Michel Butor

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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

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

Life and work[edit]

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] He taught in Egypt, Manchester, Thessaloniki, the United States, and Geneva. He won many literary awards for his work, including the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Renaudot.

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.[4] His best-known novel, La Modification, for instance, is written entirely in the second person.[5] 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."[6][7][8][9]

For decades, he chose to work in other forms, from essays to poetry to artist's books[10] to unclassifiable works like Mobile. For artists' books he collaborated with artists like Gérard Serée.[11] 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,[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

Awards and honors[edit]



  • Passage de Milan (Les Editions de Minuit, 1954)
  • 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]

Mixed genre[edit]

  • 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)
  • 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]
  • Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe (Gallimard, 1967). Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, trans. Dominic De Bernardi (Dalkey Archive, 1995).
  • Intervalle (Gallimard, 1973)

Travel writing[edit]

  • 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, trans. Michael Spencer (Ohio University Press, 1981).[20]
    • Transit : le Génie du lieu, 4 (1992)
    • Gyroscope : autrement dit le Génie du lieu, 5 et dernier (1996)



  • La Rose des Vents : 32 Rhumbs pour Charles Fourier (Gallimard, 1970)
  • Travaux d'approche (Gallimard, 1972)
  • Envois (Gallimard, 1980)
  • Exprès : Envois II (Gallimard, 1983)
  • Seize lustres (Gallimard, 2006)
  • Ruines d'avenir : un livre tapisserie (Actes Sud Editions, 2016)


  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Improvisations sur Flaubert (1984)
  • Retour du boomerang (1988)
  • Improvisations sur Rimbaud (1989)
  • Essais sur le roman (1992)
  • 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)
  • Improvisations sur Henri Michaux (1999)

Art criticism[edit]

  • Illustrations [I–IV] (1964–1976)
  • Hérold (1964)
  • Les Mots dans la peinture (1969)
  • Vanité : conversation dans les Alpes-Maritimes (1980)
  • Avant-goût [I–IV] (1984–1992)
  • 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).
  • Quant au livre : triptyque en l'honneur de Gauguin (2000)

Interviews and conversations[edit]

  • Frontières : entretiens avec Christian Jacomino (1985). Frontiers, trans. Elinor S. Miller (1989).
  • Entretiens : Quarante ans de vie littéraire (1999)
  • Conversation (with Dan Graham), ed. Donatien Grau (Sternberg Press, 2015)

Compilations in English[edit]

  • Inventory: Essays by Michel Butor, edited by Richard Howard (Simon & Schuster, 1968; Cape, 1970).[22] Translations of pieces from Répertoire I-III.
  • Selected Essays, ed. Richard Skinner, trans. Mathilde Merouani (Vanguard Editions, 2022). Translations of pieces from Répertoire I-V.


  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. ^ Une Conversation avec Michel Butor (in French) quotation:

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

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

  9. ^ 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.

  10. ^ Manuel Casimiro, Books on Manuel Casimiro.
  11. ^ Gerard Seree, Notes of biography, Gallery Michelle Champetier, 2020
  12. ^ Audio file
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ The Fales Library of NYU's guide to Elinor Miller Paper Archived 2009-11-30 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ "In Memoriam: Michel Butor". frenchculture.org. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  16. ^ "Académie Mallarmé – Prix Mallarmé, membres du jury, laureats". www.academie-mallarme.fr. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  17. ^ "Portail SACEM". 2008-05-01. Archived from the original on 2008-05-01. Retrieved 2021-07-08.
  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. ^ Butor, Michel (1981). Letters from the Antipodes. Internet Archive. Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-0659-5.
  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 (1969). Inventory; essays. Internet Archive. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]