The objective of Michel Butor’s essays corresponds to the title Répertoire (5 vols., 1960–82), which refers to what is performed during a theater season (repertoire), as well as to the place of a discovery (repertory). Butor’s essays are, in fact, the place of an intertextual discovery, not only because they offer a new interpretation of the canonic literary heritage, but also because they reveal the importance of literary and nonliterary traditions, including tales, popular novels, science fiction, travel sketches, and radio plays, all of which have been considered peripheral genres. His essays also explore the intertextual relationship between other artistic systems like music, painting, and literary discourse.
In the first two volumes of Répertoire, Butor expounds the program of the nouveau roman (new novel) in reviewing his own two novels, Passage de Milan (1954; Passage from Milan) and L’Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time). It is not just explicit statements, but also the open structure of the essays that establish the character of the nouveau roman, a style of novel which Butor founded together with Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Claude Simon. In accordance with the experimental conception of literature that emerged in France after World War II within the existentialist movement, Butor also rejects historical and biographical factors as determinants for the novel. His polyphonic writing prefigures the theory of intertextuality developed by Julia Kristeva and the group Tel Quel (As is), which conceives the subject of writing as the point of interconnection of other voices. The subject gets lost in the intricate net of memory and becomes incapable of dominating the outer world. As a result, the concept of author is abandoned. Not surprisingly, then, Butor emphasizes the temporality of the subject of writing. The decline of subject implies denying the mimetic power of narrative.
Descriptions work independently from the observer, who is incapable of organizing them into a coherent representation of the world. Things thus appear “deanthropomorphized” and alien. Although descriptions are an invention of heterogeneous realms of the world, Butor nevertheless does not renounce reality. Literature becomes a phenomenological laboratory where the reflection of reality implies the self-reflection of writing. It is an intentional, metafictional (metadiscursive) elucidation of reality and at the same time a mystification of the narrator’s ability to grasp it.
The heterogeneity of topics considered in the Répertoire volumes defines the status of literature itself, including all kinds of texts and re-creating the literary discourse as a dialogue between texts and media. In this way Butor transforms the concept of modern literature inherited from Baudelaire and Mallarmé. On the one hand, his essays intertwine narrative and essayistic discourses; on the other, his novels include metafictional considerations. With Répertoire, Butor dissolves the epistemological difference between fiction and nonfiction. Both are a global project theatricalizing the relationship between world and language. Butor’s writings are a polyphonic network without center, whose purpose is the renovation of narrative through the destruction of the author as a subject dominating his own discourse. This implies refusing the mimetic status of narrative as well as the epistemological superiority of the narrator. Storytelling is a self-referential process (“mise en abîme”) and a series of ruptures of the mimetic illusion. The narrator searches for past events through different stratifications of memory, temporality, and historicity, a labyrinthine confusion between the time of narration and the narrated time; this confusion effaces the narrator. In his commentary on his third novel (La Modification [1957; A Change of Heart]), Butor claims the necessity of an inner monologue in a sphere between the first and the third person beyond the dimension of human beings. Accordingly, in his novel Degrés (1960; Degrees), after the destruction of linearity and the integrity of the narrator, the latter becomes part of the narrated material, to whom a second narrator speaks in the second person.
In his Essais sur “Les Essais” (1968), a study on Montaigne and at the same time the definition of his own theory on essays, Butor underscores the reference to visual arts as the principle organizing the syntactic composition of the essays. As he points out, the architecture of Montaigne’s essays corresponds to the composition of mannerist or baroque painting stressing grotesque heterogeneity. The centrifugal “montage” and the hybrid entourage around the central concern of the painting force the viewer to “travel” within the picture. This (cinematographic) “traveling” is the path toward building meaning as a result of the reading process. Butor illustrated this affinity between literature and visual arts (including film), which is a common concern of authors of the nouveau roman. The most important and original “invention” of Butor is the discovery of polyphony as a consequence of the death of the individual. Butor considers the individual an outdated historical narrative category from the 18th and 19th centuries, when individuals were established as heroes coping with the social world. Today, individuals must surrender themselves to the discursive network of the general memory of society.
Michel Marie François Butor. Born 14 September 1926 in Mons-enBaroeul. Studied at the Collège Saint-François-de-Sales, Evreux, and Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, 1936–44; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1945–49, licence in philosophy, 1946, diploma in philosophy, 1947.
Taught at lycées in Sens, 1950, and El Minya, Egypt, 1950–51, University of Manchester, England, 1951–53, in Salonika, 1954–55, École Internationale, Geneva, 1956–57, Centre Universitaire, Vincennes, 1969, University of Nice, 1970–75, and the University of Geneva, from 1975; also visiting professor of French at several American universities and colleges, 1959–74. Advisory editor, Gallimard publishers, Paris, from 1958. Married Marie-Josèphe Mas, 1958: four daughters.
Awards: Fénéon Prize, for novel, 1956; Renaudot Prize, for novel, 1957; Grand Prize for Literary Criticism, 1960.
Chevalier, National Order of Merit.
Essays and Related Prose
Répertoire, 5 vols., 1960–82
Une histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire, 1961; as Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, translated anonymously, 1969
Mobile: Étude pour une représentation des États-Unis, 1962
Essais sur les modernes, 1964
Illustrations (includes poetry), 4 vols., 1964–76
Essais sur “Les Essais” (on Montaigne), 1968
Inventory: Essays (various translators), edited by Richard Howard, 1968
Essais sur le roman, 1969
Improvisations sur Flaubert, 1984
Improvisations sur Henri Michaux, 1985
Improvisations sur Rimbaud, 1989
Improvisations sur Michel Butor, l’écriture en transformation, 1993
Other writings: several novels (including Passage de Milan, 1954; L’Emploi du temps
[Passing Time], 1956; La Modification [A Change of Heart], 1957; Degrés [Degrees],
1960), the opera Notre Faust (1962), five books about dreams, several collections of poetry, and works on art, culture, and many other topics.
Mason, Barbara, Michel Butor: A Checklist, London: Grant and Cutler, 1979
Godin, Georges, Michel Butor: Pédagogie, littérature, La Salle, Quebec: Hurtubise, 1987
Lancry, Yehuda, Michel Butor, ou, La Résistance, Paris: Lattès, 1994
Lydon, Mary, Perpetuum Mobile: A Study of the Novels and Aesthetics of Michel Butor, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1980
Mason, Barbara, “Criticism and Invention in Michel Butor’s Répertoire Series,” New Zealand Journal of French Studies 1 (1986):23–43
Roudiez, Leon S., Michel Butor, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965
Spencer, Michael, Michel Butor, New York: Twayne, 1974
Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, Michel Butor, Victoria, British Columbia: Sono Nis, 1977
Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, “OEuvres et critique: Les Répertoires,” OEuvres et critiques: Michel Butor 2 (1985):145–61
Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, Michel Butor (in French), Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1992
World Literature Today issue on Butor (Spring 1982)
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