PASSING TIME — MICHEL BUTOR — Translated by Jean Stewart
Frenchman Jacques Revel arrives in Bleston, an industrial city in the north of England—also a thinly disguised, reimagined Manchester—to begin employment as a shipping clerk. Lost under the spell of a dark, dank, labyrinthine metropolis, he endeavours to solve the puzzle of an attempted murder. We follow his erratic odyssey in diary form as a growing sense of unease envelops him and mysterious fires erupt throughout the city.
Passing Time, originally published in France as L'Emploi du temps (1956), is the great, forgotten Manchester novel, a book of enormous imagination and vitality. Melding Greek myth with Proustian method to formulate a brilliant study of alienation and the nebulousness of memory. A work that attempts to excavate Britain's proto-capitalist past and industrial forebears—interrogating their affect on modernity and the human soul.
It is Pariah's honour to revive and re-edit Passing Time in a true mass-market, pulp tradition. L'Emploi du temps won the 1957 Fénéon Prize.
"[Butor] is crammed, one might say, with positivity: it is the visible side of a hidden truth—once again literature defines itself by the illusion it is more than itself, the work being destined to illustrate a trans-literary order."
"Michel Butor is perhaps the most gifted and original of that avant-garde group of young French writers who are seeking to regenerate the novel by means of a 'new realism'."
Praise for Passing Time:
"Mr. Butor writes well, and with so thorough an awareness of what he wants to achieve that criticism is pre-empted... He is so disinclined to dramatize that I would suspect his principal gifts are those of a lyrical philosophical poet rather than a novelist—a sort of urban Wordsworth who has lost faith in tranquil recollection."
New York Times
"Butor's most accessible work in English. Sentences last whole paragraphs, with their Claude Simon-like sub-clauses and meanderings—personally I rather like that kind of writing."
Adrian Tahourdin, TLS
"Judging by this novel the experience [of working in Manchester] has marked him for life, for Passing Time is not so much a hymn, as a whole oratorio of hate. The mood suggests Kafka at his most paranoid; the method harks back to Virginia Woolf but here the stream-of-consciousness has become a turbid flood, the dark Irwell, mazy as the Ganges delta."
"Jean Stewart has made a lovely job of the translation—this text must have been a brute to deal with."
Letter from Michel Butor to Peter Green of the Daily Telegraph
"Michel Butor, French novelist, passing time in Bleston, his Manchester of the mind."
"Without doubt the most formidably intellectual of all the fabrications of the nouveau roman."
John Sturrock, The French New Novel
"This is at once complex, brooding, compelling and exciting; a book that demands attention and draws its reader completely onto the fictive journey. The city is so forensically evoked it takes solid form in the imagination. What an achievement, to make such a comment on societal structures and the stratification we humans impose on our existence in a book that's also a proper page-turner."
Donal Ryan, author of The Spinning Heart
"Passing Time is as revelatory as Butor's critical writing on time and space: here is a model for the metaphysical noir tradition that has borne such rich fruit in the quest narratives of tortured detectives seeking to escape labyrinths of their own making. It's about time this Manchester root of the nouveau roman was given fresh attention. Respect to Pariah for breathing new life into this almost forgotten classic."
Mark Blacklock, author of Hinton and I'm Jack
"A meditation on Britain's imperial and industrial decline, a search for lost time, a dizzyingly self-reflexive detective story: in reading Michel Butor's Passing Time, we are reminded of the fact that the best English experimental novel of the 1950s was written in France. Jean Stewart's translation is unbowed by Butor's labyrinthine sentences, while also offering its own sense of the language-world of Bleston, the imagined northern city in which the novel is set."
Adam Guy, Oxford University: Faculty of English
"A fascinating hybrid: vivid & disorientating, cartographic & discombobulating. It moves simultaneously on separate tracks, speaking of the life of the bewildered, and might even be a reclamation of selfhood in an alien place. As an anatomy of a place and a life at a particular juncture in time, it is unique, and feels like a unique post-industrial (Manchester) novel. A remarkable work, a brilliant brilliant re-discovery."
Danny Denton, author of The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
"In Passing Time and A Change of Heart, Butor’s heroes display great energy in their effort to resist the levelling power of the capitalist city and bourgeois life."
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia
"The long, and often lyrical sentences consistently produce an incantatory, even hallucinatory effect, essential to Butor's purpose. To those readers who have lived in one of the cities of the industrial north, the novel will have special appeal."
Michael Spencer, Michel Butor
"One of the most unhappy Frenchmen ever to reach these islands must have been Michel Butor."
"Passing Time is an intricate and jewel-like novel constructed in such a way that it lends itself neatly to half a dozen interpretations: the classicist reading, the psychoanalytic reading, and so on... This bewildering structure means you cannot simply ingest the novel passively... A novel that enlists readers in the same mission of sense-making so familiar to immigrants. Which isn’t to suggest that the novel is optimistic about the immigrant experience."
Sophie Atkinson, The Baffler Magazine
"It is this clever intertwining between what is real and what is not, between the past and the present, which, in itself, reveals the city of Bleston, that makes this novel so interesting. While Butor said he was not writing a nouveau roman, the use of the detective story, the idea of the labyrinth and the attempt to find a new dimension are clearly nouveau roman themes. Whether it is or it isn’t, it is still a very fine novel, indeed one of the best post-war French novels, and very well worth reading in its own right."
The Modern Novel
"One of the greatest novels of the twentieth century."
Accreditation & Specification:
Translated by Jean Stewart
Editors: Jonny Walsh & Catherine Annabel
Cover Design: Steven Cherry
Typesetting: Alex Billington
Print: Offset Litho
Paper: Stora Enso (Fin) & Munken (Swe)
Format: Paperback (A-Format) Perfect Bound
Published: 7th June 2021
Trade: Central Books Ltd.
Burley Fisher, London
Black Gull Books, London
Pathos & Penthos, Manchester
Or order in at your local library