• A Chat with Cath Annabel • 01.09.21
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Catherine Annabel is a Butor scholar and a co-editor of the republished Passing Time
I do not write novels in order to sell them but in order to obtain a unity in my life; writing is a spinal column for me. – Michel Butor
Cath, we got to know you slightly through our shared work on the republication of Passing Time, but let us know more about your literary life pre-our editorship.
I've always read, voraciously. I learned early and then I read everything I could reach on my parents' bookshelves, as well as all the latest children's books. I learned a bit of French at primary school and kind of fell in love with the language, and carried on studying it to O and then A-level. I fell in love with some of the literature too, particularly Zola, and read his novels in French even though they were not on the curriculum (probably regarded as unsuitable for a girls' grammar school class in the early 1970s.) I didn't follow on with French at University as my A-level English teacher was one of those teachers whose own love of literature was infectious, so I ended up at Sheffield University doing a joint English and Biblical Studies degree. But I did carry on reading French writers: Simone de Beauvoir, more Zola, Camus.
After university I worked in bookselling, then in academic publishing (at Manchester University Press), then in university administration. Still reading voraciously, anything and everything, then as now I usually had two or three books on the go and one with me at all times to read on the bus, in doctors' waiting rooms, etc etc. All genres, high, middle & low brow. As my kids got older I started feeling a real hunger to start studying again. When I began working at Sheffiled Uni, I talked to someone at the Lifelong Learning unit and somehow or other ended up enrolling on a French Language & Cultures part-time degree, all taught in the evenings after work. Ah, then this is where you must have discovered L'Emploi du temps / Passing Time? Yes, on the very first module of that part-time degree course, which was about French literature from the second half of the twentieth century, we read an extract from Michel Butor's La Modification. I was most intrigued. Even more so when I did a bit of research (OK, Wikipedia) and found that he'd written a book inspired by Manchester. That was it, really, I read L'Emploi du temps and managed to slant quite a few of my assignments on the degree course to cover Butor and that book in particular—I read other Butor too, but couldn't get L'Emploi out of my head. I think the thing that preoccupied me was the dissonance between the very mundane events that are recorded and the very intense and dramatic language, suggesting violence and danger, and supernatural forces at work. Before I'd quite finished the degree (I was working on my dissertation—which was about L'Emploi du temps, obviously—exploring exactly what I've just described, that dissonance) I'd become aware of the Sebald connection and talked about that to a good friend in the French department. Her response was to suggest I should do a PhD, and that she'd be my supervisor. Which is what happened—so I went straight from graduating on the degree course to registering to do a PhD. I was still working full-time then and for the first few years, though I managed to reduce my hours and then take retirement in 2016. I suspect if I hadn't been able to give up work, I might have given up the PhD—it was so hard keeping going with it whilst working. Thankfully, I got that chance, and could finally immerse myself in researching and writing. And reading—rereading Butor, reading background stuff on the nouveau roman, on France and Paris in particular during the Occupation, on labyrinths, on fugues, on Manchester, on the city in literature and culture... And I read Sebald's work, and Proust, and Kafka, and Sartre's Nausea, and so many other things that my reading of L'Emploi suggested in some way. Along the way I've given talks for quite varied audiences about the book, and obviously I've blogged about aspects of it too (when I started my blog, in 2012, I called it Passing Time). I probably ended up writing less about Butor on the blog, once I was working on the PhD, but there's quite a bit on there nonetheless, amongst political rants about Brexit and refugees, book reviews, pieces about French history (esp. WWII) and the Holocaust, music, films (from Resnais to Marvel)...
I see world culture in the form of a gigantic weaving, with a profusion of individual strands and threads. There are spaces between them and tissue below the surface. – Michel Butor
How does your relationship with the text now stand? Even having spent the last fifteen years, on and off, with L'Emploi du temps, I don't feel I have exhausted its interest. Obviously, for now I'm focused on finishing the thesis, then I'm writing a chapter on Sebald in Manchester for a book that's published next year. But then I really want to write something—for the blog or as a journal article—about Horace Buck, the black worker that Revel meets on the streets of Bleston, and whose story fascinates me. It seems like a good moment to rescue him from the shadowy corners of the novel and put the spotlight on him. And after that, who knows? There's a lot of Butor's work that I don't know as well as I should. And I want to re-read Dickens & George Eliot, for sheer pleasure, and, for all the books I've read over the last sixty years there are a lot more I want to read, and who knows where they might lead me—after all, I had no idea when I started L'Emploi du temps that it would take over my life like this...
Everyone I've spoken to re. Passing Time has given a differing interpretation of it. Mine is, perhaps, primarily an initiatory/alchemical one, and obviously the text is about the nature of looking back—the unsteady past careering into one's present. If you can sum it up, what is your reading?
Yes, that is one of the remarkable things about the book. My Passing Time is going to be different to yours, as it is to every other reader's. My caveat about setting out what I see the book as being about, is that once I've got this PhD out of the way, I could come back to it in a year or two and read it in a different way. But with that in mind...
As I said before, the thing that hooked me into the book was the way in which it made me think initially that it was going to be one kind of narrative (realist, finding dry humour in the mishaps of a traveller in a foreign country) but then built up the tension and the sense of threat so that the reader feels uneasy without knowing why. It's like a film where we see people going about their ordinary business but the soundtrack warns you of things to come. Except that here, the threat remains unrealised.
One way of reading this is through Revel as an unreliable narrator, struggling with depression/paranoia, who therefore sees the environment he is in (as bleak and dark as it genuinely is) as threatening and interprets mundane events accordingly. My reading suggests that he does indeed bring his own trauma to Bleston, but that that trauma is Butor's own, the memories of an adolescence spent in Paris during the Nazi Occupation.
There are hints to this in some of Butor's interviews—we're not told anything about Revel's past in the book, but Butor does state that he is Parisian in one interview, and in another piece suggests that Paris hides behind the mask of Bleston. On the face of it the latter seems quite odd if one thinks of Paris in the 1950s, but if we think instead of Paris 1940-44, it makes sense. For example, Revel comments on how everyone is rushing to get off the streets at night, as if there was a strict curfew. I'm not suggesting here that Bleston is occupied Paris, rather that it is haunted by occupied Paris, giving us glimpses and hints through the imagery of closed shutters, fires, darkness, and the language of violence, vengeance, and resistance.
So, the themes that I draw out of the novel are of trauma, exile, memory. The link to Butor's adolescence was where I started when writing about the book, but when I made the connection with W.G. Sebald, these were obviously preoccupations that he and Butor had in common, so what I'm doing in the thesis is reading Butor through Sebald, which does draw out those ideas.
Which, of course, doesn't invalidate other readings of the text! It is translucent rather than transparent, as all the most interesting books are.
A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books. – Andrei Tarkovsky
And how was it working with PARIAH on the edit? I'd been hoping that someone would see how absurd it was that Passing Time, Butor's most accessible and intriguing work—especially for British audiences, had been out-of-print for decades, and could only be bought at eye-watering prices, and take a punt on putting out a new edition. So, it was brilliant to hear from Jonny that PARIAH PRESS was doing just that.
The message came through at quite a difficult time, and it really lifted my spirits. I didn't know at that stage how involved I might be, but I was keen to work with them, and to bring my own knowledge of the French edition and of Butor more generally into the project. Obviously if this development had occurred at a different time, there would have been cross-Pennine excursions to talk about Butor and the book over pints in Manchester or Sheffield. So, instead we had long conversations via Messenger or email, sharing ideas and information, about how the book should look, about the text and when/why we should make changes to Jean Stewart's excellent translation, how to promote the book, and so on. During that process, I went back every time to the French text, because I wanted the English edition to reflect Butor's intentions—for example, there are passages where Butor uses long—very long—sentences, broken down into paragraphs, but each paragraph ending with a comma rather than a full-stop. This was entirely deliberate—the long, winding sentences reflect the influence of Proust, but also at this stage in the book, the way the text is laid out reflects the narrator's state of distress, his inability to organise and order his thoughts, the use of repetition showing how he is obsessively returning to the same thoughts. I'm not suggesting that I had to fight or argue my corner on these things, just that this was one of the points where I was able to use my knowledge of the original text and of Butor's work more widely to make the English edition as faithful as possible. There were other more detailed queries where the English translation read slightly oddly [we even found the 1960 Simon & Schuster edition to have small sections rewritten or left out in the slightly later Faber], and I was able to go back to the French and work out what Butor meant—then we'd decide together whether to make a change or not. Translation is always about compromise, and one has to accept that you lose some things (some ambiguity is often lost, for example) as well as gaining other resonances and connections. It was a fascinating process—I enjoy copy editing and proof reading anyway (it took me back to my days as an editorial assistant/manager at Manchester University Press), and it became totally a labour of love, getting the new edition out there so that more anglophone readers can discover the delights of Bleston!
When I quote someone in my books, it is a form of collaboration since the citation, placed in a new context, becomes an integral part of my text. I use language I have learned, and the musician uses notes that existed before him. – Michel Butor
Amen. We've got an interactive map of Bleston in the works (via UCL), that aside, what are your hopes for the future of Passing Time? Well, obviously, I hope it does really well for PARIAH PRESS. And more broadly, I hope that people read it because it's brilliant, and it's out in a rather stunning new edition. I think the idea of this 'forgotten Manchester novel', by a French writer who they've almost certainly never heard of will intrigue people, and I hope that plugging the Sebald connection will tap into a whole new readership—because people who love Sebald's work—and that's a lot of people—will, I'm confident, love this book. I've been telling people about the book for years, but now I can point them to a readily available English translation at a reasonable price.
I'm not daft enough to think that we'll be seeing loads of people on the train reading Butor, Butor in the bestseller charts, TV adaptations, etc.. But there are, I'm absolutely sure, a lot of discerning readers out there who will be fascinated by this book, and I'd be very happy indeed to find it getting well-deserved attention from people who know of it but could not get hold of it—until now, and from a whole new generation. I look forward to a lot more conversations about the book, and to hearing other people's ideas as to what it's really all about.
We have never closed the Dark Ages. Our own age is still dark and we hear voices rising out of it. We have to change our past in order to change our future. We must turn back and throw light on it to see it in a new way. What we need is archeology around and in ourselves. – Michel Butor