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

I have now read this book three times. The first time was many years ago. The second time was some twenty years ago when I was preparing this website. That review is still available. In both cases, I read the French original.

However, in 2021, Pariah Press republished the English translation of the book, first published by Simon and Schuster in 1960. Though Pariah used the original translation by Jean Stewart (who died in 1997), they did tidy up the errors that had crept into the UK versions, published by Faber and Jupiter. Though I do not normally read French novels in translation, I decided to read this translation, not least to refresh my memory of the book, which I have always considered a very fine work.

Before writing this review, I did not read my previous review so I shall be interested to compare the two and see how much, if at all, my view has changed. Butor is generally associated with the Nouveau roman group, mainly published by Les Editions de Minuit. He himself claimed not to be part of the group.

Butor spent some time in Manchester and it is this experience that informs this novel. It tells the story of Jacques Revel, a young Frenchman who works for a year as a translator for the firm of Matthews and Son in the fictitious town of Bleston, presumably based, at least in part, on Manchester.

Part of the story is clearly the problem of fitting into a foreign environment. We see this from the very beginning. He takes the wrong train, cannot understand the taxi driver, is unsure which of the two stations is the right one, loses the letter with the address of the hotel where he is to spend the night and ends up sleeping in the waiting room.

He finally does get to Matthews and Son and is given lodgings. As a good Frenchman, he soon has a long list of gripes against things English. The food and weather are, of course, high on the list, but there are also the licensing hours (for buying alcohol), the terrible lodgings on offer, the local accent, the bureaucracy and the apparent lack of friendliness of most of the English.

Bleston is continually damned. From the very first I had felt this town to be unfriendly, unpleasant, a treacherous quicksand. I began to harbour that passionate hatred towards it which I am convinced was in part a sign on my contamination by it. As he wanders round Bleston, he generally finds it unpleasant. Indeed, he finds that he is unable to break free from the spell of Bleston, that he cannot get out of it. While this is not quite like Rupert Thomson‘s Dreams of Leaving, where inhabitants are physically prevented from leaving the town, there seems to be some sort of psychological or even, as he puts it, some sort of witchcraft which keeps him in Bleston.

Of course, anyone arriving in a strange town in a foreign country on their own, can feel this sense of being lost and adrift but, gradually, things improve. He does not make friends with his colleagues, with one exception, James Jenkins who invites Jacques to lunch with him and his mother. He buys a map, not least to help negotiate his way around the town while looking for lodgings, not an easy task, partially because of the traditionally ferocious British landlady and partially because of the traditional British xenophobia.

He buys maps (bus routes and general) from the local newsagent, Ann Bailey, and soon becomes friends with her and her family. He works out how the buses work. He meets Horace Buck, a black man who is friendly towards him but they separate without exchanging either names or addresses. They will meet again.

One thing he had missed was reading. He had been there four weeks but not opened a book, though he was a voracious reader. He then sees a book called The Bleston Murder by J C Hamilton. This book will become key to the story. What I hoped to find in the author was not merely an entertainer but an accomplice against the town, a magician familiar with it with its peculiar perils.

It opens with the interesting line the Old Cathedral of Bleston is famous for its stained-glass window known as the Murderer’s Window. (We later learn that the window features Cain and Abel). We will learn that The Bleston Murder, perhaps not surprisingly given the Cain and Abel reference, features fratricide. A cricketer is murdered by his brother. We also learn two other important things. Firstly that The Bleston Murder may not be entirely fiction and secondly that the author, J C Hamilton, may be a pseudonym and that the identity of the real author is not known.

This book is written in the form of a diary but he only starts it a few months into his stay so his early entries are told several months after the events recounted and, inevitably he goes backwards and forwards in time, mixing in the past and present. For example, we learn about a fellow Frenchman he befriends, Lucien Blaise, but we only learn how they meet towards the end of the book. There are other examples of this.

We follow Jacques’ relationship with Horace Buck , with Ann and Rose Bailey, two sisters, both of whom he is attracted to, with Lucien, with James Jenkins and his mother and with George Burton, the man behind J C Hamilton, and his wife, Harriet.

His romantic attachments go awry, there seems to be some antipathy on the part of James and his mother, seemingly connected with The Bleston Murder and the reference in the book to the New Cathedral, while Horace Buck may or may not be connected with a whole series of unexplained fires that occur throughout Bleston.

If there is a main character in the book, apart from Jacques himself, it is the city of Bleston itself. Jacques continues to see it as a malevolent being: Bleston, that city of doom and oblivion, cause of all my misery, hounding me relentlessly, that hydra, that octopus with spreading tentacles, that squid disgorging its black ink over us so us as to make us unrecognisable to one another and even to ourselves.

More interestingly though he travels around Bleston, by bus and on foot, getting lost more than once, he seems unable to go in a straight line which would take him out of Bleston. He is not the only one. James Jenkins, who must be around thirty, has never left Bleston, while his mother has never been on a train. However, apart from the premises of Matthews and Son and his lodgings, which he finally finds, thanks to Horace Buck, he has several reference points in the town.

The first are the various Chinese restaurants which he frequents (all part of the same chain), often with his friends, partially to escape the horrors of English food but also, it would seem, to escape the nefarious influence of Bleston. The second is the News Theatre. This is an old English tradition. It is a form of cinema which would show newsreels, cartoons, short features and, in particular, at least as far as Jacques is concerned, travelogues. Jacques visits regularly, getting a regular account of various parts of the world. Thirdly, is the museum, particularly with its tapestries of events from Greek mythology, often bloody events. Finally, there is the fair. James Jenkins is a frequent visitor, as are the Burtons, but so is Jacques. It seems to move around Bleston and acts as both an outlet from the miseries of Bleston but also part of the way Bleston seems to keep hold of its people. Key events in the story occur or are linked to these various venues.

The conventional detective story offers – eventually – some certainty, in revealing the murderer. However, in real life and in this novel, certainty is not on offer. Life is complicated. Life does not always work out how we want. Life is often random and arbitrary. Jacques may have the certainty of his job (which is barely mentioned except to say that it is generally very boring) but the rest of his life – Bleston and its various features, his various friends and The Bleston Murder – are all unsure. Was Horace Buck connected with the fires? Did someone try to kill George Burton? Why is James Jenkins upset about The Bleston Murder and what is his involvement in the mystery? Which of the two women does he love and will they love him? Is The Bleston Murder fiction or fact or a mixture of both?

Having now reread this book, I still consider it a wonderful book, one which will have you wondering what is really going on and why. It is not a nouveau roman; perhaps it is more post-nouveau roman though I am sure that Butor would argue that is very much sui generis and I would agree with him. We do not need, to classify him, however, merely to apreciate what a fine work this is and how it has stood the test of time far better than the nouveau roman.

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