Posts Tagged L’Emploi du Temps

Labyrinths and Mazes – finding and losing the thread

The more I attempt to define the labyrinth, the more I lose my way, appropriately enough (or not, depending on one’s understanding of the purpose they serve).  The maze is more straightforward in purpose, if not in navigation.  It’s a puzzle, where the objective is to reach the centre (and then find one’s way out again) but which requires choices to be made, some of which will lead to dead ends, or will take (or appear to take) the walker away from rather than towards the centre.  But the most striking thing about the classical labyrinths is that there are no dead ends, no tricks at all.  There is one route through, no choices to be made, no cause for confusion.

And yet Daedalus, at  least according to Ovid, constructed his labyrinth so cunningly that he barely managed to escape it himself after completion.   Indeed, its purpose was to imprison the minotaur, and to make its slaying a feat of legendary heroism.  So, with only one path through, how could Daedalus have risked losing his way, why did Theseus need Ariadne’s thread to guide him out, and how did it keep the minotaur in?

Looking at the classical designs, whilst all one has to do to reach the centre is to keep going, the effect of the complex looping of the path is to take the walker closer to and then further from the goal, such that they start to doubt, to feel as if they must have made a wrong choice even though no choice was in fact possible, and to turn back, so ending up back at the beginning.  So, if Daedalus’s labyrinth was indeed the unicursal classical design, Ariadne’s thread did not so much lead Theseus out of the labyrinth as reassure him that he was on the right route, whatever his instincts told him.  It is this aspect that has encouraged the use of labyrinths for meditative purposes – one has to put aside doubt and go where the path leads.    Guillermo del Toro has said that ‘unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding, not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way…I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside reality, which is real’.

The association between labyrinth and city is of long standing (Roman mosaic labyrinths represent fortified cities), but contributes to the confusion about terminology.  The damp dark labyrinth of streets to which de Tocqueville refers was a product not of design but of its absence, and thus the disorienting effect was accidental rather than deliberate.  But the personification of these great cities attributes to them the intent that the builders lacked – the distinction between the physical qualities of the cities and the texts and thoughts they engender is blurred (Faris, 1991).   It’s also clear that urban labyrinths involve choices, which potentially can result in losing one’s way, finding dead ends, returning inadvertently to where one started.  Being in the metropolis feels like losing control, composure, the sense of self.    Lynch says that ‘there is some value in mystification, labyrinth or surprise in the environment’ but that there must be no danger of the form of the city being lost, or that one might never get out of it.  There must be the possibility that the mystery can be comprehended, the form explored and in time grasped.  Otherwise, the labyrinthine city becomes a trap, closing on the newcomer, the isolated wanderer.

The labyrinth is one of the key motifs of L’Emploi du temps (see Pierre Brunel for the definitive treatment of the theme), fittingly for a writer of whom it has been said that the fundamental question in his work is always ‘where am I?’. It’s a labyrinth in space, but also in time and memory.   The narrative starts simply enough, with two time frames, the time of writing and the time that is written about.  But as the diary continues, one memory triggers another, events in the ‘present’ require a reference back to the past outside of the linear chronology of the journal.   The writing which explores the labyrinth becomes labyrinthine as memory endlessly circles.   ‘The rope of words that uncoils down through the sheaf of papers and connects me directly with that moment on the first of May when I began to plait it, that rope of words is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth of my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it’ (p. 183).

But what’s at the centre of the labyrinth?   Perhaps Revel never reached it.   Butor’s work is characterised by openness and mobility, and the narrative cannot be self-contained.  So the book ends as Revel tells us of the pages he didn’t write, the places he didn’t visit, and of ‘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’.

Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’: le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)

Mark Crinson (ed), Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: NY: Routledge, 2005)

Wendy B Faris, Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)

Wendy Faris, ‘Cognitive Mapping: Labyrinths, Libraries and Crossroads’, City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)

Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg, Church, City and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor (NY; San Francisco; Bern; Baltimore; Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Wien; Paris: Peter Lang, 1993)

Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass.; London:  MIT Press, 1960)

Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

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Turning the pages – Stephen King and Marcel Proust (and Michel Butor)

I find myself – as someone who always has at least two books on the go – currently reading both the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche… and Stephen King’s latest blockbuster, 11.22.63.   If I say that these present two very different reading experiences, an ironic ‘who knew?’ would be a reasonable response.  However, I invariably find that the things I’m reading in parallel, however different they may be in genre, register, subject matter or anything else, create intriguing connections and trigger, at the very least, random ruminations on the various topics that preoccupy me.

Proust is actually immensely readable, if you let yourself go, let yourself float along on his endless sentences, absorbing it all rather than worrying about what is happening (not a huge amount, in general, it’s not about external events as much as internal processes – the process by which the narrator becomes indifferent to Gilberte with whom he has been in love, for example).   One doesn’t pick the book up with the sense of urgency that Stephen King can generate, and one is unlikely to be tempted to skip mealtimes or be late for appointments, or to miss out on sleep in order to read just one more chapter.  But you can lose yourself in it, immersed in his world – and it’s also funnier than one might have expected.  Obviously Proust is hugely influential on 20th century fiction, not just in France.  Butor certainly shows the influence of his style in his labyrinthine sentences – bizarrely, he was criticised for this by the literary establishment, on the basis that the French language demands short sentences.  Understandably he referred them to Proust, only to be told, well, Proust is Proust.   Taking the view that Butor is Butor, he dumped the draft with the short, pithy sentences for the one that draws you in and takes you on a hypnotic journey where the phrases loop around and around so that the key words and images accumulate more and more power as they resonate with each other.

If everyone agrees that Proust is a great writer, not many have actually read any, let alone all, of his great oeuvre.  Stephen King is read by millions, but disparaged by many, even if his critical standing is better than it used to be.  He now gets reviews in the quality press, even if most still start with a defence of the coverage being given to this kind of book.  It wasn’t always so, and the change is reflected in the book covers – early editions looked tacky, whilst more recent reissues and new titles, have a generally classier look.   The schlock-horror image put me off for a long time, and I only read King because a friend told me I must, and lent me The Stand.  I didn’t expect to like it.  But within a page, I was hooked, and read it straight through, twice.  That’s one of his great gifts; right from the start he makes you want – need – to know what happens and, very importantly, makes you care about the people he introduces, so that the compulsion to read on is not just curiosity but an emotional connection.

He’s a hugely talented writer, who can transcend genre, but who for the most part is happy to work within it; a horror writer who can go for the gross-out but whose power resides in his ability to make you connect with his characters, and in his ability to make goodness as compelling as evil.  Not all of King’s books are great, but none are less than readable, and many will repay re-reading.   He uses the classic horror writer’s trick, of starting with the everyday, the familiar, and introducing something that’s just that bit off key, unsettling.  Often this is done by the narrator forewarning us that this apparently mundane event is far from it – in 11.22.63 the trigger is a teacher reading the work of a pupil in his adult learners’ creative writing class.  We don’t know how or why this will change everything, but we know that it will do so, and everything thereafter is imbued with this disquiet – a sense of the uncanny, das unheimliche, to use Freud’s term.  It’s a cognitive dissonance – something is both familiar and foreign, and so one is at the same time attracted and repelled.

One thing King does very powerfully is to create a bad place.   Derry, Maine, is one such – a town that just isn’t quite right, where this disquiet is manifested in the mutual mistrust of the locals, the desire of visitors to get the hell out as soon as they can, and a feeling that bad things have happened, may be still happening, and are probably just around the next corner.   It’s part of King’s fictional geography of Maine, his home state, a trinity to match Lovecraft‘s Massachusetts trinity (Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot on the one hand, Innsmouth, Arkham and Dunwich on the other) and we visit it in many of his novels – he references the plots and characters of those earlier novels often too, so the reader who’s familiar with the opus has an added weight of unease.   Interesting in this context to see the new Topophobia exhibition and publication, on fear of place in contemporary art.

I thought of that aspect of King quite often when reading L’Emploi du temps.   Butor’s narrator arrives in a northern industrial city, his train is late, and he’s lost his letter of introduction with details of the firm he’ll be working for or his hotel,  so on his first evening in the city he gets lost, and ends up sleeping on a bench in the 3rd class waiting room.   Obviously this is an inauspicious start, but right from these first pages, there’s the sense that it’s more than that.   Jacques Revel is afraid.  He’s ‘seized with sudden panic…. for one endless second… overwhelmed by an absurd wish to draw back, to give it all up, to escape’ (Passing Time, p. 8).  Later, a colleague, who’s never left the city, tells him ‘there’s something peculiar about this place, something which I’ve never seen satisfactorily described in any story set elsewhere, a sort of permanent dread’ (p. 89).  Just like Derry, Bleston is a place where we are in suspense, waiting for the bad things to which everything is leading, and which everything is attempting to conceal, and where ‘even at midday the few passers-by hurry, hugging the walls, humming to themselves with lowered heads as if it were black night’ (p. 90).   Something is wrong with Bleston, but unlike King, Butor does not require us to accept a supernatural explanation for this.   We’re potentially in the realm of Todorov’s ‘fantastic uncanny’, where the apparently supernatural is subsequently explained as illusion (through dreams, drugs, madness), but we are ultimately left with uncertainty, as the book ends with the narrator’s departure, and his acknowledgement of the lacunae in his narrative.   The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the classic example of this – the reader is left to ponder whether the governess is delusional,  and nothing supernatural has actually happened, or whether the laws of reality have changed as she believes.  The French have a higher regard for fantastic literature than we have.  Poe and Lovecraft are held in much higher esteem there, and both are present in Butor’s Bleston – Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ has intriguing echoes in not only the supernatural but the detective story aspects of the book, and we also find the Lovecraftian motif of a place where every route out leads back to the place one is attempting to escape – see Ramsay Campbell‘s story ‘The Church in High Street’ for a more recent hommage to Lovecraft in this respect.  To quote Revel’s colleague again: ‘Perhaps you’ve already tried to escape, but in that case you’ve only just made a beginning, M. Revel … you’ll be losing more than your way’ (p. 89-90).

Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1965)

Ramsay Campbell, ‘The Church in High Street’, Cold Print (London: Grafton Books, 1985)

Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)”’, New Literary History, 7, 3 (1976), 525-48

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898 (London: Penguin, 1986)

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)

H P Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927 (NY: Dover, 1973)

H P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 1999)

Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1918(Paris: Gallimard, 1988)

Tzvetan Todorov,  Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Seuil, 1976)

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L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time) – the mystery of Bleston

My present preoccupation is with Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps[1], 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’[2], Richard Wollheim’s novel A Family Romance[3], Steve Hawley’s DVD ‘Yarn’[4], and, as we discovered very recently, W G Sebald’s ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’[5].  This last is not only a direct response to Passing Time, but confirms a gut feeling that the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants[6] 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.


[1] L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)

[2] Allen Fisher, ‘Butor, Passing Time Again’, Gravity (Cambridge: Salt, 2004)

[3] Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969)

[5] W G Sebald, ‘Bleston.  A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water : Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London : Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

[6] W G Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)

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