Michel Butor

Michel Butor (French: [miʃɛl bytɔʁ]; 14 September 1926 – 24 August 2016) was a French poet, novelist, teacher, essayist, art critic and translator.[1][2]

Michel Butor
Michel Butor in 2002
Michel Butor in 2002
BornMichel Marie François Butor
(1926-09-14)14 September 1926
Mons-en-Barœul, Nord, France
Died24 August 2016(2016-08-24) (aged 89)
Contamine-sur-Arve, France
Alma materUniversity of Paris
  • Novel
  • criticism
Notable worksL'Emploi du temps
La Modification

Life and workEdit

Michel Marie François Butor was born in Mons-en-Barœul, a suburb of Lille, the third of seven children. His parents were Émile Butor (1891–1960), a railroad inspector and Anna (née Brajeux, 1896–1972). He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1947.[3]

In 1950–51, he taught French in Minya, Egypt, followed by teaching assignments in Manchester (1951-53), Thessaloniki (1954–55) and Geneva (1956–57). In 1958, he married Marie Josèphe (née Mas); they had four daughters.

His first novel, Passage de Milan, was published in 1954, followed by L'Emploi du temps (1956), which won the Prix Fénéon, and by La Modification in 1957, which won the Prix Renaudot. His final novel, Degrés, was published in 1960, after which he continued to pursue other forms of writing.

In 1960, he was a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College and Middlebury College. His travels around the United States at this time resulted in his first experimental book, Mobile, published in 1962 to a controversial reception.[4]

Journalists and critics have associated his novels with the nouveau roman, but Butor himself long resisted that association. The main point of similarity is a very general one, not much beyond that; like exponents of the nouveau roman, he can be described as an experimental writer.[5] His best-known novel, La Modification, for instance, is written entirely in the second person.[6] In his 1967 La critique et l'invention, he famously said that even the most literal quotation is already a kind of parody because of its "trans-contextualization."[7][8][9][10]

For decades, he chose to work in other forms, from essays to poetry to artist's books[11] to unclassifiable works like Mobile. For artists' books he collaborated with artists like Gérard Serée.[12] Literature, painting and travel were subjects particularly dear to Butor. Part of the fascination of his writing is the way it combines the rigorous symmetries that led Roland Barthes to praise him as an epitome of structuralism (exemplified, for instance, by the architectural scheme of Passage de Milan or the calendrical structure of L'emploi du temps) with a lyrical sensibility more akin to Baudelaire than to Robbe-Grillet.

In an interview in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, conducted in 2006,[13] the poet John Ashbery describes how he wanted to sit next to Michel Butor at a dinner in New York.

After meeting in 1977, Butor became a friend of Elinor S. Miller, a French professor at Rollins College at the time.[14] They worked collaboratively on translations, catalogues and lectures. In 2002, Miller published a book on Butor entitled Prisms and Rainbows: Michel Butor's Collaborations with Jacques Monory, Jiri Kolar, and Pierre Alechinsky.[15]

Selected bibliographyEdit


  • Passage de Milan (Les Editions de Minuit, 1954). Chapters VII-X, trans. Guy Daniels in The Award Avant-Garde Reader (1965).[16] Chapters XI-XII in The Carleton Miscellany (1963).[17]
  • L'Emploi du temps (Les Editions de Minuit, 1956). Passing Time, trans. Jean Stewart (Simon & Schuster, 1960; Faber and Faber, 1961; Pariah Press, 2021).
  • La Modification (Les Editions de Minuit, 1957). Trans. Jean Stewart as Second Thoughts (Faber and Faber, 1958), A Change of Heart (Simon & Schuster, 1959) and Changing Track (Calder, 2017; revised).
  • Degrés (Gallimard, 1960). Degrees, trans. Richard Howard (Simon & Schuster, 1961; Methuen, 1962; Dalkey Archive, 2005).[18]

Experimental textsEdit

  • Mobile : étude pour une représentation des États-Unis (Gallimard, 1962). Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, trans. Richard Howard (Simon & Schuster, 1963; Dalkey Archive, 2004).
  • Réseau aérien : texte radiophonique (Gallimard, 1962). Commissioned by RTF and broadcast on 16 June 1962.
  • Description de San Marco (Gallimard, 1963). Description of San Marco, trans. Barbara Mason (York Press, 1983).
  • 6 810 000 litres d'eau par seconde : étude stéréophonique (Gallimard, 1965). Niagara: A Stereophonic Novel, trans. Elinor S. Miller (Regnery, 1969).[19] Also adapted as an English-language broadcast for BBC Home Service on 1 December 1965, translated by Rayner Heppenstall.[20]


  • Répertoire [I–V] (1960–1982)
  • Histoire extraordinaire : essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire (1961). Histoire extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire's, trans. Richard Howard (Cape, 1969).[21]
  • Essais sur les modernes (1964)
  • Essais sur Les Essaies (1968)
  • Essais sur le roman (1969)
  • Improvisations sur Flaubert (1984)
  • Improvisations sur Rimbaud (1989)
  • Improvisations sur Michel Butor : l'écriture en transformation (1993). Improvisations on Butor: Transformation of Writing, trans. Elinor S. Miller (University Press of Florida, 1996).
  • L'Utilité poétique (1995)
  • Improvisations sur Balzac (1998)
  • Le sismographe aventureux : improvisations sur Henri Michaux (1999)


  • Le Génie du lieu [1-5] (1958–1996):
    • Le Génie du lieu (1958). The Spirit of Mediterranean Places, trans. Lydia Davis (Marlboro Press, 1986).
    • Ou : le Génie du lieu, 2 (1971)
    • Boomerang : le Génie du lieu, 3 (1978). Letters from the Antipodes, partial trans. Michael Spencer (University of Queensland Press, 1981).[22]
    • Transit : le Génie du lieu, 4 (1992)
    • Gyroscope : autrement dit le Génie du lieu, 5 et dernier (1996)
  • Hérold (1964)
  • Illustrations [I–IV] (1964–1976)
  • Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe (Gallimard, 1967). Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, trans. Dominic Di Bernardi (Dalkey Archive, 1995).
  • La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore (Fata Morgana, 1968). The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak, trans. Jeffrey Gross (2013)[23][24]
  • Les Mots dans la peinture (1969)
  • Votre Faust: Fantaisie variable genre Opéra (with Henri Pousseur) (premiered 1969)
  • La Rose des Vents : 32 Rhumbs pour Charles Fourier (Gallimard, 1970)
  • Travaux d'approche (Gallimard, 1972)
  • Intervalle (Gallimard, 1973)
  • Matière de rêves [I–V] (1975–1985):
    • Matière de rêves (1975)
    • Second sous-sol : Matière de rêves II (1976)
    • Troisième dessous : Matière de rêves III (1977)
    • Quadruple fond : Matière de rêves IV (1981)
    • Mille et un plis : Matière de rêves V (1985)
  • Vanité : conversation dans les Alpes-Maritimes (1980)
  • Envois (Gallimard, 1980)
  • Exprès : Envois II (Gallimard, 1983)
  • Avant-Goût [I–IV] (1984–1992)
  • Frontières : entretiens avec Christian Jacomino (1985). Frontiers, trans. Elinor S. Miller (Summa Publications, 1989).
  • Retour du boomerang (1988)
  • L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba : d'après le tableau de Claude Lorrain (1989)
  • Parrure (1994). Ethnic Jewelry: Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, trans. Daniel Wheeler, Mary Laing, and Emily Lane (Vendome Press, 1994).
  • Entretiens : Quarante ans de vie littéraire (1999). In three volumes, covering 1956 to 1996.
  • Quant au livre : triptyque en l'honneur de Gauguin (2000)
  • Seize lustres (Gallimard, 2006)
  • Ruines d'avenir : un livre tapisserie (Actes Sud Editions, 2016)

Compilations in EnglishEdit

  • Inventory: Essays by Michel Butor, edited by Richard Howard (Simon & Schuster, 1968; Cape, 1970). Twelve essays from Répertoire and Répertoire II, as well as five other pieces.[25]
  • Selected Essays, ed. Richard Skinner, trans. Mathilde Merouani (Vanguard Editions, 2022). Eight essays from Répertoire and Répertoire II.

Awards and honorsEdit


  1. ^ L’écrivain Michel Butor, figure du Nouveau Roman, est mort (in French)
  2. ^ French writer Michel Butor dies aged 89: family Archived 2016-09-17 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ His DES thesis (diplôme d'études supérieures [fr], roughly equivalent to an MA thesis) under Gaston Bachelard was titled Les Mathématiques et l'idée de nécessité, "Mathematics and the Idea of Necessity" (see Mary Lydon, Perpetuum Mobile: A Study of the Novels and Aesthetics of Michel Butor, University of Alberta, 1980, p. 156 n. 31).
  4. ^ Daniels, T. Tilden (2008-07-01). "Michel Butor's Mobile: Modernism, Postmodernism, and American Art". Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures. 62 (2): 99–112. doi:10.3200/SYMP.62.2.99-112. ISSN 0039-7709.
  5. ^ Une Conversation avec Michel Butor (in French) quotation:

    La littérature, c’est l’expérimentation sur le langage.

  6. ^ Joshua Parker: On writing in second person, Published in Connotations Vol. 21.2–3 (2011/12)
  7. ^ Linda Hutcheon (1985), A theory of parody: the teachings of twentieth-century art forms, p. 41
  8. ^ Allan H. Pasco (1994), Allusion: a literary graft, p. 217
  9. ^ Original quotation:

    La citation la plus littérale est déjà dans une certaine mesure une parodie. Le simple prélèvement la transforme, le choix dans lequel je l'insère, sa découpure (deux critiques peuvent citer le même passage en fixant ses bords différemment), les allégements que j'opère à l'intérieur, lesquels peuvent substituer une autre grammaire à l'originelle et naturellement, la façon dont je l'aborde, dont elle est prise dans mon commentaire

  10. ^ Michel Butor (1981), Letters from the Antipodes, p. 162 quotation:

    A whole ideology of ownership and transmission is implied by the commercial promotion of books and a certain kind of discourse in newspapers, schools and universities, with its emphasis on greatness, uniqueness, and influence—often via quotation—as a one-way process. This ideology has received a battering for many years now at the hands of authors such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges (Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote) and Butor himself.

  11. ^ Manuel Casimiro, Books on Manuel Casimiro.
  12. ^ Gerard Seree, Notes of biography, Gallery Michelle Champetier, 2020
  13. ^ Audio file
  14. ^ Miller, Elinor (1977-09-01). "Approaches to the Cataract: Butor's Niagara". Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature. 2 (1). doi:10.4148/2334-4415.1045. ISSN 2334-4415.
  15. ^ The Fales Library of NYU's guide to Elinor Miller Paper Archived 2009-11-30 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Gil Orlovitz (1965). The Award Avant-Garde Reader. Internet Archive.
  17. ^ "Two chapters from Passage de Milan". contentdm.carleton.edu. Retrieved 2023-04-18.
  18. ^ Butor, Michel (1961). Degrees, a novel (in English and French). Internet Archive. New York, Simon and Schuster.
  19. ^ Butor, Michel; Michel Butor Collection (Library of Congress) DLC (1969). Niagara, a novel. Internet Archive. Chicago, H. Regnery Co.
  20. ^ "Il en fait trop ! Place de la radio dans l'œuvre et la vie de Michel Butor". Komodo 21 (in French). 2021-10-06. Retrieved 2023-04-12.
  21. ^ Butor, Michel (1969). Histoire extraordinaire: essay on a dream of Baudelaire's;. Internet Archive. London, Cape. ISBN 978-0-224-61663-8.
  22. ^ Butor, Michel (1981). Letters from the Antipodes. Internet Archive. Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-0659-5.
  24. ^ Aldredge, Michelle. "Michel Butor's The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak". Gwarlingo. Retrieved 2022-08-02.
  25. ^ Butor, Michel (1969). Inventory; essays. Internet Archive. New York, Simon and Schuster.
  26. ^ "In Memoriam: Michel Butor". frenchculture.org. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  27. ^ "Académie Mallarmé – Prix Mallarmé, membres du jury, laureats". www.academie-mallarme.fr. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  28. ^ "Portail SACEM". 2008-05-01. Archived from the original on 2008-05-01. Retrieved 2021-07-08.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit