‘and I haven’t even time to set down something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston, as you lie dying, Bleston, whose dying embers I have fanned, for now the long minute hand stands upright and my departure closes this last sentence’ (Michel Butor, Passing Time, p. 288)
What happened on that Leap Day we will never know. We have some details of some of the events and developments of that month – the diarist, Jacques Revel, dines with the Bailey family for the first time (whilst noting that he was spending less time with their elder daughter, Ann, as his affections begin to drift towards her sister Rose), and meets George Burton for the first time, not knowing at that stage that he is the author of the detective novel which plays an important role in events. He buys a second copy of The Bleston Murder, having lent the first to Ann.
None of this suggests that February 29 would turn out to be an especially significant date. Of course, February 29 is always going to seem significant, by virtue of its rarity. It’s a day that only exists once every four years, and thus one that can be, in effect, hidden for three out of four years. Almost a ‘jour fantome’.
Is it the centre of the labyrinth that is the narrative of Passing Time? Some have said so – describing the date as the ‘geometrical centre’ of Revel’s year in Bleston. If you do the sums, it’s one month short of the halfway point of Revel’s year in Bleston. However, his final month is a month of tying up loose ends and saying his ‘adieux’ – with the announcement of Ann’s engagement to his friend and colleague James (her sister Rose has already become engaged to his friend and compatriot Lucien) he is merely passing time in Bleston until the pre-ordained departure date. Indeed, he feels himself reduced to a ghost, a Sunday-afternoon ghost, revisiting the places he has known during his life in Bleston.
Revel’s diary is an attempt to master the city which has bamboozled and disoriented him from the moment of his arrival, by creating with his own narrative the Ariadne’s thread to guide him through the labyrinth. In doing so, he creates his own labyrinth, as what is initially a straightforwardly linear account twists and turns, as he reflects on more immediate events, reminds himself as he records the events of one day of the later developments that they foreshadow, and so on.
So his failure to record what happened on 29 February is, firstly, indicative of the failure of this enterprise. The time of writing and the time written about will never be reconciled and this gap is the evidence of that disjunction. It’s a blank space, an empty centre, an enigma. The final page is a record of other failures. He notes that he ‘had not even been able to visit the old church of St Jude’s on the other side of the Slee’, St Jude the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. St Jude’s is close to a small synagogue, which Revel has also failed to visit (having forgotten that he’d wanted to do so), and to the sinister prison, itself described as ‘a sort of hole’ within the tissue of the city.
He describes ‘those sinister days in February’ when his longing to leave the city is at its most intense, but which he would prefer not to think about, ‘but which on the contrary I ought to be able to pick out from among the tangle of my winter memories with strong supple pincers of language, which I ought to keep firmly before my eyes’ (p. 286). So rather than being unable to recall what happened on 29 February, perhaps Revel chooses not to.
It’s not just a generalised recognition that he ran out of time to fill in the gap, it’s a deliberate blank, which draws our attention to a significant absence. Like the blank space on the back of the detective novel, where the author’s photograph should sit, like the missing pieces in the sequence of stained glass windows, the blank spaces on the frontispiece map, the ‘terrain vague’ on the outskirts of the town, the incomplete New Cathedral building… ‘an incomplete alphabet of which I know one letter is missing, a keyboard of which I know one note is missing, a Tarot pack of which I know one card is missing’. That the missing day is the one that only occurs every four years (it occurred in 1952, during Butor’s first year in Manchester) obviously draws even more attention to it.
That we cannot know what happened is part of the fascination of the book. It is at the same time an entirely closed narrative structure – we have no knowledge of anything that happened prior to Revel’s arrival in Bleston, nor what he will do or where he will go next – and an open one which tantalises us with the many mysteries of the text, drawing us back in to wander the rain-drenched streets again in search of answers. The disparity between the mundane events which Revel records and the intensity of the language in which he describes them suggests that the gaps – the things that aren’t said – are of deep significance, that all is not as it initially seems, that maybe we aren’t (just) in a fictionalised version of Manchester after all…