Authors: Michel Butor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Passage de Milan, 1954

L’Emploi du temps, 1956 (Passing Time, 1960)

La Modification, 1957 (Second Thoughts, 1958; better known as A Change of Heart)

Degrés, 1960 (Degrees, 1961)

6,810,000 Litres d’eau par seconde: Étude stéréophonique, 1965 (Niagara: A Stereophonic Novel, 1969)

Intervalle, 1973

Matière de rêves, 1975

Second sous-sol: Matière de rêves 2, 1976

Troisième dessous: Matière de rêves 3, 1977

Explorations, 1981 (includes verse)

Quadruple fond: Matière de rêves 4, 1981

Mille et un plis: Matière de rêves 5, 1985


Votre Faust: Fantaisie variable genre Opéra, pb. 1962 (with Henri Pousseur)

Radio Play:

Réseau aérien: Texte radiophonique, 1962


Illustrations, 1964-1976 (4 volumes)

La Rose des vents: 32 Rhumbs pour Charles Fourier, 1970

Dialogue avec 33 variations de Ludwig van Beethoven sur une valse de Diabelli, 1971

Travaux d’approche, 1972

Envois, 1980

Exprès, 1983

Chantier, 1985

A la frontiere, 1996

Appel: Suite pour un violoncelle en détresse, 2000


Le Génie du lieu, 1958 (The Spirit of Mediterranean Places, 1986)

Répertoire, 1960-1982 (5 volumes; partial translation of volumes 1-3 as Inventory, 1968)

Histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire, 1961 (Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire, 1969)

Mobile: Étude pour une représentation des États-Unis, 1962 (Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, 1963)

Description de San Marco, 1963

Essais sur les modernes, 1964

Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe: Capriccio, 1967 (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, 1995)

Essais sur “les essais,” 1968

Essais sur le roman, 1969

Les Mots dans la peinture, 1969

Où: Le Génie du lieu 2, 1971

Boomerang: Le Génie du lieu 3, 1978 (partial translation as Letters from the Antipodes, 1981)

Résistances, 1983 (with Michel Launay)

Frontieres, 1985 (Frontiers, 1989)

Improvisations sur Rimbaud, 1989

Transit: Le Génie du lieu 4, 1992

Improvisations sur Michel Butor, 1993 (Improvisations on Butor: Transformation of Writing, 1996; Lois Oppenheim, editor)

Parure, 1994 (Ethnic Jewelry: Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, 1994; with photography by Pierre-Alain Ferrozine)

Le Japon depuis la France, 1995

Gyroscope: Le Génie du lieu 5, 1996

Improvisations sur Balzac, 1998 (3 volumes)

Entretiens: Quarante ans de vie littéaire, 1999 (3 volumes; interviews)

Quant au livre: Triptyque en l’honneur de Gauguin, 2000


Michel Marie François Butor (boo-tohr) is the most popular of the loosely defined group of postwar avant-garde French novelist-theoreticians practicing the so-called New Novel. He was the fourth of seven children; his father, Émile, was a railway inspector. The family moved to Paris when Michel Butor was three, settling in a busy commercial street in a middle-class district on the eastern fringe of the Latin Quarter, close to the universities and literary cafés. Butor’s later public persona has been said to mix bourgeois respectability and bohemianism in something of the same way as the place in which he was reared (he also rebelled spectacularly against his family’s devout Catholicism). He attended the parochial school and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand during the years of the German Occupation. The stagnation of French intellectual life at this time affected the teaching in schools, and Butor turned to intense private study of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, all of whom influenced his later work. He also began to forge connections to intellectual, especially philosophical, circles and to write poetry in the manner of André Breton and the Surrealists.{$I[AN]9810001230}{$I[A]Butor, Michel}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Butor, Michel}{$I[tim]1926;Butor, Michel}

In 1944 Butor entered the University of Paris, where he earned the equivalents of a master’s degree and a teaching diploma but twice failed the national competitive exams for the doctoral-level agrégation en philosophie. His life took a decisive turn in 1950, when he took a teaching post in Egypt’s Nile Valley. There he wrote his first (virtually unnoticed) novel, stored memories for his travel writing, and set the pattern for his subsequent life as what he has called a “traveling salesman of French culture.”

Butor has an extreme sensitivity to the spirit of different places; his wide-ranging travels have allowed him to explore world history from the perspectives of different cultures. His time as a lecturer in the northern English city of Manchester, 1951 to 1953, is intensely evoked in his second novel, Passing Time. His time as visiting professor at Middlebury College and Bryn Mawr College, 1959 to 1960, produced his attempt, in the prose-rhapsody Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, to capture the clash of color, sound, and light that is America. Teaching engagements in Buffalo and New Mexico led also to Niagara in 1965 and Où: Le Génie du lieu 2 (where: or, the spirit of the place 2). He also traveled in the Far East, Australia, and Europe (particularly Greece). During a trip to Geneva in 1956 he met his wife, Marie-Jo, with whom he had four children. In 1975, he became a professor of modern French language and literature at the University of Geneva.

Butor achieved literary notoriety with his third novel, A Change of Heart, which won for him one of France’s highest literary awards, the Prix Renaudot, in 1957. This great success made Butor a public figure. He has been an advisory editor for the prestigious publishing house of Gallimard since 1958 and has been awarded honorary doctorates in both philosophy and literature. Among other honors, he has been awarded the French Order of Merit. Yet none of this has taken away from the radicalism of his work and his position: On May 21, 1968, he and about ten other writers staged a polite “invasion” of the headquarters of the moribund French Society of Writers; he is a founder-member of the Writers’ Union.

Butor’s creative work since his last “true” novel, the 1960 novel-about-a-novel, Degrees, continued to provoke controversy. When his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, which amalgamates autobiography and fantasy, was translated in 1995 it received mixed reviews. Butor has shifted decisively toward mixed-media and collaborative work, and toward textual collages and “open” form, seeking to undermine the notions of textual authority and linear narration to cast doubt on familiar theories of genre and form and to represent more truly the world-in-flux. Since it is only through stories that one apprehends reality, Butor believes those stories must not perpetuate the falsities of outmoded forms.

BibliographyBritton, Celia. “Opacity and Transparence: Conceptions of History and Cultural Difference in the Work of Michel Butor and Edouard Glissant.” French Studies 49 (July, 1995): 308-330. Examines the differing conceptions of history and culture in the two authors, arguing that both novelists perceive the individual as the product of historical forces.Calle-Gruber, Mireille. “Michel Butor.” Sites: Journal of the Twentieth-Century/Contemporary French Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring, 2001): 5-13. Calle-Grube provides a profile of the writer, describing, among other topics, his approach to the novel, the “novelistic deconstruction” in his works, and his literary theories.Duffy, Jean H. “Art, Architecture, and Catholicism in Michel Butor’s La Modification.” Modern Language Review 94, no. 1 (January, 1999): 46-60. Duffy examines how the presence of art, architecture, and Catholicism are reflected in La Modification. Explains the novel’s numerous allusions to Michelangelo and how Butor’s use of art and architecture serves to universalize the experiences of the protagonist.Duffy, Jean H. Butor, “La Modification.” London: Grant and Cutler, 1990. Duffy, who has written extensively on Butor’s work, provides a reader’s guide to the novel that brought Butor into the public eye. One of the volumes in the Critical Guides to French Texts series.Duffy, Jean H. “Cultural Legacy and American National Identity in Michel Butor’s Mobile.” Modern Language Review 98 (January, 2003): 44-64. Discusses the exploitation of intertextual roles and the role of the references to art and architecture in Butor’s book, as well as the depiction of the relationship between nature and culture.Duffy, Jean H. Signs and Designs: Art and Architecture in the Work of Michel Butor. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2003. Analyzes how Butor’s lifelong love of the visual arts has influenced his writings. Describes the function of Butor’s references to the visual and plastic arts and to architecture in his works.Faulkenburg, Marilyn Thomas. Church, City, and Labyrinth in Brontë, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Faulkenburg studies three novels by nineteenth century authors Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy, as well as Butor’s L’Emploi du temps to compare their description of the city. She maintains that the cities in these novels are disordered, inescapable places without a meaningful center.Hirsch, Marianne. “Michel Butor: The Decentralized Vision.” Contemporary Literature 21, no. 3 (Summer, 1981): 326-348. An overview of Butor’s life, works, and philosophy. Hirsch maintains that Butor’s works “represent a displacement of the familiar by the new” that forces his characters and readers to create a new relationship between themselves and other people.Lydon, Mary. Perpetuum Mobile: A Study of the Novels and Aesthetics of Michel Butor. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1980. Lydon provides a favorable critique of Butor’s work, describing the common elements in his writings, his revision of traditional genres, and his belief in the moral value of art.Miller, Elinor S. Prisms and Rainbows: Michel Butor’s Collaborations with Jacques Monory, Jiri Kolar, and Pierre Alechinsky. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. Throughout his career, Butor has sought to break down the barriers between different forms of artistic expression. Miller describes some of Butor’s efforts to attain this goal by studying his collaborative work with three visual artists whose artwork preceded Butor’s texts and provided the inspiration for his writing.Spencer, Michael. Michel Butor. New York: Twayne, 1974. A general introduction, with biographical material, overviews of Butor’s major works, and a summary of his critical reception. Includes an annotated bibliography. Useful for Butor’s early work.
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