Passing Time, Weaving Time
Then I decided to write in order to get things straight, to cure myself, to explain to myself what had happened to me in this hateful town, to offer some resistance to its evil spell, to shake myself awake from the torpor it instilled in me with its rain, its bricks, its dirty children, its lifeless districts, its river and its stations, its sheds and its parks, in order not to become like those sleepwalkers who passed me in its streets, in order that the grime of Bleston should not seep into my blood, into my bones, into the lenses of my eyes; I decided to erect around me this rampart of writing, feeling how deeply tainted I must already be to have come to such a stupid pass and to be so distressed about it, feeling how completely Bleston had outwitted my pitiful vigilance and how, in a few months of loathsome caresses, its slow poison had oozed into my brain.
If you want to read one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (in its English translation, that is), be prepared to pay at least $75 to obtain one of the six used copies currently available for sale on AbeBooks.com. Michel Butor’s Passing Time has lamentably been out of print since 1969. I was shocked to see that my worn copy of two novels by Butor—Passing Time and A Change of Heart in one volume (Simon & Schuster, 1969)—was selling for at least $100. But my copy will probably be worthless in late May when Pariah Press of Manchester comes out with a new edition of Passing Time for the first time in fifty-two years. (See below for a special pre-publication offer.) Just imagine James Joyce’s Ulysses or any one of Virginia Woolf’s books being out of print that long. Inconceivable.
First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps and in the U.S in 1960, the basic storyline in Passing Time is simple. Jacques Revel, a Frenchman, arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents between French and English. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So he sets out to play detective and try to discover if his actions were in any way connected to that event. To aid himself, he decides to recall and document in writing everything he can remember about his stay in Bleston, and that becomes the book we are reading.
What Butor does that makes Passing Time so astonishing—beside write beautifully—is to deal with time as if past, present, and future were threads that can be woven into a single fabric. When Revel begins to write down his memories of his stay in Bleston, it is May 1. He has been there since the previous October and he begins by writing down his recollections of what happened that October with his arrival in the train station. So the dated entries — May 1, May 2, etc.—refer to the dates on which he sitting at his desk in his rented room writing; but he is writing about what occurred six months earlier. Nevertheless, because he writing with the advantage of six month’s hindsight, so he will sometimes “update” his memories with more recent news. And, on occasion, when current events (that is, something happening at the time he is writing) seem important enough, he will write about those events as well. To further complicate matters, Revel will very occasionally add some commentary from his time after having departed Bleston, after his year is over, and when he has full knowledge of his year there. There are times in the novel when all three strands of time—the past, the time when the recollections are being written, and the time after leaving Bleston—all compete to be the “present” tense, sometime in the same sentence.
For example, here is Revel on July 28, looking back at what he wrote on May 1 about his arrival the previous October:
“The rope of words that uncoils down through the sheaf of papers and connects me directly with that moment on the first of May when I began to braid it, that rope of words is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth being my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it.”
Paragraphs like this might make the book seem more complicated than it really is, but Passing Time is really a straightforward narrative with a hint of detective fiction stirred in. Butor slyly models Passing Time on the classic detective story and murder mystery. The victim of the hit-and-run accident is a local man who writes mystery novels under a pseudonym, and our narrator spends a great deal of time reading and researching the apparently true story behind one of his murder mysteries called The Mystery of Bleston. Revel becomes frightened when he realizes that he might have inadvertently revealed the writer’s true identity, and he feels certain that if he can recall when and where he let this secret slip, then he might know who tried to kill the man who hides behind a pseudonym.
Passing Time sits at an interesting crossroad on the literary landscape, it seems to me. Keeping in mind that its original title is L’Emploi du Temps, which means “the timetable,” I think that Butor is trying to make the reader recall Proust’s famous title À la recherche du temps perdu. But more importantly, Passing Time is genetically related to two important artistic movements taking place in the mid-1950s in France—the New Novel (or Nouveau Roman) and the Situationist International. Although neither Butor nor his novel fall directly into the camp of either of these movements, it’s easy to see the influence of some of their more radical ideas on his writing. Many of the ideas for the New Novel formulated by Alain Robbe-Grillet in his 1963 French manifesto For a New Novel could be applied to Butor’s novel, but especially Robbe-Grillet’s comments on time. “If passing time is indeed the essential character of many works of the early part of this century, and of those which follow them. . . present investigations seem on the contrary to be concerned, most often, with private mental structures of ‘time‘ (my italics).” Robbe-Grillet is speaking not only about certain (mostly French) avant-garde novels but also recent films, including Alain Resnais’s infamous film Last Year at Marienbad (1961), based on Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay, which has striking connections with Passing Time. In Butor’s novel, the same events are replayed over and over in Jacques Revel’s mind as he tries to unravel the mystery of the hit-and-run driver’s identity, previewing the manner in which scenes will repeat themselves in Last Year. As Robbe-Grillet notes, Last Year demonstrates that through the very act of remembering the past, we make the past becomes the present once again. Therefore, the present and the remembered past can be one and the same, just as in Butor’s novel, where it the strands of time overlap continuously.
Revel follows some of the central practices of the Situationist International movement—and most specifically the dérive—through his determination to explore Bleston by foot and by bus. The book opens with a hand-drawn map of Bleston, the kind of map one conjures up purely from memory. In the account of his stay, Revel names every street he walks down, always notes the number of the bus route he takes, describes what he sees, and tells us what he experiences. Bit by bit, over the course of his year, he builds a psychogeograpical map of Bleston, one that more than equals the paper map he purchased at the bookseller’s. To the reader of Passing Time, the city begins to feel like an active character in the book. In the end, between his sense of guilt over the attempted murder of the mystery writer, his failure at love and friendship, and the unrelenting bad weather, Revel feels defeated by the city of Bleston. “Terrible town, you who mocked me so cruelly.”
When L’Emploi du Temps was first published in France in 1956, Les Editions de Minuit also put out a special limited edition of thirty copies with a signed color etching by Roberto Matta opposite the title page. Matta’s image beautifully embodies what it must feel like to be trapped inside a geometric maze beneath a glowering sky.
Passing Time is a novel that I can read over and over and find new delights, new mysteries each time. I have only scratched the surface of the plot and the richness of Butor’s writing. I urge Vertigo readers to get their own copy of the book by taking advantage of this special offer. Pariah Press is publishing the first new edition of Passing Time in a half century and is offering a special pre-publication price of £9.99 (plus shipping), instead of the list price of £13.99. Order here before May 24.