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Michel Butor: Passage de Milan

I have not translated the title, as the French is deliberately ambiguous. The novel is set in the passage de Milan, i.e. Milan Alley, but the title can also mean the passing of the kite as a bird (or maybe a plane) does indeed fly overhead, which Jean Ralon interprets as a kite (the bird). Butor uses a standard technique found in French literature, an analysis of the various inhabitants of a lodging house. Balzac used it in Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) and, more recently, Georges Perec used it in La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual), twenty-four years after this novel. The novel takes places from 7 p.m. on a Friday evening till 7 a.m. the following day. The book has twelve chapters and the house has seven storeys. This symmetry will be found in his later works.

Butor focuses not only on the inhabitants of the house but also shows both above and below, from the metro rumbling underneath to the birds flying overhead. The inhabitants of the house are, on the ground floor, the concierge and his wife; on the first floor, Madame Ralon and her two sons Jean and Alexis, both priests, and their cook; the second floor is the home to Frédéric Mogne, a not very successful bank employee and his relatively large family, though two of his sons sleep on the sixth floor; the third floor is home to Samuel Léonard, a wealthy art collector, his niece, a servant, a young Egyptian boy, and a cook; the fourth floor is where much of the action takes place as the Vertigues host a party for Angèle, their daughter, whose twentieth birthday it is; the fifth floor is home to Martin de Vere, an artist, and his family, while the sixth floor is home to the poorest, the Mogne boys, various servants and other poorer people.

There are two key events – Angèle’s party, which ends tragically and a dinner party organised by Samuel Léonard, who has invited a group of writers to help write a collective work, an interest of Butor’s later on. While Butor does introduce us to the various characters and their lives, generally isolated from those of the others tenants, he is more interested in the links, with his favourite themes of fire, death leading to rebirth, ritual and movement. Each character, of course, has his or her own problems as do the characters in Balzac’s and Perec’s novels and we glimpse them but often only in passing. There is an overarching sadness and not just because of the tragedy that will occur, with, for example, the old servant at a loss since the death of her employer or Jean Ralon questioning his faith. Overall, it does work, particularly as a first novel, but I still preferred La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual).

Publishing history

First published in French 1954 by Editions de Minuit
No English translation (parts of the novel have been translated in the Carleton Miscellany and the The Award Avant-Garde Reader)