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Literary Cities: Manchester


In re-reading the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants the other day, I suddenly realized that W.G. Sebald was referring to the same city that Michel Butor had described in his great novel of 1957 L’Emploi du Temps (Passing Time). Sebald moved to Manchester, England in 1966 to take up an assistant lectureship at the University of Manchester, where Butor had taught from 1951 to 1953.

The opening two sentences of Passing Time never fail to suck me right into the rest of the book:

Thursday, May 1. Suddenly there were a lot of lights.

And then I was in the town; my year’s stay there, more than half of which has now elapsed, began at that moment, while I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark windowpane covered on the outside with raindrops, myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling, while the thick blanket of noise that for hours past, almost unremittingly, had enfolded me began to thin at last, to break up.

The French narrator of Passing Time, fulfilling a year’s term as translator for a British firm, largely detested his time in Manchester, which Butor called Bleston. The entire book is a labyrinth of streets and time . The book opens with a map (above) representing the narrator’s attempt to mark the major locations of his year in limbo, while every diary entry contains precise walking or bus-line directions for the day’s activities.The diary, begun in May, is six months in arrears, and so the narrator can alternately hold time at bay then let it surge forward like lava.

While Butor’s narrator arrived by train, Sebald’s arrives by plane.

Looping round in one more curve, the roar of the engines steadily increasing, the plane set a course across open country. By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.

Both Butor and Sebald found Manchester to be haunted by its faded past and enlivened by its immigrants. Sebald spends nearly a page delighting in the foreign-sounding names of immigrants and listing the trades that they took up (pp. 191-2). Sebald’s narrator and Max Ferber (a German Jewish exile) often meet at an unlicensed Kenyan restaurant called Wadi Halfa. And both narrators spend a considerable amount of time just walking the city.


I won’t belabor the many intriguing parallels between the two writer’s views on Manchester, but I encourage fans of Sebald to find a copy of Michel Butor’s Passing Time.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. One could mention a third novel here. _A family romance_ by Richard Wollheim. It’s in the form of a diary, written by a disaffected man in London, wandering the streets. As he writes this diary he is reading Butor’s _L’emploi du temps_. I read Wollheim’s novel (his only novel) years ago, and can’t remember much more – except that it’s very evocative for anyone who has lived in London.

    August 11, 2007
  2. Thanks for the reference to Wollheim’s book, which I did not know and would love to read. But the sticker shock! A marked-up ex-library copy runs about $75, while a “nice” edition starts around $150. I guess I’ll look for this in my local university library.

    August 11, 2007
  3. Peter Stamos #

    The Calder paperback cover has a photograph of a young, pipe-smoking Butor: an image Sebald must have known.

    August 13, 2007
  4. Peter – Thanks for the note about the Calder cover. I can’t find an image of it anywhere on the internet. I agree that Sebald must have known about his predecessor at the University of Manchester.

    August 13, 2007
  5. Peter Stamos #

    I made a color PDF of the cover to Butor’s Passing Time. Provide me with an e-mail address that accepts attachments and I’ll send it.

    August 15, 2007

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