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Michel Marie François Butor (1926-)


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 has 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 has been 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 Bachelard. After failing to qualify for the agrégation, he took teaching assignments in lycées in Sens, El Minya, Egypt (1950-51), at the Universitry of Manchester, (1951-53), Salonika (1954-55), and Geneva (1956-57). 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. He has 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 has traveled in Europe, Asia, South America, New Zealand, Australia, and throughout the Middle East. 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 has 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), about Australia. 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 has been 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. The opera 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 fond (1980). 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), and Grand Prix des Poètes (2007). Butor is also a Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite and a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

For further reading: Michel Butor by Leon Roudiex (1965); Butor by G. Gaillard (1968); The French New Novel by J. Sturrock (1969); Michel Butor: 'l'Emploi du Temps' by M.A. Grant (1973); Michel Butor by Michael Spencer (1974); Michel Butor by Jennifer Waelti-Walters (1977); The Narratives of Michel Butor: The Writer as Janus by Dean McWilliams (1978); Perpertuum Mobile: A Study of the Novels and Aesthetics of Michel Butor by Mary Lydon (1980); Intentionality and Intersubjectivity: A Phenomenological Study of Butor's LA Modification by Lois Oppenheim (1980) ; Frontiers by Michel Butor and Elinor S. Miller (1989); Church, City, and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor by Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg (1993); Michel Butor, ou, La Résistance by Yehuda Lancry (1994); Prisms and Rainbows: Michel Butor's Collaborations With Jacques Monory, Jiri Kolar, and Pierre Alechinsky by Elinor S. Miller and Pierre Alechinsky (2003)

Selected works:

  • Passage de Milan, 1954
  • L'Emploi du temps, 1956
    - Passing Time (translated by Jean Stewart, 1960)
  • La Modification, 1957
    - Second Thoughts (UK title; translated by Jean Stewart, 1958) / A Change of Heart (U.S. title; translated by Jean Stewart, 1959)
    - Tänä yönä nukut levottomasti (suom. Leena Pasanen, 1967)
  • Le Génie du lieu, 1958
    - The Spirit of Mediterranean Places (translated by Lydia Davis, 1986)
  • Degrés, 1960
    - Degrees (translated by Richard Howard, 1961)
  • Répertoire I, 1960
    - Inventory: Essays (translated by Richard Howard, 1969)
  • Histoire extraordinaire: essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire, 1961
    - Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire's (translated by Richard Howard, 1969)
  • Réseau aérien, 1962 (radio play)
  • Mobile, 1962
    - Mobile (translated by Richard Howard, 1962)
  • Notre Faust, 1962-65 (opera, music by Henri Pousser)
  • Description de San Marco, 1963
    - Description of San Marco (translated by Barbara Mason, 1983)
  • Essais sur les modernes, 1964
  • Jacques Hérold, 1964
  • Illustrations I, 1964
  • Répertoire I, II, 1964
  • 6810000 litres d'eau par seconde; étude stéréophonique, 1965
    - Niagara (translated by Elinor S. Miller, 1969)
  • Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe, 1967
    - Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice (translated by Dominic Di Bernardi, 1995)
  • La banlieue de l'aube à l'aurore suivi de Mouvement brownien, 1968
  • Essais sur les essais, 1968
  • Répertoire III, 1968
  • Les mots dans la peinture, 1969
  • Essais sur le roman, 1969
  • Illustrations  II, 1969
  • La Rose des vents, 1970
  • Où: Le Génie du lieu II, 1971
  • Dialogue avec 33 variations de Ludwig van Beethoven sur une valse de Diabelli, 1971
  • Les sept femmes de Gilbert le Mauvais, 1972
  • Travaux d'approche, 1972
  • Rabelais, 1972 (with Denis Hollier)
  • Intervalle, 1973
  • Illustrations, III, 1973
  • Répertoire IV, 1974
  • Matière de rêves: Matière de rêves I, 1975
  • Second sous-sol: Matière de rêves II, 1976
  • Illustrations IV, 1976
  • Bicentenaire Kit, 1976 (with Jacques Monory)
  • Matière de Rêves III: Troisième Dessous, 1977
  • Boomerang, 1978
    - Letters from the Antipodes (translated from Boomerang; introduction by Michael Spencer, 1981)
  • Envois, 1980
  • Vanité, 1980
  • Quadruple fond: Matière de rêves IV, 1980
  • Explorations, 1981
  • La verge, 1981
  • Répertoire, 1960-82 (5 vols.)
  • Express, 1982
  • Vieira Da Silva, 1983
  • Improvisations sur Flaubert, 1984
  • Improvisations sur Henri Michaux, 1985
  • Matière de rêves, 1985
  • Diego Giacometti, 1985
  • L’œil de Prague, 1986
  • Retour du boomerang, 1988
  • Victor Hugo écartelé, 1988 (with Jiri Kolar)
  • Improvisations sur Rimbaud, 1989
  • L'embarquement de la reine de Saba, 1989
  • Dialogue avec Eugène Delacroix sur l’entrée des Croisés à Constantinople, 1991
  • Transit A, Transit B, 1992
  • Avant-goût IV. En mémoire, 1992
  • Improvisations sur Michel Butor: L'ecriture en transformation, 1993
    - Improvisations on Butor: Transformation of Writing (translated by Elinor S. Miller, 1996)
  • L'utilité poétique, 1995
  • Le fil a quoi tient notre vie, 1996 (with Joël Leick)
  • Improvisations sur Balzac, 1998 (2 vols.)
  • Quant au livre, 2000
  • Dialogue avec Rembrandt Van Rijn sur Samson et Dalila, 2005
  • Seize lustres, 2006
  • Oeuvres complètes, 2006-2011 (12 vols., edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber)
  • Neuf leçons de littérature, 2007 (with Chloé Delaume, Pierrette Fleutiaux, and Hédi Kaddour)
  • Petite histoire de la littérature française, 2008

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