About fifteen years ago I started reading a 1950s French novel by someone I’d only just heard of, right at the start of my part-time undergraduate degree studies. Nothing remarkable there, except that I’m still reading it.
It drew me in, intrigued by the idea of a young French novelist writing about Manchester, and by the first few pages with their blend of ‘grim up north’ dry humour, poetry and dark foreboding. And then things got more confusing, and more intriguing. It’s an account of mundane events (dreadful weather and even worse food) – and of murder, betrayal and revenge. Bleston, which stands in for Manchester (specifically and as the archetypal northern industrial city) in the novel, is both recognisable and realistically described (street names and bus timetables) and also a fantastical place, a monster, a labyrinth.
People who know I’ve been studying this book for such a long time often ask me what it’s about. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that. It’s not that kind of a book – and I can’t imagine I’d have spent all these years obsessing about it, reading about it, researching it, and writing about it, if it had been. Every time I open it I see something I hadn’t seen before. It’s almost as if it’s shapeshifting, it grows and alters as I read.
Michel Butor is often labelled as part of the nouveau roman group, which was never actually a group and of which he never felt he was a part. He has a lot more in common with Proust than with any of the writers associated with the nouveau roman, and this novel in particular is a quest for lost time, as Revel, the diarist/narrator, feeling himself overwhelmed by the city and its fogs, tries to set down on paper everything that has happened since his arrival in the town eight months previously. He feels that he’s in a labyrinth, disorientating and tricksy, a trap from which he might never escape – but he ends up creating a labyrinth with his diary entries, as the time line starts to loop back on itself, the present day intruding on the attempt to chronologically record the past, and he finds he has to revisit earlier events to explain what’s happening now.
If Passing Time looks back to Proust, it also looks forward, to the work of W G Sebald. Sebald read the novel when he arrived in Manchester, fifteen years after Butor and it resonated through his writing, from the early poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, through to his final work, Austerlitz. He picked up on the dark undercurrents in Butor’s work, the hauntedness, the theme of exile and displacement, and the sense that wherever we are in Bleston, we are not just in Bleston.
I’ve been not only reading Butor but writing about Butor, and about the connections between this novel and W G Sebald, for a very long time now. The title of this blog is obviously a reference to Butor – if I’ve posted less Butor stuff over recent years its because all of that is going into my PhD thesis, but there’s still plenty here, if you search for Butor or Sebald, and on a range of themes, from music to maps to Manchester, and to the labyrinth, which is the unifying motif in my thesis, one that recurs throughout Passing Time, and Sebald’s oeuvre.
When Butor died in 2016, I posted a tribute here, and said at the end:
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.https://cathannabel.blog/2016/08/29/butor-in-manchester/
And that is, pretty much, exactly what happened. Manchester-based Pariah Press are publishing a new edition of Jean Stewart’s excellent translation, in paperback, in May. It is a thing of beauty and I’d urge anyone who is interested in twentieth-century postwar fiction, in Manchester and/or the mythology of the northern city, in displacement and exile, in the detective novel, in labyrinths, in time and memory, in non-linear narratives and unreliable narrators, to order it now…
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.Michel Butor, Passing Time, trans. Jean Stewart
Go on. You can thank me (and Pariah Press) later…