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Michel Butor: L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time)

As with his previous work, the title is deliberately ambiguous. As the English title has it, it can mean passing time, in a vague sort of way, but it can also be a more formal work time sheet and, indeed, the hero of the novel, Jacques Revel keeps a formal schedule/diary. The book is in the form of his diary and is divided into five sections, one for each of the months he writes his diary. The sections are also divided into five, one for each weekdays of the week. Revel is staying in Bleston, a dreary English town, presumably based on Manchester, where Butor worked as a teacher. Revel is working as a translator of commercial correspondence and he finds the job dreary, the weather awful, the town dull and the food disgusting. In short, he is not enjoying himself. By the time he starts his diary, he has already been in Bleston seven months.

Butor’s great skill is to have Revel both search for himself – he is lost in Bleston in more ways than one – but also uncover, or try to uncover, the city of Bleston for what it is. As a fictional city, Butor is at liberty to create the architecture and infrastructure of the city but also at liberty, as he does, to create its mythic structure. The city, as any strange city can be, is also a place to fear. The first friendly face Revel meets is Horace Buck, an African immigrant, whose knowledge of English is as poor as Revel’s. More particularly, as a black man he can be threatening and, initially, is. Though he befriends and helps Revel, he remains a threatening figure, linked to a series of mysterious fires that break out in the city. Indeed, the symbolism of fire and water is strong throughout the book, with the rainy, foggy city and its river, contrasted with the mysterious fires as well as various other images of fire.

Revel soon finds himself caught up in a mystery of which he is unsure whether it is real or fictional. Not only are there the mysterious fires, possibly started by Buck, there are various convoluted stories, linked to Bleston and its people and artifacts. In particular, there is the detective novel, Le Meurtre de Bleston [The Murder of Bleston], with the crimes in the novel being linked to real crimes and also linked both to Revel’s real friends but even to scenes in the stained glass windows in the cathedral. Revel finds the real identity of the pseudonymous author of Le Meurtre de Bleston [The Murder of Bleston] and tells his friends but when the author is run down by a car, things start getting really complicated. Indeed, it is this clever intertwining between what is real and what is not, between the past and the present, which, in itself, reveals the city of Bleston, that makes this novel so interesting. While Butor said he was not writing a nouveau roman, the use of the detective story, the idea of the labyrinth and the attempt to find a new dimension are clearly nouveau roman themes. Whether it is or it isn’t, it is still a very fine novel, indeed one of the best post-war French novels, and very well worth reading in its own right.

Publishing history

First published in French 1956 by Editions de Minuit
First published in English 1960 by Simon & Schuster
Translated by Jean Stewart