Art for Unsolved Mysteries.
Lawrence Gipe, Manchester (2009). | Flickr
Sophie Atkinson,  August 30

Unsolved Mysteries

In Passing Time, Michel Butor turns the detective novel inside out

Lawrence Gipe, Manchester (2009). | Flickr
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Passing Time by Michel Butor, trans. Jean Stewart. Pariah Press, 312 pages.

In Michel Butor’s 1956 novel Passing Time, Frenchman Jacques Revel arrives in Bleston—a fictionalized version of Manchester, England—to work as a temporary clerk for a shipping company. In order to stave off a steeping mental sluggishness, Jacques begins to keep a diary. He’s not just a writer of texts but a reader of them, too, becoming obsessed by a detective novel set in Bleston and befriending its author, who published the book under a pseudonym. After exposing the author’s true identity, Jacques is convinced the novel was based on real events and that the author is now in danger. Is he on the brink of untangling a horrible, years-long mystery, or is he losing his mind? 

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. The part that really stayed with me, weeks after, was Jacques’s experience as an immigrant and how this feeds into his amateur detective work. My fascination with this aspect of the book is personal. Despite growing up on the edges of Greater Manchester, I’ve lived elsewhere for the last thirteen years, and in Germany for the last seven. While Butor’s novel is busy with doubles and dualities—two Frenchmen, two detective fiction enthusiasts, two sisters, an old and a new cathedral—it was tempting to read it through the one I’d most recently navigated: that of the immigrant and the local.

Author Michel Butor was and is a household name in France, where he’s often associated—perhaps unfairly; he certainly didn’t want to be—with the Nouveau Roman or “New Novel” movement. Literary theoretician Gerald Prince summarizes the Nouveau Roman as a doing away with the methods of the nineteenth century novel and the anthropocentrism of much post-war existential French literature, with a focus on experimentation and “unusual interest” in its own procedures. Butor is received a little differently in Britain than he is in France: the English-language translation of Passing Time has been out of print since the 1980s. Pariah Press, the publishing house that recently reissued the translated version, calls it “the great, lost Manchester novel.”

Is he on the brink of untangling a horrible, years-long mystery, or is he losing his mind?

Butor, who grew up in Paris, moved to Manchester in 1951 to take up a role as a teaching assistant in the French department at the University of Manchester, where he would stay for two years. The move would have been a jarring one, both in terms of climate and culture: he relocated to the UK from Egypt, where he had been working as a school teacher. 

If the novel is any indication, he didn’t take to the change easily. One unsettling aspect of Passing Time is the seething and disproportionate hatred Jacques nurses for Bleston, which crops up on practically every page: “From the first I had felt this town to be unfriendly, unpleasant, a treacherous quicksand . . . I gradually felt its lymph seeping into my blood.” It is tempting to discount this as Butor constructing a nice clear red flag for the reader: Jacques is too deranged about his new city to be trusted as a narrator! But perhaps it’s simpler than that. Maybe Butor really did hate Manchester exactly that much. (W.G. Sebald, who moved to Manchester fifteen years after Butor in 1966, provided a similarly damning view of the city in The Emigrants: “I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-colored Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see.”)

Critic J.B. Howitt once noted that “on every occasion with which the academic calendar presented him he took the opportunity to leave this country” before reeling off a list of vacations: Tunisia and Algeria, Paris, Italy, Paris again, Paris once more with feeling. Howitt concluded dryly that a further  fortnight appears to have been spent in France, “all of which underlines the basic impression that he viewed his stay in England as a kind of prison-sentence.” This might be chalked up to loneliness. In the interviews Howitt conducted with Butor’s colleagues and students, they described him as poorly integrated into English life and “difficult to know.” Perhaps more conclusively, journalist David Arkell writes that the first thing Butor did on leaving Manchester was to have an operation for ulcers.

Michel Butor in 2016. | François Jouffroy

But what did Butor himself have to say about his time in Manchester? I don’t speak French, so Catherine Annabel, who co-edited the Pariah Press edition of Passing Time, kindly translated an interview Butor did with André Clavel for me: “the biggest difficulty for me was the terrible weather, the damp, the pollution caused by the factory chimneys . . . one was always in the midst of fog, a thick smog, sooty, unbearable.”

While I’d associate Manchester with torrential rain and winds, the ever-present fog that’s such a defining feature of Bleston feels unfamiliar to me. It’s there on nearly every page, with Jacques dubbing Bleston “a smoky wilderness,” and describing winter in the city as “an almost subterranean existence . . . with barely a few hours’ dun, foggy daylight.” This aspect of Manchester would shortly become unrecognizable to Butor himself. In a response to Kathleen O’Neill’s essay “On Passing Time,” Butor wrote that on returning to the city two years later, “it was difficult for me to recognize because there was no more smog. Regulations of anti pollution after years and years had an extraordinary result. So . . . the world of Bleston is . . . now a world of the past.”

In the novel, this industrial fog is coupled with a creeping anxiety about mental fog: vision and thoughts being obscured. Early on, Jacques claims that his “vision was still like clear water; since then, every day has clouded it further with a sprinkling of ash.” Later on, he reports that his “eyes were being gradually clouded,” and this concern about his visual acuity seems mirrored by an anxiety about becoming mentally lethargic. On realizing he hasn’t cracked a book in the first month of his Mancunian life, he “felt [his] whole being polluted by that creeping fog.”

To the reader, this worry about his faculties doesn’t add up. The prose is striking in its lush granularity—as if the world Jacques sees has been placed under a microscope. See his arrival in Bleston by train: “Suddenly there were a lot of lights. . . . 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, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling.” Or witness sunset, as viewed from inside a Chinese restaurant: “The sky was turning pink; shadows were creeping over the outside of the window, which looked like a great sheet of tar scattered with petals from a nearby orchard.”

The contradiction between Jacques’s sensuous visuals and his concerns about seeing and thinking feels like a decent rendition of the privileged immigrant experience. I find living in a new country feels a little bit like being freshly in love—when the world around you suddenly seems hyper-vivid, every sign, building, passerby suddenly freighted with meaning. Less happily, you’re transported back into a childlike state, relearning how to thread together sentences with any competence, how public transport and the health system works, how to register to stay there.

So it’s interesting that the role of detective acts as a neat corrective to Jacques’s concerns about seeing and understanding. Like an immigrant, a detective is compelled to notice things, uncover connections. Unlike an immigrant, however, who might be compelled to look and notice out of anxious self-preservation, a detective usually practices this form of behavior with professional self-assurance. Who sees better than the detective, who picks up on minute visual clues—a dropped wedding bouquet (Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”), say, or a charred piece of paper (Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express”)? And perhaps more important: Who is more mentally acute than a detective, who on arriving at a new location and immersing themselves in a strange group of people, makes a number of cognitive leaps to reach the correct conclusion?

George Burton, the detective novel writer in Passing Time, acts as a sort of mouthpiece for much of the novel’s theorizing about the detective genre. He also suggests that the detective is primarily meaningful in terms of his sight: “The aim of his whole existence is that tremendous moment in which . . . he tears off veils and masks . . . that moment when reality is transformed and purified by the sole power of his keen and accurate vision.” When reading, it’s tempting to interpret the monologues about the detective genre as a sort of prompt—don’t worry about the narrative fogginess, this magical moment of clarity will soon be yours. Except such a moment never arrives.

Like an immigrant, a detective is compelled to notice things, uncover connections.

Again: this dizzying novel doesn’t allow for one definitive interpretation. Every possible theory you might construct from clues is later succeeded by a hidden trapdoor built into the text: inevitably, you find yourself suspended mid-air, legs furiously bicycling as the abyss gapes beneath you. Fooled again! And yet, if we accept Burton’s definition of the detective as someone who first and foremost can see and see well, this means that at a certain point, we’re not able to believe in Jacques as a detective, or the novel as a murder (or attempted murder) mystery. Toward the end of Passing Time, two major events in his friend group blindside Jacques despite his meticulous and obsessive recording of his daily life, making it even more difficult to cultivate much faith in Jacques’s powers of perception.

So, if Jacques is not a detective and the novel is not a mystery, what is all his detective work for? While on a first read, I’d been caught up in the heat of solving the mystery, the second time round, a pattern emerged. It suddenly felt clear to me that Jacques’s detective work serves a definite function: obscuring the failures of his immigrant life. 

Although Jacques works translating documents for the shipping company, there are hints throughout the novel that his spoken English is so-so at best. On interacting with a bus conductor, he notes, “I felt like a deaf-mute; he had involuntarily betrayed by a slight frown his surprise at my pronunciation, and his quick slurred speech slid over my ears so that I could not catch his words.” Later, months into living in Bleston, he observes that whenever his colleague “dear Mr. Blythe . . . mumbles some friendly remark I am forced to ask him to repeat it, or better, to translate it for me.” It seems notable that Jacques’s friends in Bleston are all either native or competent French speakers, including George Burton, or non-native English speakers, like Horace Buck. The characters James Jenkins and Ann Bailey are the only exceptions to this pattern.

This sense that language might make it challenging for him to integrate socially is backed up by moments of loneliness in the text: Jacques has a great eagerness for James to invite him to things, and there’s a depressing account of Christmas when his lack of close friendships is laid bare. On Christmas Eve, he has no plans. Instead, he walks for hours in the rain. On entering churches, he feels “unable to bear the curious glances that denounced me as a dangerous intruder” and is forced back out into the bad weather, where he’s confronted by “solitary prowlers like myself, excluded like myself from all rejoicings.”

Given the above, it’s striking that Jacques’s detective work takes such a reclusive form. Instead of following in the footsteps of that most resourceful of immigrant-detectives, Hercule Poirot, and stalking about, asking people questions, gathering clues and generally getting in the way, Jacques holes himself up in his room most nights and writes an account of his time in Bleston. There are occasions where he takes a more active role: pressing George Burton to reveal that he wrote the novel that sparked his obsession, for example, or following a man he suspects of attempted murder. But largely, his detective work is an act of remembering and writing (another possible parallel with Butor’s own life: he began his first novel, Passage de Milan, while living in Manchester). 

Jacques’s detective work gives him a convenient alibi for being alone—he’s not refraining to pursue the women he’s interested in or a varied social life out of shyness or the inevitable frustration that speaking a foreign language as a beginner entails! No, he simply has to stay in and write his diary to cultivate mental clarity and to crack the mystery that he’s more and more obsessed by as the months roll on. Eventually, even Jacques freely admits his “work” has got in the way of a more fulfilling existence in Bleston, writing of a woman “whom I failed to love . . . because of this writing of mine, this exhausting, absorbing quest which has taken up almost all my evenings ever since the beginning of May.”

The detective role acts as a corrective to this humiliating version of events. A detective benefits from outsider status: he must stand a little apart, be in the crowd but not of the crowd. But while he’s an outsider, a detective is undeniably powerful and important. 

How else can we account for the frankly bizarre amount of responsibility Jacques takes on over the course of the novel? While there are dark hints and ugly incidents, there’s no clear and undeniable evidence that suggests, as he believes, that Jacques’s exposure of George’s true identity as the author of The Bleston Murder has triggered a diabolical chain of events. And it would be unexpected if there was: frankly, he spends too much time in his bedroom writing to be more than a minor figure in most Bleston inhabitants’ lives. 

While Jacques may be irrelevant in Bleston, Butor ensures Jacques is the center of our universe: the structure of the novel coaxes us, the readers, into adopting his own way of seeing and navigating the world. There are suggestions that the novel could act as a physical space: Jacques draws a parallel between writing and architecture when describing “this accumulation of sentences like the ruins of an unfinished building.” And indeed, everything Jacques accuses Bleston of being could be ascribed to Passing Time itself: it’s foggy, murky, veiled, strange, labyrinthine. Like him, we’re stuck in a claustrophobic and overwhelming environment for a prescribed amount of time. Jacques starts his diary months after he arrives, but the first entry is set on his first day, giving the book a complicated retrospective structure, where he spends the present-tense time reconstructing his past in Bleston in enormous detail. Chapters are titled according to the month he’s writing in and the month he’s writing about, e.g. May:October. 

Acquiring these skills in an unfamiliar environment has been lonely, destabilizing, and possibly literally maddening.

This bewildering structure means you cannot simply ingest the novel passively. Coupled with moments of repetition that occur in entirely different scenarios, like a Chinese waiter smiling enigmatically in a restaurant, it compels the reader to pick up a pen and paper and to take notes. Was Jacques dining with George or James then? Was this the time he went to the fair with Horace or with someone else? The reader is encouraged to collaborate with Jacques and adopt the same writer/detective role.

In this way, the novel transcends its specifics. No longer is it a novel simply about a French clerk living in an industrial Northern English city in the 1950s. Instead, it becomes 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.

While Jacques’s detecting may prove fruitless (“The pattern is complete, and I am left out of it,” he writes near novel’s end), the skills he seems to admire so much in George’s rendition of the detective, those of observation and analysis, are arguably abilities he has, thanks to his punishing experience living abroad, finally cultivated. But at what cost? Acquiring these skills in an unfamiliar environment has been lonely, destabilizing, and possibly literally maddening. He leaves the city mid-rumination—“and I haven’t even time to set down something that happened on the evening of February the 29th, something that seemed very important”—and we’re left wondering: Will Jacques ever really be free of Bleston?

Sophie Atkinson is the features editor of The Sheffield Tribune and The Liverpool Post, a cultural writer at The Manchester Mill and a German literature translator. Sometimes she’s on Twitter: @SophEAtkinson.

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