We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
It can be overwhelming to try to summarize the accomplishments of a polymath like Michel Butor (September 14, 1926-August 24, 2016). Although Butor was initially associated with the nouveau roman (“the new novel”) movement of the 50s and 60s, in terms of his startlingly experimental literary techniques, he was in a class by himself.
The author of a doctoral dissertation in mathematics and the idea of necessity, Butor produced travel essays, art criticism, translations, literary criticism, texts set to music, and five volumes of free-form meditations (“Matières de Rêves,” “Dream Stuff”) on writers, places, and ideas. The title of his 1962 “Mobile: étude pour une représentation des Ètats-Unis (”Study for a Representation of the United States”) plays on the multiple meanings of that word: an Alabama city that was the first capital of French Louisiana, a thing that moves freely, the motive or reason behind an action, a Calder-like suspended decoration, a flying squad. Among the many prizes he received was the 2013 Grand Prix of the Académie Française for his life’s work.
Although the time we spent together many years ago is fresh in my mind, I admit that I have not kept abreast of your accomplishments in several decades. The sheer number and breadth of these is staggering—even to your genuinely modest self. I’ve often heard your name mentioned with reverence by many varied and hard-to-impress writers and scholars, but even so, until now I had not paid attention to the specifics.
Thanks to a bit of research facilitated by a wonderful web site maintained by the University of Edinburgh’s Department of European Languages and Cultures (www.ed.ac.uk), I see that you have written on and even have had direct relations with many of my other letter recipients. For example, you admire Balzac (whom you call “The Pope of the Nouveau Roman”) for his architectural genius in making each of his novels like the single chapter of a monumental construction, but one with mobility and that can be entered through different portals. (translations, mine, from your interview with Jean-Louis Kuffer in No.38, October 1998 of “Le Passe Muraille”). Your admiration for Balzac extended to three magisterial volumes that you called Improvisations sur Balzac. You also did Improvisations sur Flaubert, as well as writing on Proust, Sartre, La Princesse de Clèves, Roland Barthes (whom you replaced temporarily at the École Normale Supérieure), John Donne, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Jules Verne, James Joyce, the collaborative possibilities of Science-Fiction, Ezra Pound, and William Faulkner, to name just a few of your passions. Then there is your extensive writing on travel, art, poetry, philosophy, music, and more. Your complete works currently number nine volumes, but fourteen are planned.
I am feeling as though in trying to get a handle on all that you have done, I may have signed my life away. But if I get to read even a small percentage of your work that intrigues me, it will have been worth it. In the interviews to which the Edinburgh site offers links, while saying the most profound things, you speak so clearly and accessibly that I feel as if we have been having the most extraordinary conversation. Among my favorites are the twenty-minute clip from Sumana Sinha, Auteurs TV: Michel Butor (2008), and La TVNet citoyenne: Michel Butor “Les choses nouvelles ont du mal à traverser le mur du bruit” (1 June 2012). In the latter, your self-described optimistic self comes across as a beautiful mélange of prophet, humble genius, and the most benevolent Santa Claus. The timeless outdoor setting that appears behind you during the interview looks like a village from a bygone era.
During the course of my googling about you, I stumbled on some interesting things like your having had as your thesis director the legendary Gaston Bachelard who had connections to several of my other letter recipients, and whom, once you grew your long, white beard, you came to resemble. I wonder what it was like to have Bachelard as a mentor. And with respect to the interview above, the reference to “crossing the wall of noise” reminds me of a surprising and telling personal detail that I learned from the telerama.fr site: that your mother became profoundly deaf after her seventh pregnancy. The title of that 12/03/2013 interview with Marine Landrot is: “J’ai besoin de me mettre à l’écart.” To hear your thoughts about how your mother’s sudden deafness affected you is revealing. You think your other senses became more acute as a result, and that silence has been particularly important for you. You talk about the rich but “silent” conversations you and your siblings could have with her via lip reading: because she was deaf, there was no need to actually voice the words you were articulating. To have had a mother with this disability stopped you from playing the violin (but not from loving Bach and writing an opera), and puts you in the good company of Albert Camus and André Aciman who, in March of 2013, wrote lovingly about his mother in The New Yorker article, “Are You Listening?”
I am a lifelong musician who has had some hearing loss, but fortunately for me, it has been correctable. (Come to think of it, my family who had to listen to my early days of viola practice might have welcomed a bit of hearing loss of their own.) Yet I find that to cross the frontier from my more silent world to one that can hear so many of nature’s sounds is always startling. The “up” side of this: I definitely think I write better “unplugged,” and consider myself lucky to have that choice.
But back to the circumstances of our first contact. Your biographical information lists in only a very general sense your 1973-74 “Trips to America and Vancouver.” I want to talk about something more specific. Given your work habits, how did you ever find time to come to my house for lunch and a swim? Maybe I need to refresh your memory about that. While I was living in Seattle in the 1970s, you came to the University of Washington as a visiting lecturer. I have always tried to sit in on courses taught by authors I admired, and the opportunity to spend time with such a distinguished avant-garde intellectual was irresistible. It was a summer when most of the French faculty were away, and I think you felt isolated. Your English was quite limited—you had studied it by reading the Sears catalogue! I decided to invite you to our house for lunch. Along with your daughters, your wife brought a “killer” tarte aux pommes. You and the family went swimming in Lake Washington off the dock of our lakeside bungalow.
There was only one text for that summer class: Your own Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, which many consider your most interesting work. You were constantly inventing new forms and genres, which caused many of your books, like Mobile, to be termed unclassifiable. Critic Frédéric-Yves Jeannet called it “Une sorte de symphonie spatiale discontinue hommage à Calder” (“A discontinuous special symphony homage to Calder”) You dedicated your book to abstract painter Jackson Pollack, and I have read elsewhere your conviction that it is painters who taught you to read, to see, to compose, to write. You also credit photography with teaching you how to look at things.
Even having heard you talk about your own book, Mobile, I was curious to see how a site like Goodreads would describe this collage/patchwork quilt/travelogue/assemblage of city names like Mobile, Alabama, “road signs, advertising slogans, catalogue listings, newspaper accounts of the 1883 World’s Fair, Native American Writings, and the history of the Freedomland theme park” that tries to capture “in both a textual and visual way—the energy and contradictions of American life and history.” What a challenge for translator Richard Howard! None of us had ever seen anything like it. You seemed amused by our puzzled reaction. You don’t like being considered a difficult author, which you don’t think you are. You see the problem as your doing things that are new, and that require that the reader set aside preconceived notions and be open to learning to read nontraditional texts.
Your method for approaching such a text is to read it aloud, and that’s what you did. I may have needed convincing then, but now in my work with student writers, I always read out loud what they bring, and encourage them to read aloud to themselves as they write. In a similar vein, in a French Review interview from March 1984 with Michelle Rogers, you mention how much benefit you yourself get from reading even a supposedly finished text to an audience, which usually leads to revision. Further, the interaction can also influence what you will write in the future. Well before the advent of books on tape, you cited another persuasive example of how a good reader can make accessible what seems difficult. When there were readings of Proust on the radio, listeners who had been “allergic” to what they thought of his high-brow, long sentences ended up feeling very pleased with themselves for being able to understand and appreciate him. “My goodness! How marvelous! How intelligent I am!”
At the time of our summer class at the University of Washington, I was working on my dissertation on André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and you generously invited me to give a presentation to the class. That kind of kick-in-the-pants is just the thing to get a procrastinator off her derrière, and I have always been grateful.
As I recall, it was with an odd mix of pride and embarrassment that you told the class about trying to learn English by studying the pictures in the classically-American Sears catalogue. You might be amused to know that I have followed your example: Whenever I try to work on building vocabulary in a foreign language, I reach for publicity flyers such as those from the local superstores like Slovenia's Lidl, and Hoffer. It can be useful to know how to say "Don't miss your chance to buy this week's not-to-be-missed specials: x, y, and the ever-fabulous z!"
On the subject of supermarkets, in the 1984 French Review interview cited above, you tell us you encountered your first supermarket, shopping center, and shopping cart when you first visited America in 1960. You contend that during the subsequent twenty years, American culture and inventions exercised a very strong influence on France. When this Americanization was under way, the French didn’t seem to realize the extent to which the American way of life was pervading Europe on both the urban and suburban scenes. You point out that there were both ugly and beautiful ramifications, but whereas the ugliness is hard to miss, you say it’s up to the photographers, painters, artists and writers to point out the beauty. Always passionate about painting, you found it hard to choose between a future in painting and literature. But in seeing yourself as a “book artist, an artist of the book of today that is in the process of transforming itself into something new” (“un artiste du livre en transformation, du livre tel qu’il est en train de changer maintenant”), you have managed to combine your loves.
As an occasional translator myself, I appreciate the value you accord to the profession, and that you have often become friends and working partners with your translators. You say that you learn a lot from their questions and from the interaction which enables you to engage with your own text in productive ways. I am happy to say that I treasure my relationship with French author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval for whom I have done many translations. We regularly exchange ideas on more than the particular translation at hand. I like to think of her as my French Writing Partner.
In her New York Times homage to you, one of your own translators, Lydia Davis, cites the moving ending of a 2014 poem you wrote that suggests, optimistically, “the power of the individual to rescue a thing of value, something that could ‘galvanize’ our lives, from the catastrophe of economic corruption and collapse…”
Oh, dear! An uncanny thing has happened in the course of my writing to you. I knew that you were at risk of no longer being one of my three living letter recipients. But at 22:20 on August 24, 2016, I noted that the site I had been looking at to verify some information about you said it had been updated two minutes earlier. I found this surprising since most sites are several years out of date.
And then I saw why: You had died at 22:18. To know that makes me feel extra grateful for the time we spent together today.
But you are still here for me. In the interview, “Michel Butor, l’écriture nomade” (www.chroniques.bnf.fr) you say how much travel has always opened your eyes:
To travel is the dream of a writer who is constantly renewing himself and never settling down in one place any more than temporarily, even if he has the intention to return there. It’s this impatience with respect to boundaries that fascinates me, but I always feel the need to cross them. I’m not just speaking of frontiers between States, but of those among the arts, sciences, all activities of the mind. It’s a question of establishing and maintaining movement as generously as possible.
As much as I like to think about and study liminal spaces, I prefer to stay put and let my mind do the traveling. You, on the other hand, despite naming your liminally-situated home located between France and Switzerland “A l’Écart” (“On the Margins”), have been a fearless lifelong adventurer and barrier buster. I’m picturing you as a young man in Egypt trying to teach a class of 60 tough, uninterested, unruly boys in a language you don’t know. But, of course, you ended up inventing a pictorial method to teach them.
You once wrote, Every written word is a victory over death.
In dying last night, you may have just crossed yet another frontier. But thanks to your generous spirit (and 2000 titles!), you have left behind so much for those of us who continue our journey.