A Conversation with Michel Butor By Anna Otten

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1985, Vol. 5.3

ANNA OTTEN: What makes you write a new book?

MICHEL BUTOR: I like to explore, everything interests me. Within each book I explore something new, see various perspectives, consider certain themes. Often I am reminded of something I have read or written elsewhere. But within the framework of a certain book, the ensemble acquires specific significance. Even when I quote another writer, the quotation takes on a different meaning in the new context. In the final analysis, what thought is really new? When I look back, I find in ancient books answers to questions I have asked myself a hundred times.

AO: But you give different answers.

MB: I cannot help transforming or at least modifying them. Each generation has to find new answers. Cultures change and men change with them. Nothing stands still. I am not the same from one moment to the next. When Hokusai sketches his thirty-six and his ten additional views of Mount Fuji, they all turn out to be different. Each time his point of view changes.

AO: You do not limit yourself to literature.

MB: No. I like to explore the arts as a whole and see world culture in the form of a gigantic weaving, with a profusion of individual strands and threads. There are spaces between them and tissue below the surface.

AO: You showed me one of your work sheets on which you had divided the page into columns and sections by drawing lines that look like threads to separate them. It looked like a grid or weaving.

MB: Yes. In print, I have different columns, typography or various colors of ink. I plan how much space will be allotted to each section of the text. Organization provides a certain rhythm, particularly in my plays written for the radio. Various speakers convey verbal and tonal elements that shape the play as a whole.

AO: I felt that I had listened to a play and, simultaneously, a piece of music, with melodies, point, counterpoint, repetitions, harmonies, dissonances, silences . . .

MB: Silences are a powerful presence or absence. They are a musical phenomenon and may cut or prolong the impact of an actor’s recitation. In some plays, the sonorous quality of language is so important that they can be seen as texts and musical scores.

AO: I also remember your “Faust.”

MB: Oh, yes, the “Faust.” I wrote the libretto and Henri Pousseur the music. It is a collaboration.

AO: I noticed a great deal of verbal and musical interlacing of individual components, almost too intricate. They are so intertwined that they develop a chemistry of their own. References to other writers—Goethe, Marlowe—are also interspersed.

MB: I like to collaborate and often quote many other writers—Mallarme, Chateaubriand. When I quote someone in my books, it is a form of collaboration since the citation, placed in a new context, becomes an integral part of my text. I use language I have learned, and the musician uses notes that existed before him.

AO: You have written many essays on musicians.

MB: Yes, music interests me. I often improvise within certain textual cells; this is akin to musical composition—jazz, for example.

AO: You are interested in jazz?

MB: But yes, but yes! Why are you so surprised?

AO: You are a serious writer!

MB: One can be a serious writer, love jazz and write about it. Consider a jam session. Individuals get together to contribute to the future of performance. The band leader selects soloists he knows. He must foresee. The writer must also anticipate how his components can form a coherent whole.

AO: You could say the same thing about painting.

MB: Painting is also a process toward organized composition, like music. It is a matter of imaging a structure within which colors and shapes can form an artistic whole. Writing, music and painting are three faces of the same enterprise: formation of new tissue. Of course, there are many other contributors to the cultural fabric, among them sculpture and architecture. All artists work within this fabric to change it. There simply is no truly individual work. The immense cultural weaving exists at our birth and nourishes us. We become part of it, others follow us. All works are collective!

AP: Michel Butor, you have partially answered my questions by your view of the writer as contributor to the cultural heritage of humanity, his reinterpretation of inherited wisdom for his time and the future. He has to look backward and forward at the same time, like Janus. This is how you see Michel Butor, the writer. Is there not another perspective, namely, Michel the man and his personal modification through writing?

MB: I find it hard to separate the two.

AO: There are rapid reflections, constant movements and a great array of personifications as well as many versions of your events; your point of view changes, which means, you change. Just as Hokusai does in his different views of sacred Fuji. Beckett’s statement that the observer infects the observed with his own mobility certainly applies to you. Did you not say at the colloquium at Royaumont that you “write to obtain unity in your life” and that writing is for you “a spinal cord”?

MB: It is extremely important for my personal growth. I want to capture in writing the most important things that I see, hear, read, and think.

AO: You have said that for the writer nothing is lost. It seems to me as if you look around and record your perceptions of the world and by doing this, you find out what you are at a given moment. What else can you do, if you want to know who you are? The mind cannot look at itself, you cannot see your self think, except in writing. I recall that the questions “Who are you?” and “Where are you going?” come up in “La Modification.”

MB: I cannot answer those questions, but I find what I thought when I look at what I have written. I know why I write: I have an indomitable urge, as if a voice dictated to me and then the text engenders itself. I should like to know the center . . . the voice. It may be God’s

AO: You record its reflection. There must be stillness at the center out of which “the voice” rises, as it keeps exploring the periphery.

MB: It is a succession of voices, just as we are a succession of individuals.

AO: Perhaps it is consciousness. But you work with, and in, language, and form is of primary importance to you. You follow strict rules of composition when you write.

MB: They are the rules of musical and geometrical structures.

AO: And architecture. Words are for you building blocks. You construct strings of connotations, place words into unexpected context or insert incompatible comparisons. They become weapons to attack cherished middle-class semantic, artistic, social and political beliefs.

MB: Those beliefs are sclerotized and must be changed. I look at words closely and discover hidden meanings. I do not pretend that words are univocal; it is much more complicated than that. Some words are charged with problems and ambiguities. Rather than imitate acquired forms, I seek personal exploration of contemporary reality and not that of yesteryear.

AO: A renaissance?

MB: Yes, a kind of renaissance, not a spiritual movement that is born, grows, and dies, not a closed circle. You call it circle in space and cycle in time. I aim to open the circle and continue the cycle to have a helix or a spiral.

AO: That means this renaissance has to be continuous.

MB: To cling to traditional ways was an illusion people had. That is no longer possible. The idea of doing is important. And to write is action par excellence.

Some things have to be finished, the work itself has to expand. The writer is a tenuous beginning, we cannot even say a beginning—an articulation. He is situated midway between the older and the newer reality. When he publishes his work and people read and respond, he helps to shape the future that will in turn become a past. When the writer dies, his work will survive.

An efficient work of literature will close some bad periods, but that closing is not permanent. Even during unproductive cultural epochs, something can be redeemed. We have never closed the Dark Ages. Our own age is still dark and we hear voices rising out of it. We have to change our past in order to change our future. We must turn back and throw light on it to see it in a new way. What we need is archeology around and in ourselves.

There is a strong link between inspiration and childhood. When Proust wanted to experience a new childhood and become a writer, he had to go back to his first childhood. Things forgotten wait in the library of your mind. It is a question of having to look back ward and yet not go backward at the same time. To free Euridyce from Hades, Orpheus was forbidden to look back at her and when he did, he lost her. Almost the same legend can be found in the Bible. It is the story of Lot’s wife, who, when fleeing Sodom, looked back and was transformed into a pillar of salt. We have to be able to look forward, but to bring back Euridyce you have to go back to Hades. It was a very powerful memory, which was at the origin of the journey to hell. We always have to descend into hell in order to got out of it. It’s also an open cycle.

AO: We have to get to know the past without regressing into it. If we were tempted to go back and stay, mental growth would be impossible. We would freeze in time and space. You firmly believe in eternal movement in life and literature?

MB: Yes, yes. I believe that one’s work is never finished.

AO: Nothing is finished that could not be formed differently. That, by the way, is what I learned at my alma mater.

MB: The university is not always an alma mater, but can be a tyrannical, a castrating mother. It is necessary to change that mother, reveal what she is and change her.

AO: Evidently she represents two poles of motherhood, death-bearing Kali and birth-giving Parvati.
Sometimes I think of the German bildungsroman when I read certain of your works. I find that they show a young man’s learning process in the world, the wish to transform it and make it better, the search for selfhood through experience in a variety of environments. There is also constant forward movement and no standing still whether in time or space. The best graphic representation would be a spiral.

MB: You can also speak of the spiral of spirals. In the bildungsroman you have one spiral and all events around one evolving character. This is the case for some of my books, for instance “L’Emploi du temps,” “La Modification” and even “Degres.” In “Degres” the central character is broken down into articulations of characters since all takes place inside the secondary educational system in Paris.

My German book, “Portrait de l’artiste en juene singe,” is also an educational novel. It is full of references to German writers of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. But in most of my other books, you have a multiplicity of characters. There certainly is “Bildung” in many senses of the word in all of my works. There is education and pedagogy, a way to teach; but even more, there is a way to learn, and it is a way to form something: the reader, the writer, words give form to reality. So, certainly, you can draw a comparison to the German bildungsroman.

AO: I can also see biographical elements in your books.

MB: In the last years, biographical elements have become more and more evident in my writing. At the beginning, when I wrote my first novels, I wanted to have characters as different as possible from myself. Nevertheless, I see in my first books similarities between characters and myself. It was important for me to have mirror structures, “mise en abyme” and the like. After some time the name of Michel Butor appears in my text and it becomes in some way autobiographical. But I have never written a continuous autobiography and I do not think that I ever will. But there are more and more autobiographical moments.

The first book where this is evident is the first “Genie du lieu.” It was a book about places, and it was not possible for me to speak about places without speaking about myself and giving indications of the point of view. How can one speak about the situation without saying anything about the person who looks at it? After that work, you very often have autobiographical references.

At some point my family came into my writing; I needed to speak about my four daughters. I think that this period is finished now, but I am not sure.

At any rate, in “Boomerang” I mentioned my whole family, my daughters and my wife. It is interesting to see how the consciousness changes and how biographical elements intervene. This is related to biography itself. Perhaps one of these days I shall write something for my grandchildren. Maybe the time will come; so far it has not.

Marie Jo plays a very important role in “Boomerang” and so do the four daughters. In my writing, they have always appeared together. My daughters had already erupted into my writing when they were five years old. That’s strange.

AO: You placed them in all sorts of geographical regions, surely because they were part of whatever you were doing.

MB: Yes. In all three volumes of “Genie du lieu” autobiographical elements are present. I wanted to be as faithfully autobiographical as possible. I tried to give the historical elements, not to tell any lie, and avoid errors. In “Portrait de l’artiste,” the first part is as faithful to my autobiography as I could be, but the second part contains inventions and transformations. Some day historians will demonstrate that I made mistakes, but that day has not come so far.

AO: What about “Matiere de reves”?

MB: That is different. I dream about dreams.

AO: We already know that you are multiple and have many identities. What are your two main strands? Author/critic?

MB: I don’t know. There can, of course, be Michel Butor judge of Michel. In these last years I have given seminars and lectures about my work. It is difficult to do. I had to reread some of my books that I had forgotten. When I write something new, I have to push back the old one, erase the blackboard to make something different. Some critics or translators begin to know some of my books much better than I. I reread some works, not to judge them but to comment on what I have done, and so do for myself what I have done for other writers. And I prefer to comment on other writers, but I am sufficiently different from my earlier work so that I can speak about my own work from time to time.

In my own work, I try to give explanations, theories, and criticism. I know when I write about other writers, I also reveal myself; when I discover other, I also discover myself. It is not so different, it is a matter of degree.

AO: If you had to create a work of art that would symbolize your creation, in which art would it be? A musical composition or a painting? Or would you rather be an architect than a painter?

MB: I should like to be everything: musician, painter, horseback rider, pilot . . . and writing is a way to be several people at the same time.

I don’t like the word “creation.” The word means to create something of nothing. I am always making things from inside the world. I am “inside” the world. I am trying to be inside the world! I transform, I change, I do not “create”!

When I was young, I hesitated between music and painting, so I chose literature. No! I did not choose. I was “chosen.”

AO: Is it not a free choice?

MB: Oh, no, it is not free at all.

AO: Let me congratulate you. You are the happiest prisoner I have ever seen.

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