In Memoriam: Michel Butor

September 1, 2016 | By Rebecca Pittel

Michel Butor was born on September 14th, 1926, in the town of Mons-en-Barœul, in northern France, and spent most of his childhood in Paris. After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne but failing the French national teaching exam on the subject, Butor began to travel, teaching French at universities in Egypt and the U.K beginning in 1950.

During this time abroad, Butor began to reflect on his life in Paris and, from 1952 to ’53, wrote his debut novel, Passage de Milan. Separated into 12 chapters, the book traces 12 hours in the lives of a Paris apartment building's residents, using the limited setting as a microcosm for the city.

Published by Éditions de Minuit in 1954, Passage de Milan experimented with shifting points of view and complicated the reader’s perceptions of space and time within its claustrophobic narrative. Butor’s innovations upended the standards of the conventional novel—standards which he observed closely as a literature professor and literary critic—and soon brought him together with other avant-garde writers published by Minuit, including Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

It was Robbe-Grillet who would name the project of this disparate group of young writers—all inspired by such Modernist authors of the past as Faulkner, Kafka and Joyce but unique in their literary visions—Le Nouveau Roman, the New Novel. It was a classification that Butor would repeatedly reject, citing the distinctive styles of each nouveau roman practitioner, but one which would nonetheless follow him through the rest of his career.

Butor quickly followed Passage de Milan with 1956’s L’Emploi du temps, a work that travelled even further into the territories of nonlinear chronology and polyphonic narration, and which received the Sorbonne’s Fénéon Prize.

However, it was in 1957 that Minuit would release Butor’s most acclaimed work, La Modification. The portrait of a man on a train trip from Paris to Rome to meet his mistress, the novel concentrates solely on its protagonist’s internal state. Though geographically limited, the narrative ranged widely within the character’s mind to include extended reflections on life in Ancient Rome and invocations of haunting spirits.

The novel notably uses the second-person plural (“vous”) form of address, effectively submerging the reader in the doubts and fears of its character, a style which many other novelists would imitate. La Modification received the prestigious Prix Renaudot and was translated into 20 languages. In the United States, it is entitled A Change of Heart; in the United Kingdom, Second Thoughts.

Butor’s 1960 novel Degrés took inspiration from the author’s career as a high school teacher in Geneva, narrating a single hour in a lycée classroom from the perspectives of three separate characters. After Degrés’s release, Butor found himself no longer stimulated by fiction, and began to express his insatiable curiosity about the world through new narrative forms.

He would turn to criticism of visual art, writing on painters from Rembrandt and Delacroix to Mondrian and Rothko, and of classical music by composers including Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky. He also began a series of collaborations with painters—Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Bernard Dufour and Pierre Alechinsky among them—that would produce hundreds of striking artists' books over the course of his career.

Butor also returned to his roots in literary criticism to compose the Improvisations series, widely-read examinations of the works of Balzac, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Henri Michaux—men whom he called his frères de plume—and, in the late 1990s, himself.

Continuing to travel widely, Butor also authored many essay and poetry collections from his observations of countries and cultures around the world. The best-loved product of these travels is the five-part series Le génie du lieu, begun in 1958, whose travel essays on such settings as the Greek isles and Egypt bring in ancient history, art and architecture in order to analyze the regions through their cultural symbols. Believing in the power of language to “reconstruct the world” in all its richness and variety, Butor once remarked to French publication L’Express that “to write is to destroy barriers.”

In the early 1960s, Butor undertook a six-month-long road trip through the United States, from which he composed Mobile, a ‘verbal collage’ of road signs, advertising slogans and other “found” texts from the road. When it was released in the U.S. in 1966, The New York Times said the book presented readers with “an almost dizzying sense of space and variety,” capturing in “ironic juxtaposition elements of primitiveness and sophistication that are part of the American myth.” In the New York Review of Books, on the other hand, Truman Capote introduced Butor to readers as an “extravagant practitioner” of the “anti-novel” before concluding the book to be “unreadable.”

On the subject of Mobile’s collage form, Butor remarked that drawing on his discoveries from the journey captured his impressions of the United States far more effectively than his original words would have.  “I am always making things from inside the world,” he told The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1985. “I try to be inside the world! I transform, I change, I do not ‘create’!”

Butor also spent numerous decades in passing onto others his enthusiasm for discovering the world's varied artistic cultures. He remained a university professor in Geneva from the 1970s until 1991 and served as a guest professor all over the world, including in the U.S. at Bryn Mawr College, Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico.

Having garnered the high respect of his peers Sarraute, Simon and Roland Barthes, Butor also served as a source of inspiration to younger writers such as French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio and American poet John Ashbery. In his later years, Butor frequently granted interviews to young writers and intellectuals, several of which were published in book forms.

From 2006 to 2012, the French publishing house La Différence released the entirety of Butor’s oeuvre in 12 thick volumes. Counting reissues and collaborations, the collection is said to amount to nearly 1500 volumes. In recognition of his wide-ranging and immense contribution to French literature, Butor also received the prestigious Grand prix de littérature from the Académie française

Butor remained active in multiple genres of writing until his passing on August 24th, at his home in the Haute-Savoie village of Contamines-sur-Arve. An anthology of Hugo which he edited was released in France in June, and his French publishers have planned two new releases of Butor’s poetry for what would have been his 90th birthday this month.  These works—the artist’s book Quatre-vingt-dix (Ninety), a collaboration with several of Butor’s favorite painters, and Par le temps qui court (At this Time), a new anthology of poems—will be published in memory of Butor’s life of valuable contributions to Francophone literature.  

When asked what motivated him to continue to write, across genres, subjects and time periods, Butor responded that the desire came from a force larger than himself, manifesting itself into action. “I have an indomitable urge, as if a voice dictated to me, and then the text engenders itself," he said.

“The idea of doing is important. And to write is action par excellence.”

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