My present preoccupation is with Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, published in 1956, whose English translation is currently out of print, but which holds a particular fascination, amongst Butor’s many and diverse works. It’s inspired a remarkable number of other literary and artistic works – Allen Fisher’s poem ‘Butor – Passing Time Again’, Richard Wollheim’s novel A Family Romance, Steve Hawley’s DVD ‘Yarn’, and, as we discovered very recently, W G Sebald’s ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’. This last is not only a direct response to Passing Time, but confirms a gut feeling that the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants is inspired by Butor’s depiction of the city they both came to as strangers, just over a decade apart. A lot more about that to come…
The description of a northern industrial English town is recognisable even 50 years after the time – pollution, fog, and frightful food – and has struck a chord with English readers in particular. However, its interest is wider than that because as you follow the narrator as he tries to find his way around the city, the initially familiar becomes increasingly disquieting and you start to wonder exactly where you are.
One of the intriguing things about the novel is the gap between the prosaic realism of many passages, and the fantastic/supernatural elements which pervade the text. These elements, and the passionate hatred between the narrator and the city, are difficult to reconcile with the actual events depicted – nothing happens that isn’t entirely explicable in rational terms. But from the first page, there is an atmosphere of terror, which intensifies as the narrator finds himself more and more beleaguered. The language is intense and dramatic – Butor talks of fear, of murder and blood, betrayals and lies, secrets and vengeance. These prosaic events take on supernatural overtones – the difficulties and disappointments he encounters are blamed on the opposition of the city, a traffic accident is attempted murder, the many fires are the manifestations of the spirit which possesses and consumes the city, and the fog and polluted atmosphere are enchantments that sedate the inhabitants.
Clearly, Bleston is Manchester, where Butor spent a couple of miserable years, and the descriptions are both recognisable and drawing on the archetypes of Manchester as the iconic industrial city. It’s at once a real, grimy, foggy place, and the infernal city of de Tocqueville and Engels, Dickens and Mrs Gaskell. It’s also, though, the city of Cain, Babylon, and the labyrinth of Daedalus. It’s a city of war, and a city at war with itself. I’ll return to that in a future entry, because I think that is the key to the transformation of the grubby ordinariness of a modern industrial city into a monster.
 L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)
 Allen Fisher, ‘Butor, Passing Time Again’, Gravity (Cambridge: Salt, 2004)
 Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969)
 W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water : Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London : Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
 W G Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)