Laboratory of Narrative

Here is my review of Michel Butor’s Selected Essays, Times Literary Supplement, 8 July 2022, p. 25.

Michel Butor has never received anywhere near the level of critical attention in the English-speaking world accorded to his fellow experimenters with the nouveau roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. His third novel, La Modification, is regarded as a modern classic in his native France, where it won the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 1957 and is regularly chosen as a set text at schools and universities. Even in France, however, few appreciate the full scope of Butor’s oeuvre, which encompasses countless poems, art and literary criticism, travel writing, translations and a libretto, not to mention more than a thousand artist’s books. It is to be hoped that the publication of his Selected Essays, carefully curated by Richard Skinner and elegantly translated by Mathilde Merouani, will kindle greater interest in the work of a true polymath, whose questing spirit — unlike that of some of his fellow nouveaux romanciers — never departed him.

Five of the eight essays compiled here, one of which is actually a 1962 interview with Tel Quel magazine, appear in English for the first time. They all deal with various aspects of the novel, which Butor regarded as the greatest of all literary forms. For him it was, at least initially, a way of overcoming a “personal problem”, enabling him to reconcile the poetry he was then writing at home with the philosophy he was studying at university.

This slim volume hinges on the notion that no account of human behaviour is truly complete without the inclusion of the imaginative and oneiric. Much of reality is apprehended through narratives (such as newspapers or history books) that exist on the “ever unstable border between fact and fiction”. Butor’s grand claim – that the novel is “the laboratory of the narrative”, where the way the world is experienced can be explored and, ultimately, transformed — is argued here most persuasively.

Butor makes light work of heavy themes, eschewing dogma and jargon despite the essays’ phenomenological tenor, in stark contrast with many of his contemporaries. Whether he is analyzing how a fictive locale may reconfigure the space in which a book is read, contending that travelling is the dominant theme of all literature or excavating old objects in the work of Balzac, his often exhilarating insights continue to come across as though he were charting terra incognita.

Behind this ever-inquisitive mind, there is a sense of a growing impatience with the constraints of the novel, even in its experimental mode. In the book’s concluding interview Butor discusses his failure to bridge the gap between poetry and philosophy, which may explain why he did not publish any novels after 1960. (He died in 2016.) After 1960 his fascination with the intersection between writing and the arts would take him beyond the confines of fiction into experiments with hybrid works and the book as object.