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||Michel Marie François Butor (1926-2016)|
French novelist and essayist, leading figures among representatives of nouveau roman, with such names as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, and Nathalie Sarraute. Butor also published books about dreams, several collections of poetry, and works on art, culture, and many other topics. From his early works to the later publications, Butor was perhaps the most experimental writer of the New Novel movement.
"It is not often that I notice the color of someone's eyes, at least not among my acquaintances, which seems at first somewhat odd because I am very sensitive to the colors of objects—paintings, birds, flowers, clouds—and because it stands to reason that eyes would interest me more than any flower could; similarly I can be captivated by a head of hair without noticing its color." (tr. Dominic Di Bernardi, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, 1967)
Michel Butor was born in Mons-en-Barœul, a suburb of Lille,
the third of the seven children of Émile Butor, a railroad inspector,
and the former Anna Brajeux. In 1929 his father was transferred to
Paris, where Butor studied at the Collège Saint-François-de-Sales,
Evreux, and Lycée Louis-Le-Grand. In 1945 he entered the Sorbonne,
receiving a diploma in philosophy in 1947. Butor completed his thesis
on Mathematics and the Idea of Necessity under Gaston
After failing to qualify for the agrégation, Butor took teaching assignments in lycées in Sens, El Minya, Egypt (1950-51), at the University of Manchester, (1951-53), Salonika (1954-55), and Geneva (1956-57). He also served as an advisory editor in Gallimard publishers and working as a visiting professor in the US and Australia. In 1964 he visited West Berlin on a Ford Foundation grant. Between the terms he traveled in Europe, Asia, South America, New Zealand, Australia, and throughout the Middle East. In 1958 he married Marie-Josèphe Mas; they had four daughters.
In 1953-1954 Butor translated Aron Gurtwitsch's study of phenomenology, The Field of Consciousness, published as Théorie du champ de la conscience (1957). With the success of his third novel, Butor was able to devote himself entirely to writing. Despite his qualifications as a teacher and being internationally renowed, Butor was denied the title of Professor on his defense of the doctoral dissertation in 1973. "To write with brilliance did not make up for the offense done to university traditions," concluded one scholar. For a while Butor taught at the University of Nice and in 1975 he was appointed "professor extraordinaire" at the University of Geneva, retiring in 1991.
Butor came to prominence in the 1950s with the novels Passage de Milan (1954) and La Modification (1957). Like Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Simon and other writers of the new novelists, he refused to follow traditional concepts of plot and characterization. Instead of describing reality these writers have questioned our usual way of seeing reality. Exploring alternative alternative ways of representing "reality", Butor tried to replace two-dimensional narrative with a three-dimensional spatial one. In L'Emploi du temps (1959, Passing Time) the protagonist, Jacques Revel, tries to find sense of the streets and buildings of a strange city, but feels that he is imprisoned within a loom. He has come to work in an English town called Bleston. He wanders disorientated along rows of houses or passes on a bus the building he left just half an hour ago. "...little by little I came to feel that my bad luck was due to some malevolent will and that all these offers were so many lies, and I had to struggle increasingly against the impression that all my efforts were foredoomed to failure, that I was going round and round a blank wall, that the doors were sham doors and the people dummies, the whole thing a hoax."
Butor's best-known novel, La Modification, which won
the prestigious Prix Renaudot prize, is a story inside story, told
throughout in the second person plural. The narrator talks to himself
during a train journey from Paris to Rome, before eventually deciding
that he will not leave his wife for his mistress. Instead, he elects to
write an account that will become La Modification. Again in the
following books, Le génie du lieu (1958), Degrés (1960),
and Répertoire I (1960) Butor attempted to exercise readers'
perception of the world. Abandoning eventually the novel form, Butor
began to publish works that could be characterized as
historical-geographic travel books or "stereophonic" works, such as Mobile
(1962), about life in the U.S., 6 810 000 Litres Per Second
(1965), an evocation of Niagara Falls, and Boomerang (1978),
Bicentenaire Kit (1976), issued for the United States bicentennial in a limited edition of three hundred, was a blue plastic box, which contained a sheriff's badge, a smashed Coke top, a WANTED posted for Patty Hearst, serigraphs, and other items, documents, and "Catalogue", which was republished in Boomerang. "I am certainly a travel writer," Butor once said, "I have traveled a lot and travel is one of my primary "sources" of my inspiration..." (in Frontiers by Michel Butor and Elinor S. Miller, 1989, p. 30).
In his essays Butor has explored the inter-textual relationship between other artistic systems like music, painting, and literary discourse. Butor rejected historical and biographical factors as determinants for the novel. In his Essais sur 'Les Essais' (1968), a study on Montaigne, Butor draws parallels between literature and visual arts. As he points out, the architecture of Montaigne's essays corresponds to the composition of mannerist or baroque painting, stressing grotesque heterogeneity. Passing Time (1959) made an excursion into the word of mysteries, from the point of view that "any detective story is constructed on two murders of which the first, committed by the criminal, is only the occasion of the second, in which he is the victim of the pure, unpunishable murderer, the detective, who kills him, not only by one of those despicable means he was himself reduced to using, poison, the knife, a silent shot or twist of a silk stocking, but by the explosion of truth."
From 1964 Butor published an ongoing 'journal intime', Illustrations.
He once compared his mode of writing to those Renaissance paintings in
which the world is seen through a single archway or window. He was
active as a literary critic, producing a psychological study of the
French poet Charles Baudelaire. Votre
Faust (1962), based on the Faust theme, was an opera written in
collaboration with the Belgian composer Henri Pausser. An experimental work, it placed
the audience within the context of the legend by making them
participate in the action. In the 1970s Butor wrote a series of ironic
pseudo-dreams entitled Matière de rêves (1975), Second
sous-sol (1976), Troisième dessous (1977), Quadruple
Beginning from his first collaborative work, with the
artists Enrique Zanartu in 1962, the opportunity to collaborate with
visual artists and composers had a liberating effect on Butor's oeuvre.
"Painters caused me to invent, to discover other rooms," he said. By
2000, his collaborative works included more than
two hundred artists, such as Calder, Masson, Picasso, Jiri Kolar,
Jacques Monory, Pierre Alechinsky, and names know mostly locally or
regionally. Butor's literary Awards include Fénéon Prize (1956),
Renaudot Prize (1957), Grand Prix de la Littéraire (1960), Grand Prix
de romantisme Chateaubriand (1998), Prix Mallarmé (2006), Grand
Prix des Poètes (2007), and Grand prix de littérature de l'Académie
française (2013). Butor was also a Chevalier de l'Ordre National
du Mérite and a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Michel Butor died on
August 24, 2016, in a hospital in Contamines-sur-Arve.