Michel Butor: Mobile
Mobile. Étude pour une représentation des États-Unis
Paris: Gallimard, 1962, 333p.
One of the key representatives of the French New Novel in the 1950s and author of the La Modification (A Change of Heart, 1957), Michel Butor (1926-2016) suddenly stopped writing novels after 1960, turning instead to essays, poetry, and experimental prose – and not seldom blurring the boundaries between different types of writing. Mobile, translated into English as Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, is the first and also the best known example of his experimental writings (a term more in tone with the French terminology than the Anglo-Saxon dyad of Modernism/Avant-Garde). A nonnarrative mix of encyclopedic information, typographical experiment, collage and montage techniques, as well as a far-reaching attempt to establish a new type of description and representation, Mobile introduces a form of writing totally unheard of in the French canon (as an award-winning and commercially successful novelist published by Éditions de Minuit, the major French publishing company, Butor was very rapidly considered an essential contemporary voice, by far the most mainstream of all young authors having emerged in the context of the New Novel). The book is not a radicalization of the New Novel, however, which in these years starts reinventing itself as New New Novel, a narrative innovation that claims to replace the phenomenological stance of the first New Novel (often called “the school of the gaze”, a nickname due to the descriptive inflation of many of these works) with a “materialist” take on literature driven by formal plays on the signifier (which French experimentalists like to trace back to the poetry of Mallarmé and his aesthetics of pure writing, defined by the “elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields the initiative to words”). Instead, it proposes a return to realism and representation, although in radically upgraded and highly innovative forms that fit modern society and its upheaval of traditional spatial and temporal structures. However, since Mobile is a book, not a film or a radio play, that is a work built with the help of static signs that the reader has to bring to life, Butor has dedicated his work to Jackson Pollock, not to Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile sculpture.
A “study for a representation of the United States” is a real WYSIWIG object. As a “study”, it presents itself as a kind of work in progress, a sketch, a scenario, less an unfinished text or draft (which it certainly not is) than as a textual version that is aware of its own incompleteness and that appears in some regards as a kind of script or treatment, that is a text that exists as a springboard towards another form, to paraphrase the classic definition of the scenario coined by Pier Paolo Pasolini. As a “representation”, it explicitly aims at offering the reader the textual equivalent of something that may seem too big, too complex, and to heterogeneous to handle, namely the United States (its history, its inhabitants, its geography, its daily life, its commercial artefacts, its art, its slogans, its books, its languages –nothing is supposed to be missing in the all-inclusive approach of Butor). As an image of the “United States”, it does not tackle the country as a whole, but as a mosaic of fifty states, each of them different from the others, each of them linked in many different ways to a cluster of networks whose combination produces a new country and new forms of living –mobile forms, the car and the plane being central themes of the work.
As to content, Mobile brings together all possible aspects of the United States, somewhat in the documentary tradition of Dos Passos, yet deprived of any overarching narrative structure, the main story being that of the reader crossing the pages of the book, either in a linear manner – although this is far from being the most “natural” way of reading in this case – or in all types of nonlinear trajectories, as if one were in front of an immense checkboard open to multiple routes and roads. The actual contents are both “direct” observations, though very impersonal ones, the “author” of the book being well hidden behind the verbal landscape that unfolds before the eyes of the reader, and “indirect” quotations from all kinds of relevant source material which recalls the found footage technique in cinema.
From a formal point of view, the book obeys a number of rules of composition that combine tight control (one notices almost immediately that the information is not randomly chosen, but has been selected according to a relatively small set of metacategories, such as geographical markers – one follows the same names from one county and one state to another –, fragments of historical key texts or the memoirs of historical key figures, repeated mentions of cars, snapshots of overheard conversations, declinations and variations on the name of objects and institutions) and extreme liberty. Most striking in this regard is the method of page composition, which resembles that of a musical score, combining words and sentences of different typographical form (the “notes”) on a vertically and horizontally segmented sheet of paper (the fragments occupy different “lines”, each of them with different indentations). Thus composed, the page – actually the double spread – appears as a visual composition that is “seen” before it is read, and whose linear reading is continuously interrupted, both by the linguistic structure of the text (sentences are often reduced to nouns or adjectives and tend to morph into pure lists) and by the systematic disruption of narrative continuity (although the semantic homogeneity of the work is extremely strong, since one never leaves the “representation” of the US, the units of the text are generally very short and they systematically shift from one thematic category to another).
Mobile is a highly innovative work. First of all in terms of style, which explores in a fascinating way the creative tension between the opposite modes of syntagm and paradigm. A radical break with all things novelistic or narrative, at least in the traditional sense of the word, Mobile seems to be a text where the paradigmatic declination of various sets and subsets has taken the place of syntactic and narrative continuity. Instead of following a thread (one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter after another), the reader is confronted with a kind of textual wallpaper where words, motifs, themes, and ideas appear and disappear in continually changing interweaving clusters. Yet this paradigmatic regime is projected on the inevitably syntagmatic structure of the verbal layer of the page in a way that strongly reminds the basic principles of the poetic function of literature as defined by Roman Jakobson. The intertwining of elements selected from the different descriptive pools does not so much engender a “database narrative”, that is the production of narrative effects by the combination of elements chosen from nonnarrative lists; rather, it creates a formal and semantic “synergy”, and a kind of paradoxical harmony, between the small and larger descriptive building blocks that meet on the page. True, not all of these techniques are absolutely new. In French “modern” poetry, for instance, the use of lists in travel poetry had been initiated by authors such as Paul Morand (see for instance his 1928 collection U.S.A., which reproduces excerpts from railroad timetables). But until then, the use of these techniques had never exceeded the status of stylistic features, more or less sparsely combined with more traditional ways of writing. In Mobile, instead, everything is radically new, with no place left for classic or mainstream forms of composition.
Second, Mobile is also a pioneering work as far as genre structures are concerned. It definitely supersedes all known novelistic canvases, but it is no less resistant to other types of generic classification. It is neither a report nor a poem, neither an essay nor a reader’s digest, neither a travel guide nor a free floating improvisation. Rather than trying to forge a new genre, Butor’s “mobile” has the ambition to leave behind any form of generic pigeonholing (and in this regard, the shift from Calder to Pollock almost acquires the value of a manifesto, for the reference to Calder might have “fixed”, so to speak, this new form of writing and its attempt to move from the production of static signs to the readerly appropriation of perpetually shifting connections, while the reference to Pollock is in blatant contradiction with the extreme degree of figurative, almost photographic description and representation of an actually existing, almost physically present country and culture). Similarly, the difference between visual poetry and the radio play, two clear influences of Mobile, no longer holds. And to a certain extent even the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk would prove counterproductive, given the ecumenical dimension of such a poetics, which aims at bringing together a wide range of signs and media. In Mobile, there are certainly traces of such an intention, but too rapid an interpretation in terms of the Gesamtkunstwerk would not do justice to the disruptive aspects of the work, which are anything but local or superficial.
Third, Mobile is also a work that foregrounds the materiality of its host medium, the book. Not only thanks to its unusual size, larger than that of the usual trade book, but also thanks to the systematic treatment of the double spread as a strongly ambivalent space, both traditionally divided in a left and right surface, neatly divided by a fold and expected to be read in that order (there is no endeavor to challenge Mallarmé’s reinvention of the double spread in A Throw of the Dice, that mythical example of textual polyphony), and visually reconfigured in a new formal structure that is not without relationship with the structure of a cardboard game. Here as well, it is the tension between linearity and simultaneity that is the main characteristic of the new type of realism that Butor tries to invent. This realism is never a destruction of the already existing forms of description and representation, it is instead a kind of supersession, which integrates and upgrades older types of writing in a new constellation that is itself meant to be reshaped by readerly interventions. The temptation to identify Butor’s inventions as a form of hypertext in paper form can be understood, but this anachronistic interpretation does not come without a risk. Mobile does not change the page or the book in any material way – as Raymond Queneau had been doing one year earlier in his Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) – and the nonlinear circulation throughout the book –always a possibility, never a necessity – does certainly not follow the “clicking through” logic of the digital hypertext.
Anti-Americanism is ubiquitous in French culture, and the Cold War period, when French literature was strongly dominated by the Communist Party, was of course no exception to this rule. Butor’s vision of the United States is undoubtedly much more positive, although his text addresses racial and political issues in critical, yet never didactic or propagandistic ways. The basic stance of the book is clearly that of an embrace of modernity, more precisely of modernity as part of a larger and ongoing history (it is important to stress also the fact that Mobile is the literary outcome of an actual six months stay in the US, which brought the author for instance to Buffalo, a central hub in the intellectual US-France dialogue). The United States of Mobile may be represented by a modern observer, the scope of the work is never that of the “here and now” alone. The most striking aspect of Butor’s openness to American culture is certainly his treatment of… mobility: the US of Mobile is a country seen on the move, through the windshield of a car or the window of a plane, a country seen as a moving screen or as a new form of panorama, seen from above.
Ideologically speaking, the issue of representation is not a detail. The early 1960s witness a strong antinarrative turn in the New Novel, which will give birth to the crudely antirepresentative tendencies within experimental writing around 1968, when the leading role of the New Novelists will be taken over by the Tel Quel group and their many competitors. The more realist or more playful movements of that period –the former represented by older former of committed literature or emerging forms of documentary writing (as in the first novels by Georges Perec), the latter illustrated by the Oulipo group founded in 1960 (but whose existence is still a well-kept secret in these years) – will have difficulties in having their voice heard between the anvil of the New Novel and the hammer of Tel Quel, hence the problematic ideological reception of Mobile and Butor in general. The experimental, antinovelistic dimension of the book clearly fascinates all readers who are interested in contemporary writing. Needless to say: traditional readers have rejected the book as being utterly unreadable. Its realistic horizon however makes it somewhat suspect in the eyes of hard-core modernists and experimentalists, while traditional readers did not even recognize the realistic agenda of the book or rejected it as complete nonsense.
In the career of Michel Butor, Mobile is a decisive turning point. The shock produced by its publication made clear that the author was definitely leaving behind the genre of the novel, while paradoxically returning to an aesthetic ideology –Realism– most of his contemporaries discarded as old-fashioned, if not reactionary. The book has proved immensely productive in Butor’s work, however, since it can be seen as the laboratory of countless other similar works that continued to explore the stylistic, generic and medial questions raised by the desire to chart new territories in the larger field of literature as a form of representing a world that was becoming increasingly complex and difficult to understand.
Often quoted in scholarship on the international avant-garde, still in print in France thanks to a paperback reprint, and equally available in English with a prestigious publishing house (Dalkey Archive), Mobile is both very influential and meagerly read. It remains an immensely daring and ground-breaking work, which continues to surprise even well-prepared readers. At the same time, however, it did not really have an impact on French literature. The reasons for the work’s isolation are manifold: the mismatch between Butor’s defense of realism and the anti-realistic stances of the years in which Mobile was released; the difficulty of the work itself, which discourages modernist as well as traditional readers, who all continued to reread with fresh eyes his first novels; the regrettable tendency toward overproduction of the author, who wrote and published so many books, not all of them very original or necessary, that it was no longer possible to see what he was actually looking for; the rugged individualism of Butor, who first refused to take benefit of the New Novel label and then preferred to multiply interart collaborations with artists that did not always seem relevant to literary gatekeepers; and finally the very nuanced and never aggressive tone of his critical and theoretical production –all these elements explain the relative seclusion of Mobile –and to a certain extent that of Butor as well. They did not prevent the book, however, from becoming a landmark reference, still capable of inspiring readers and writers more than fifty years after its publication.
- Barthes, Roland (1981 ). « Littérature et discontinu », in Essais critiques (Paris : Seuil, coll. Points), pp. 175-187.
- Butor, Michel (1962). Mobile. Étude pour une représentation des États-Unis (Paris: Gallimard). Reprinted in 1992 in the “L’Imaginaire series” of the same publisher.
- --- (2004). Mobile, transl. Richard Howard (McLean, Ill. : Dalkey Archive).
- Calle-Gruber, Mireille, ed. (2008). Michel Butor, déménagements de la littérature (Paris : Presses de la Sorbonne nouvelle).
- Raillard, Georges, ed., Michel Butor. Colloque de Cerisy (Paris: UGE, coll. 10/18, 1974).
- Ricardou, Jean (1973). Le Nouveau Roman (Paris: Seuil).
- Thomas, jean-Jacques (2014). « Economie poétique de la production industrielle nord-américaine : Réseau aérien de Michel Butor » FPC/Formes Poétiques Contemporaines, 11, pp. 87- 104.