Since the announcement of Michel Butor’s death a few days ago, obituaries, hommages, appreciations and recollections have appeared in the quality press across Europe . But not here in the UK. Not a word.
It wasn’t always thus. In 1956, Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, was published, with an English translation appearing in 1960 (Passing Time). The setting was immediately recognisable to British readers – a northern English city, rain drenched and fog bound, grimy and sooty, where you can’t get a drink until evening, and you can’t get a decent meal anywhere, at any time.
This was Manchester, where Butor, fresh from teaching in Egypt and ‘inundated with sun’, came for a two-year stint as a lecteur at the University. Manchester, masquerading as Bleston, where Revel, a young Frenchman, came for a one year contract translating documents for a shipping company.
It’s not the city’s landmarks that make it so recognisable. Butor keeps some features but plays fast and loose with their relative positions, adds a second Cathedral, and configures the railway stations in a kind of noose around the city centre. He transforms Belle Vue into Plaisance Gardens. His street names mingle the authentically Mancunian (Chorley) and the generic (New Bridge, Birch Street) with odd-sounding names such as Continents, Mountains or Geology.
Anyone trying to use the frontispiece map as a guide to Manchester would very soon get as lost as Revel did – quite apart from the liberties Butor has taken with the real city, the map shows only those streets and landmarks which play a part in the narrative. Manchester’s Strangeways prison does, however, retain its distinctive shape and is a brooding presence at the heart of the novel.
Manchester’s rain and fog, the smoke from its chimneys, the days without daylight, the sprawl of the city in which one could walk for hours and not reach the countryside, the black water of the canal – these are both the reality of 1950s Manchester and its myth.
And the novel draws you in with its opening chapter, which blends poetry
Suddenly there were a lot of lights. … I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark window-pane covered on the outside with raindrops, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling
with the mundane miseries of travel
this was not the fast through train which I ought to have taken and on which I was to have been met; I had missed that by a few minutes at Euston, which was why I’d had to wait indefinitely at some junction for this mail-train
and foreshadowing, of the mundane miseries still to come, and of the darker and deeper threat to be faced:
I remember standing up and smoothing out the creases in my raincoat, which was then still sand-coloured. ….For my vision was still like clear water; since then, every day has clouded it further with a sprinkling of ash
It’s reasonably clear at this stage that the narrator is writing in May about the events of the previous October. As the time scheme for the novel becomes more complex, the darker undertones become more prominent, and the reader will either be mesmerised, as caught up in the threads as the narrator himself, or merely mystified and frustrated.
Poet Allen Fisher was in the former category, and that tantalising opening section inspired his own poem, ‘Butor. Passing Time again’:
window-pane covered on the
litdrops, a myriad
restring parcel of
drizzled down from the grimy
sealing a thin blanket of noises
enfold me begin to thin
Philosopher Richard Wollheim’s 1969 novel A Family Romance uses a diary format to chronicle a man’s plans to poison his wife. The protagonist is reading L’Emploi du temps and ruminates on the notion of murder and argues – seemingly with Butor but more accurately with Revel – about the way in which the diary records events, looping backwards and looking ahead – but ultimately coming to a realisation that ‘a man might change his mind’.
the hero, a young Frenchman, … picks up a crime story called ‘The Murder of Bleston’, Le Meurtre de Bleston. … He wants to murder Bleston and wishes someone actually would. (p. 15) … The author of the book I’m reading attributes to an author within the book an interesting theory about the book he’s writing. He – the author within the book – is a writer of detective stories, and his theory is that every detective story is constructed around, we might say is a string stretched between two murders: the murder committed by the assassin upon the victim, and the murder committed by the detective … upon the assassin (p. 55)
As against the author of L’Emploi du temps I invoke a notion of completeness which insists, not that everything is in, nothing out, but rather that any signle thing that is in should bear upon it the marks of every other thing, in or out. … If my criticism of Butor is justified, what he ignores – namely, that addition alters what is added to – is something that is not a necessary feature of all writing but is a feature of, and a defect in, his writing (p. 122)
I have argued … that the later entries [in Revel’s diary] are either disruptive or superfluous. Disruptive, that needs no explanation: superflueous, in that if the later entries do not nollify the earlier ones, then they have been anticipated by them, everythng that they have to say is buried in the earlier ones if only we dig deep enough. Alternatively, if Butor really felt he still had something to say, why did he not rewrite the diary as a totality? (pp. 161-2)
It gave better than any other book I’ve ever read the feeling of how where one is affects who or how one is. … perhaps it’s not so much a matter of what a place does to one as what one does to the place or rather what one can’t do to the place, ‘the intractability of Bleston'(p. 229)
In criticising L’Emploi du temps, what I never appreciated is that a man might change his mind (p. 236)
For artist Steve Hawley the novel seemed to anticipate interative fiction, and it inspired his film, Yarn:
a “recombinant narrative” or generative cinema DVD video installation, using archive footage of Manchester of the 1950s, and a voiceover spoken by a computer programme, which uses the capacity of the DVD medium to present different scenes and spoken text so that the narrative never repeats itself.
The experience is like the 1001 nights, in that the story has no beginning and no end, but rather an immersion in a narrative world where fact and fiction are blended.
I have explored elsewhere the response of W G Sebald, who came to Manchester 15 years after Butor, to L’Emploi du temps. This is evidenced in his long poem, ‘Bleston: a Mancunian Cantical’, published in English translation in 2011. The darkness of Bleston fed into his state of melancholy, his alienation from his birthplace and his preoccupation with the landscape of trauma.
So, different readers will find different ways of reading this complex novel. In doing so they echo Revel’s own efforts to make sense of what is happening to him, of what Bleston is doing to him, or what he can or can’t do to it. As he reads the detective novel Le Meurtre de Bleston he extrapolates from the hints and clues in the text and conversations with friends, coming to believe that the novel is a fictionalised exposé of a real murder and thus that his revelation of the pseudonymous author’s real identity threatens his safety, and ultimately that a road accident which befalls him is an attempted murder. He casts himself as the detective, just as he casts himself as Theseus once he discovers the series of tapestries telling that story. He casts the city as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as the Minotaur within the labyrinth of its streets, and himself as embattled, attempting to resist its power.
There are so many threads that one can follow through the labyrinth of the text. But given its capacity to draw in British readers in particular through the fascination of seeing ourselves through others’ eyes, and through the dry humour of the portrayal of a 1950s northern city, it is sad that Jean Stewart’s English translation is currently only available at prices that would deter all but the most dedicated readers. Perhaps, when the British press gets around to noticing Butor’s passing and commemorating it appropriately, some enterprising publisher will take a punt on reissuing it, and giving a new generation of readers the chance to explore those rainy streets and lose themselves in Bleston.
Meantime, his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape can be found in translation at quite a reasonable price, if you feel inclined to explore its Gothic mysteries…
Allen Fisher, ‘Butor. Passing Time Again’, in Gravity (Salt, 2004)
Steve Hawley, ‘Locative Narrative and an IPhone App: Manchester as a Mythical City’ http://www.stevehawley.info/writing.html
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, translated by Iain Galbraith (Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1969)