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Michel Butor: La modification (UK: Second Thoughts, US: Change of Heart)

As with his previous novels, the structure of this novel is very precise. It is divided into three sections, each with three chapters. The setting of the novel is clearly delimited as in the earlier novels. In this case, it is a train journey from Paris to Rome and starts with the hero, Léon Delmont, getting on the train in Paris and ends with him leaving it in Rome. Delmont is the head of a French agency for Scabelli, an Italian typewriter firm, and frequently travels to Rome. He is married to Henriette and they have four children and live in Paris. He has a mistress, Cécile, in Rome. The purpose of his journey is to tell Cécile that he has found her a job in Paris and to say that he will leave Henriette for her. By the end of the novel, namely by the time he has arrived in Rome, he has changed his mind, hence the title (both the French and the two English ones).

The novel is, of course, about why, in that train journey, he has a change of heart. Inevitably the reason is complex but it is clearly based on the fact that Cécile is not just his mistress, but she is, in many respects, Rome. In short, outside Rome, she would not be the same person as she is in Rome or, to put it another way, Delmont is not in love with her but in love with Rome. Butor makes numerous connections between Paris/Rome – Henriette/Cécile but the key one is Julian the Apostate. Julian had been the Roman Empire’s representative in Paris just as Delmont is a Roman firm’s representative in Paris. Both of them were opposed to the Christian church. Delmont reads his letters, which are referred to several times. He lives near the Baths of Julian in Paris. The other key connection concerns his apostasy. Cécile takes him around to visit pre-Christian Rome. It is only when she is busy that he is able to visit Christian Rome and his increasing attraction for that aspect (shared with his wife but not with his mistress) is clearly a factor in his change of heart. In other words, a choice between the pagan and the Christian leads him, finally, to choose the Christian.

A story of a man who plans to leaves his wife for mistress and then change his mind could be banal and boring. Butor overcomes this not just with the Paris/Rome-Pagan/Christian theme but also by using the you form, specifically the polite vous form which drags us into Delmont’s mind and thought processes more than using the first or third person. Is Delmont a coward? Is his decision rational, taken as it is after a long night on a train, with dreams and is imagination at play? Butor leaves the question open for us.

Publishing history

First published in French 1957 by Editions de Minuit
First English translation 1958 by Faber & Faber