‘Quand ta voix s’envolera
dans le battement des langues
les anciennes dissonances
fleuriront en harmonies’
(‘Le jardin des ages’, Michel Butor par Michel Butor)
It might seem odd to call Passing Time a musical novel. After all, music is conspicuous by its absence in Bleston. As Brunel says, ‘rich in references to the art of the stained-glass window, the tapestries, and even the cinema, the text of L’Emploi du Temps is poverty-stricken with regard to musical references’ (Brunel, p. 143). On the other hand, it is Brunel who calls the book ‘a musical novel’ (p. 17).
In the fog of Bleston, music can’t find a place. Revel sees in the stained glass windows of the Old Cathedral the ancestors of industry and music but in contemporary Bleston, ‘city of weavers and metal workers’, he asks ‘what has become of your musicians?’ (p. 73). Later, he describes how in these same windows, ‘everything was taking place in silence … the looms wove in silence, the hammers forged in silence, the musicians mimed their sounds in silence’. The silence is broken, as his earlier revery is, by mechanical noise, the screech and then the siren of a police car. Music in Bleston is stifled – lost in the labyrinth-city which makes Revel mute, and the woman he loves deaf to him – and the only real music Revel hears in the city is Horace Buck’s harmonica, plaintively recalling long-ago voyages in distant lands, music which unequivocally does not belong there.
The structure of the novel is based on the musical canon, ‘one of the fundamental structures of polyphony, … with reversals, with mirrors … These are the fundamental structures of our perception of time.’ (Curriculum Vitae, p. 74), or perhaps the more complex structure of the fugue, which allows more possibilities for variation. In Passing Time there are five parts, or voices. The twelve months of Revel’s stay in Bleston form our scale, and each of the five sections (each of which is also subdivided into five), move up and down this scale. In part 1 Revel starts writing in May to describe the events of October, in part 2, he’s writing in June, weaving together memories of November with events in June, and so on, as in each part a new voice joins in, until in the final part, we have his contemporary account interwoven with memories of five other months. As Mary Lydon suggests, Passing Time illustrates Bergson‘s ‘melodic concept of duration’: ‘the indivisible and indestructible continuity of a melody where the past comes into the present and forms with it a whole undivided and even indivisible, despite what is added to it at each instant, or rather, thanks to what is added to it’ (Lydon, p. 94).
These musical structures are potentially infinite and so the endings are in a sense arbitrary, as in the novel. As Wilfred Mellers has said of Messiaen’s harmonically centred, static technique, which ‘evades the concept of beginning, middle and end’, ‘there is no reason why [these pieces] – any more than a Gothic motet or the improvisation of an Indian vina player – should ever stop’. When Revel leaves Bleston, he leaves us with the lacunae in his story unfilled, the mysteries unresolved, the book ends as the train pulls out of the station, just as it began with the train’s arrival. If Revel’s writing has saved him, therefore, it’s the act, the process, rather than what he has written. ‘Writing in the labyrinth is … the only true way to try to recover the lost music’ (Brunel, 144), to achieve ‘new harmonic days’. Revel’s journal creates ‘a whole series of resonances of varying intensity separated by broad intervals of silence, like the harmonics into which the timbre of a sound is broken up’ (p. 281).
So, despite the failure of his quest (he loses the women he loves, and he leaves with his narrative unfinished), he has restored Bleston’s lost music, by triggering these harmonics. For Revel, and for Butor, to write is to live, so Revel predicts for Bleston that ‘my silent words may begin to echo through all your rafters, so that your own silent words may at last achieve passionate utterance’ (p. 260).
For Butor music represents the aim of all the arts. It’s ‘not an idle diversion, … music is indispensable to our life, to all our lives… it teaches us, even at its haughtiest, its most apparently detached, something about the world, that musical grammar is a grammar of the real, that songs transform life’ (‘La Musique, Art Realiste’).
Subsequent blogs will explore Butor’s relationship with music more fully, in relation to his other works, and I’ll also return to the Butor-Sebald connection in this context. More, much more, to follow….
Michel Butor, ”La Musique, Art Realiste’, Répertoire (Minuit, 1960)
- Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)
Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’. Le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)
Wilfred Mellers, Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-century Music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1968)