I read an obituary yesterday in the New York Times for Michel Butor. He actually died a few weeks ago, but since it isn't a name on most American's tongues, there probably was no sense of urgency on their part. He was 89 years old, so it was not a life cut short. Still, he was one of the last links to a amazing period in France - the 50s and 60s. He is associated with the "New Novel" movement, though it would be hard to produce a coherent description that would encompass such a disparate group. Certainly his career as a novelist was important, but like so many of the major figures in France at the time, he was multi-talented: philosophy, literary criticism, poetry... in short, a humanist.
Why mention him on the ELI site? Simple. Travel played a central role in his life and his work. His novel L’Emploi du temps, published in English as Passing Time, is the story of a Frenchman who travels to a fictional town in the north of England for an internship. Among the major themes of the book is the alienation, both cultural and linguistic, that the main character, Jacques Revel, reveals through a journal that he keeps. Probably not a good book to read before a trip, or during one if you're having similar issues. But if you're an experienced traveler, you might find a bit of yourself in Jacques. Could it be a dose of culture shock?
The fictional town in the story is called Bleston. Jacques treats it as if it were a living person, taunting him, deceiving him. I think we can all relate to this. Travel gives us a different way of looking at cities. They're much more than just a place; they have personalities, and act on us physically and emotionally. Exhausting us, exhilarating us. We can love a city or hate it. Sometimes both. A great city is a complicated relationship.
By the early 60s, Butor was moving on from the novel to other forms of expression. “Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States” marks this move. True, it is a book, but in it he attempts to portray the United States as he experienced it during a cross-country trip through collages of things that he saw and read - newspaper articles, ads, and more.
Butor's novels, although experimental, are very readable. He manages to keep the reader engaged, proving that the avant garde can appeal to a wide audience. Give him a try!
Read the NY Times obiturary- New York Times
Or if you read French, here's the obituary from Le Monde
By Kevin O'Neill