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Michel Butor: Degrés (Degrees)

Once again we start with a title that has various shades of meaning, in this case from the degrees on a thermometer (several of the characters contract flu) to the degrees of a relationship and, doubtless, several other possible meanings. We also have a formal structure – three sections each with seven chapters. The three image is taken even further with various threesomes appearing in the story. The story, however, is far more complicated than the previous novels and, as it will be Butor’s last real novel, it does raise the question as to whether Butor might have thought that he had written himself into a corner.

Pierre Vernier is a teacher of geography and history at a French high school. His nephew, Pierre Eller, is a student there. Vernier decides to write a full account of a specific day in the school, namely 12 October 1954. This day is both Columbus Day (and Vernier is teaching the discovery of America) and also Eller’s fifteenth birthday. The aim is that Eller will be able to look back at the account in later life and see exactly what happened. The first section of the book is Vernier’s first-person account. Of course, he soon realises that he cannot know everything that is going on in the school at that time on his own so he gets his nephew to help and his nephew will – maybe – write the second part. Nominally, the nephew is reporting on what his uncle has reported on, only from his perspective. However, it soon seems that it may not be the nephew writing after all. What is clear is that the whole project is too overwhelming for Vernier and both his school work and personal life suffer. He turns to drink and has a breakdown, while the third part is taken over by Henri Jouret, also Eller’s uncle and also a teacher at the school. Meanwhile, Eller’s reputation with the other students has deteriorated as he is seen as telling all to the teacher. His own personal situation likewise deteriorates, causing problems between Vernier and Eller’s parents.

Butor could have made this very complicated and, to a certain degree, it is. Against the background of the deterioration of the health and relationships of Eller and Vernier we do get the narration of events, linked, as always in Butor, to a mythological background, with the discovery of America being the key one. However, with his reference to Rabelais and education, it is clear that Butor is taking aim at the entire current Western method of knowledge and may be one other reason why he abandoned the novel after writing this one. It sort of works, even if you have to stick with it and the point Butor is making is clearly an important one.

Publishing history

First published in French 1960 by Gallimard
First English translation 1961 by Simon & Schuster