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

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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. -

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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