When I started this blog, part of my motivation was to enthuse, if I could, other readers about Michel Butor, and about this novel in particular. The publication of Sebald’s poems which reveal his indebtedness to Butor has helped my cause because there are more people out there reading Sebald than there are reading Butor, and my exploration of the connections between the two writers has intrigued at least one fellow blogger sufficiently to inspire him to read Passing Time. I reblogged earlier this week his reactions to the novel, and promised to post my own response here.
I’ve been lost in this book for years now. I feel as much trapped in it as Revel is in Bleston – of course, I could turn my attention to another of Butor’s many fascinating works, just as Revel could at any point take a train away from Bleston at least for a break. But somehow I always find myself back in the city again, traipsing, as Decayetude has it, around those miserable streets, searching for the dark heart of Bleston. As he says, ‘we are subjects, held prisoner in the book/narrative as Revel is in his own story’.
Exasperating, yes, and rewarding. Irritating, yes, and wonderful. Not quite a masterpiece as set against Sebald’s prose work and Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled? I can’t say – but I would maintain that this is one of the great novels of the mid-twentieth century, one of the richest, most intriguing novels I have read, and one whose interest I cannot seem to exhaust.
To pick up on a few specific observations:
- We’ve discussed the impossibility of actually writing contrapuntally or fugually in relation to an earlier blog post – and I agree, that we cannot in a written work actually hear the different melodies/voices at the same time. But Butor’s sentences echo each other and create an impression of layering, an illusion of polyphony. I want to explore this in much more depth at some future point.
- The musical structure is described as ‘quasi-mathematical’, and indeed one of the many contradictory things about Butor is that he does use mathematical grids and so forth to structure his writing, but that as intellectual, as erudite as his work is, it is always at the same time warm, passionate, idealistic. It never reads like an exercise.
- Revel feels he has blood on his hands. But so does almost everyone – or rather everyone, at least momentarily, seems guilty or dangerous. Horace Buck is almost certainly responsible for some of the fires that are Bleston’s plague. Burton himself writes murders, if he does not commit them. Richard Tenn may possibly be the model for Burton’s fictional fratricide. Jenkins not only comes under suspicion from Revel but suspects himself after a homicidal dream. Even the Bailey women suddenly appear in a sinister light when Revel tells them that he knows the pseudonymous author of the detective novel, so much so that he feels he has betrayed his friend and even endangered his life. In Bleston suspicion and betrayal are in the air.
Decayetude says that there is also ‘in the last pages, a darkness I cannot quite get to the heart of ‘. This is the quintessential experience of the reader of Passing Time. This is what nags at one, that feeling that there is something we’re missing, something at the centre of the labyrinth.
Some critics became quite tetchy in response. W M Frohock, reviewing the novel in 1959, said that ‘the hero… is not completely plausible, psychologically. After all, it is one thing to experience a kind of depression in a city like Bleston, and a different one to stay, month after month, at the bottom of the slough. Even in Bleston, Jacques Revel should really find his situation less grim on some days than he does on others’ (p. 60). Which sounds rather like an exhortation to ‘pull yourself together, Jacques’ .
These responses suggest attempts to read Passing Time as a realistic account of a year in a northern city – understandable, since we begin with what seems to be just that, and since the account is anchored in bus times and street names and the mundane detail of city life. But from the start, from the first page, that terror is present, and it and myriad references on every page tell us that 1950s Manchester is onlyone source for Bleston.
That Manchester at that time should have triggered such an intense response is something I’ve looked at elsewhere. (Aside from anything else, the extremity of the climactic conditions linked to industrial pollution was extraordinary - J B Howitt has talked of the ‘terrifying Manchester fogs … when the phenomenon of temperature-inversion produced near darkness and zero visibility around the clock for days on end’ (p. 54).)
And yet, and yet, there is more than this, and I think there are answers to be had. You just might have to wander those rain-drenched fog-bound mean streets for a long time to find the heart of that darkness….
Frohock, W M, ‘Introduction to Butor’, YFS, 24 (1959), 54-61
Howitt, J B, ‘England and the English in the Novels of Michel Butor’, MA thesis, University of Manchester, April 1972
__, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottingham French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85