MICHEL BUTOR: COMMENTS ON “L’EMPLOI DU TEMPS”(“PASSING TIME”), 1957,TRANS JEAN STEWART:”THE NOVEL DECONSTRUCTS BEFORE OUR EYES:BUTOR’S LABYRINTH OF TIME AND MEMORY”. BY STEVEN BENSON

I found this novel both exasperating and rewarding. It is the ultimate in self-reflexive, self-aware, postmodernist writing. I do not want to perpetuate that further by writing in a labarynthine, periphrastic style(heaven forfend!), in an attempt at a further layer of self-reflective exegesis, but just to “bulletpoint” some main themes/concerns:

1.TIME: it is contrapuntal(or an attempt thereat) and circular, traipsing(it FEELS like traipsing!) back and forth laboriously, BETWEEN times- in a vain attempt of the narrator, Jacques Revel, to catch up on himself and his year in this alien town, Bleston. This is a comment on the verticality of time(past, present and future contained in the present, particular moment)and, ultimately, the unconquerability and unredemptiveness of time; and also, of course , at the doomed attempt at writing itself to recapture time(the narrator keeps forgetting bits of his-backdated-story!). It is profoundly irritating but wonderful: we are subjects, held prisoner in the book/narrative as Revel is in his own story; and we are ALL stuck in the process of writing/reading the book itself. This book, with its endless(almost) repetitive recapitulations of previous events (and I use the word recapitulation, advisedly, in its strict musical sense, because that is Butor’s aim). Usually these reprises take place within one sentence, sometimes split into paragraphs sans punctuation, the sentences becoming, obviously, longer and longer as the year extends and the need to recap thus grows, together with the bits Revel has missed out, and later inserts, in his stab at including everything and, thus, trying to REDEEM/overcome Time, by endlessly trying to nail it down(ironically by compulsively writing in this way he loses out on his potential romance with Anne Bailey). So what we have here is a sort of fugal device, or attempt at reproducing the structure of polyphonic/imitative/contrapuntal writing, ie vertical layers of different melodies(in musical terms); but it cannot work(Proust and Sebald have also tried it) because writing exists HORIZONTALLY/LINEARLY, it cannot be vertical like a fugue(where we can HEAR SIMULTANEOUSLY various melodies at once) by its very linear layout/structure; but it is the most determined, exhaustive, if not (quasi-)mathematical attempt thereat I have encountered hitherto.

2.Jacques Revel/the reader- we are all, therefore, in a maze,of endlessly regurgitated bits of memory and time and narrative, like Theseus’s labyrinth (referred to), trying to grasp the often elusive threads of narrative. Everything mirrors everything else, be it Cain, in the murderer’s window in one of Bleston’s cathedrals reflecting back the feeling Revel has of blood on his hands(at one point Butor seems to be suggesting he is actually the murderer). But then dream and reality are, self-confessedly, intermingled and blurred: “… all the illusions{sic} which you{Bleston anthropomorphized}have used to lead me astray are as much a part of your real|{sic}being as those aspects of yourself which you acknowledge”(p.253).

3. Of course Butor is playing with us; and that is fine, and is successfully executed. I don’t know if Kazuo Ishiguro had read this, when he wrote “the Unconsoled”(1995), but there are some similarities: a remorseless “Kafka-esque” sense of feeling imprisoned and the blurring of dream/reality symbiosis(In Ishiguro, however, the narative goes off at {rhizomic] tangents, rather than endless reprise).

4. There are also quite a lot of vivid metaphors, for example in relation to fires; and the larger symbol of Bleston, in its bleak yet magnificent, grandeur(or anti-grandeur) being an exteriorized  reflection of Revel’s INNER dereliction , especially after the two women he, respectively, lusts after(Rose) and  loves(Anne) become engaged to his friends. There is also, in the last pages, a darkness I cannot quite get to the heart of but which seems to equate vaguely with the theory of natural/manmade catastrophe somehow mirroring internal emptiness /crisis of identity, a la Sebald,who was obviously in many many ways influenced by his reading of this book whilst himself in Manchester for 2/3 years: see review of his poem “Bleston:A Mancunian cantical” in “Acoss the land and Water”https://decayetude.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/blestona-mancunian-canticalsebald-across-the-land-and-water-trans-galbraith-2011an-exploration-by-steven-benson/(my explication of the Sebald re-envisionning of the Butor).

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You see, I have been  (half)unwittingly  drawn into Butor’s (narrative) world; my “bullet points” cannot be concise because the themes are ALL tangential /rhizomic and interlinked inextricably, just as Sebald’s are(“Rings of Saturn” being an especially complex example straddling different time eras.)

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I would not (quite!) say this is a masterpiece, as are all Sebald’s main prose-writings and “The Unconsoled” but it is close: an awe-insiring, dark yet somehow radiant attempt at a complete circularity of narrative structure and musical imitation(figuratively and, claimedly, literally). What a feat!.

I have also only TOUCHED on all the ramifications of this book; I might exlplore the dark heart catastrophisation and hallucination material at a later date.

{Thanks to Cath, who inspired me to read it and , initially, helped me tease out its contrapuntal structure!}

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Published by: decayetude

ENTHUSIASMS: CLASSICAL MUSIC, ESPECIALLY OBSCURE ROMANTIC COMPOSERS; BACH/HANDEL LITERATURE, ESPECIALLY THOUGHTFUL, WELL-WRITTEN(STYLISTICALLY)NOVELS W G SEBALD WALTER BENJAMIN THEODOR ADORNO(JUST BEGINNING!) AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHY GAY MEN'S WRITING;QUEER THEORY STIMULATING DISCUSSIONS(EMOTIONALLY AND INTELLECTUALLY) GOOD RICH THICK ESPRESSO MICHAEL PONTI SPRITUALITY/LIFE'S "AURA"(BENJAMIN), WHATEVER TRANSCENDENTAL THING YOU WANT TO CALL THIS MEMORY-the elusiveness thereof. LOST TIME AND AN ATTEMPT AT ITS REDEMPTION(NON THEISTICALLY/RELIGIOUSLY)

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4 thoughts on “MICHEL BUTOR: COMMENTS ON “L’EMPLOI DU TEMPS”(“PASSING TIME”), 1957,TRANS JEAN STEWART:”THE NOVEL DECONSTRUCTS BEFORE OUR EYES:BUTOR’S LABYRINTH OF TIME AND MEMORY”. BY STEVEN BENSON”

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