. - Elinor S. Miller download (pdf)

Busy readers will take the short track by skipping all the parentheses and all the preludes""--more irritable ones will end up by skipping everything: light and dark print, italics, stage directions (""fading away""--""slower"") unintelligibly piped in on Tracks A,B,C,D, E, F, G, H. A processional of people whether older couples reminiscing or newly-weds kissing come to the falls, drop random remarks, look at the flowers (magnificent color range), view the cataract, chaos, chute de chutes.. . . And those who remember Mobile or earlier phenomenological pranks, those little feux or feux d'esprit, will avoid the fountain of youth and the connubial pilgrimage. ""Track J."" ""Read Everything."" Track K. who?  - Kirkus Reviews

Image result for Michel Butor, A Change of Heart,
Michel Butor, A Change of Heart, Simon and Schuster, 1959.

The 1957 Prix Renaudot is an experimental novel of some virtuosity and it is perhaps for its technical accomplishment that it is most likely to command interest and commend praise. During a twenty-four hour trip between Paris and Rome, a middle-aged man, escaping from a lifeless marriage to the renewal of a romance with a younger woman, begins the journey with the hope of making a final break. His darting observation of the changing landscape, of those that share his compartment, alternates with the flickering thoughts of a consciousness which streams through incidents of life with Henriette, his wife, and their four children, its ""net of petty rites"" to the rendezvous he has had with Cecile, in Rome, in Paris. And with the destination reached- so is a decision, which reverses the hopes entertained at the start of the journey..... A montage of migrant memories and vistas, a metabolism- of the mind rather than the heart, this, while recording an emotional experience, is almost divorced from feeling- a limiting factor.  - Kirkus Reviews

Michel Butor's La Modification, first published in French in 1957, describes a single train journey. It follows the middle-aged Leon Delmont from Paris – where he leaves behind his wife Henriette and family – to Rome, where he plans to surprise his mistress Cecile with news that he will end his marriage to be with her.

In subsequent translations, the novel's title has been rendered variously as A Change of Heart (US) and Second Thoughts (UK) but it is the original French which captures most closely the emotional, gradual transition played out between the Gare de Lyon and the Stazioni Termini.

That what might have been a banal tale is strikingly not so, from the outset, is thanks in no small part to the author's use of the second person to tell the story. It is "you" who boards the train, you who carries a book with the firm intention of reading it, you who smokes a Gitane. The intimacy afforded by this simple stylistic device pervades the reader's experience. We are Leon, whether we like it or not. We take this journey with him, in the designated time and space of the train compartment, where he is neither who he was at the departure point, nor who he will be on arrival. The sensation is of a porous neutrality, of the "between" stage that permits us to be ourselves, allowing thoughts and choices to surface.

Expressed as an emotional transition, the journey (which Leon presents to Henriette in the guise of a monthly business trip to Rome) retains a focus on the physical – the smell and feel of the compartment, the folded ticket bought that morning at Paris-Lyon, the pocket in which Leon finds it, even his choice of coffee, shine a light on how rarely the minutiae of travel are shared.

Henriette and Cecile flit into and out of these accounts as shadowy figures. Cecile embodies Rome, youth and freedom where Henriette, domestic and stiff, sleeps in Paris "on the other side of the bed … separated by an uncrossable river of linen". In tandem, Leon's descriptions of his fellow passengers broaden the focus of the narrative – a priest drumming his nails on a black briefcase, a young couple lowering the window to lean and gaze at another train blurry in the hazy rain of early evening, are framed in his middle aged eyes. Against a sequence of Turin, Genoa and finally Pisa their immediacy places the images of the two women at one remove. Slowly but irreversibly, the journey comes to reverse Leon's mental picture of Cecile, bringing to his mind her expression of disdain when last they parted, rather than the "peaceful respite" he has come to find in her eyes. Henriette's image conjures her "perpetual air of criticism hanging over her every word …" but also her hold upon him.

As he sets it down, the journey itself alludes to the Classical age and its protagonist is not above self-aggrandisement. Reading the letters of Julian the Apostate, Delmont likens himself to the ancient Roman Empire's representative in Paris, both in his working role in the Italian capital and in his initial opposition to the Christian church. We learn that his first wanderings through the Roman streets with Cecile acquainted him only with her enthusiasm for pre-Christian Rome. Subsequently and in the absence of his mistress, he has discovered the churches, the Vatican and their hold upon him, a passion shared by his wife and not by Cecile. It is with this version of the city that he finds he has fallen in love. The contrasted faces of Rome (as well as those of Rome and Paris) make Leon's choice between pagan and Christian equivalent to his choice between the two women.

The rhythm of the train seems to predict Leon's thought processes, the slow emergence of doubts and fears that make his ultimate change of mind inevitable: "You realise the step is taken but not the one you had thought to take on boarding the train, another step … the abandonment of the luminous aspect of your future towards which you had taken this train, a life of love and of happiness with Cecile … it is now necessary not to think of it."

The knowledge comes to Leon that the reconciliation he envisaged with Cecile would be a "thin and fragile" one, that despite his physical journey towards her, the distance is opening up between himself and his mistress. The "implacable evidence of the fragility of your love, of its attachment to the place" unravelling his initial picture, pointing him back towards Henriette.

The interplay of the two cities in relation to the two women builds as the novel (and the journey) draws to a close. Leon's love for Cecile proves so intertwined with his passion for Rome, as well as with youth and freedom, that these aspects have overtaken her. Transported to the French capital, his mistress would lose her hold on his heart. Henriette, "sleeping" in Paris, representing family and work, comes to represent his closer "self".

Monitoring the progress of his own sea change, Leon determines then to express it in his own book, "La Modification". The novel thus becomes the book of itself.

Triggering thoughts of my own journey, between my first reading of the novel as a student and my second, 20 years later, La Modification retains its power. It is differently resonant but as vivid and as evocative of the process by which, privately, we change. -

Image result for Prisms and Rainbows: Michel Butor's Collaborations with Jacques Monory, Jiri Kolar

Prisms and Rainbows: Michel Butor's Collaborations with Jacques Monory, Jiri Kolar, and Pierre Alechinsky. Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
read it at Google Books
French novelist and essayist and leading writer of the Nouveau Roman, Michael Butor was thematically concerned with changes in space and time and the artist's dilemna in recreating reality. This book is a study of Michael Butor's collaboration with three visual artists- Jacques Monory, Jiri Kolar, and Pierre Alechinsky, specifically those in which the artwork preceded the text and thus provided Butor with inspiration for his texts.

More than any other contemporary writer, Butor has significantly transformed the idea of creative activity through his collaborations with artists from various fields of artistic expression. One of his lifelong goals has been to break down the artificial barriers and to show the interconnectivity of all modes of creative activity. Regrettably, the collaborative projects are not as well known as his fictional writings, due in part to the inaccessibility of the former. Initially printed in limited editions, some were later published in literary volumes without the accompanying artwork.
Miller is one of only a handful of Butor scholars who has studied hi collaborative works. Were it only for the logistics of combining many trips to museums abroad, countless interviews, conference presentations, and thousands of hours of work, Miller’s book would be worthy of praise. She has not only succeeded in bringing together the texts and the works of art in one volume, and in the process providing a detailed analysis of Butor’s writing, but has also shed light on the works o art themselves. In addition to being an excellent critical study of Butor’s texts, Prisms and Rainbows also offers a much broader analysis of each individual artist’s work and world view.
The book is essentially a close reading (for lack of a better word), an explication de texte of the poems and short texts written by Butor to accompany the artists’ work. The book is divided into three main chapters, treating Butor’s collaboration with Monory, Koar, and Alechinsky. In the introduction, Miller explains her title: “prisms” represent the works of the artists and “rainbows” represent Butor’s texts and identify the major “themes”: politics, harmony, humor, structure. She concludes by mentioning other studies on Butor’s collaborative work. The chapter on Monory concentrates on the Bicentennial Kit (serigraphs by Monory, poetry by Butor) given to Elinor Miller and Dean McWilliams by Butor. Butor’s poems serve as a commentary and explanation of each serigraph. In chapter 2, Miller examines several of Kolar’s collages and their accompanying texts by Butor. Then, in Chapter 3, she analyzes several of Alechinsky’s engravings and paiers trouvés works, and Butor’s writings.
Miller analysis of Butor’s texts is much more meaningful when one is able to see the artist’s work on the page. The two creative works are mutually and critically important to our understanding of the collaboration. One could say that Miller provides us with the tools for a new creation, one that can only result from the presence of both works on the same page. It is a revelation of sorts presenting a simultaneous explanation of both. It is the prisms that give the possibility of a rainbow and it is the rainbow in turn that defines the brilliance of the prism. They are inseparable. This perhaps is the greatest contribution of Miller’s book.
This book is not for everyone. The casual reader runs the risk of getting lost in the detail and the close reading of the poems, and is likely to give up. It is, however, a treasure box for those who have an eye for detail and are genuinely interested in collaborative works. Artists who do not know Butor will find in this book a breath of fresh air that brings a new perspective to the works of Monory, Kolar, and Alechinsky. Those who know only Butor’s work will gain a deeper insight into his creative mind and literary genius. And ultimately, for those who appreciate both, this book will serve as an excellent example of the interrelationship of all forms of artistic expression.
Seda Chavdarian, University of California, Berkeley, French Review, 79.3

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