- Signs and Designs: Art and Architecture in the Work of Michel Butor
Having explored Claude Simon's artistic intertexts in Reading Between the Lines (1998), Jean Duffy now turns her erudite attentions to another author obsessed with the visual/textual relation: Michel Butor. The result is a must-read resource for all Butor scholars, for it provides not only sustained analyses of the author's major works, but also a thorough overview of relevent criticism from the 1960s to today. Indeed, the book's introduction serves as a critical guide to Butor scholarship, with succinct "mini-reviews" detailing general trends as well as particular critics's theses. The introduction becomes an essential reference when paired with the book's careful and thorough bibliography. Butor's prolific production spans half a century and includes not only books, but over 200 collaborative works with such artists as Baltazar, Joly, and Masurovsky, all of which Duffy has meticulously catalogued. The synthetic skill and pedagogical generosity of such work should not be overlooked.
But of course it is the book's central (and clearly-stated) aim to study Butor's many textual references to architecture and the visual or plastic arts. Though other critics have mentioned Gaudì's role in L'Emploi du temps or the Roman trio (Cavallini/Pannini/Bernini) in La Modification, none has gone as "broad and deep" as does Duffy here. Broad, in that she extends intertextual analyses to the less-studied Butor corpus (including Boomerang, Les Mots dans la peinture, and Le Génie du lieu). And deep, in that she brings extensive art history and criticism to bear on her analyses. When relating the novel Degrés, for example, to Massys's 1514 The Money-Lender and his Wife, Duffy invokes the genre painting's iconographic symbolism as a moral gloss that underwrites Butor's broader critique of capitalist imperialism. She similarly goes beyond the mere enumeration of common themes between Butor's Passage de Milan and Duchamp's glass installation La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (Le Grand Verre). Yes, Duchamp's work acts as "narrative generator," providing Butor with the motifs of bride and bachelors, sexual desire and untimely death. But it also must be understood as part of a larger meditation—and Duffy invokes Duchamp's own notes on the project's "sex cylinders," "spangles," and "malic moulds" to re-cast it as a "symbolic meditation on [...] non-fulfilment, failure, abortive communication, sterility, and [...] the mechanistic dimension of modern man." She thus gives due to the discursivity of art and art criticism, rather than relegate pictures to the status of inert muse for the cultured writer.
Signs and Designs is organized into 5 central chapters, the first four focussing on Butor's better-known works. The sustained Duchamp/Passage de Milan chapter ends with a reading of De Vere's artistic project as a mise en abyme of the novel's own spatial composition. The next chapter, on "high and low culture" in L'Emploi du temps, similarly emphasizes Butor's compositional strategies—this time as mirrored in novelistic references to cathedral architecture, museum images, and tapestry series. Here, Duffy begins to build one of her book's larger arguments about Butor's ambivalence toward the cultural endeavors of human civilization: the Old Cathedral [End Page 118] embodies a synthetic European cultural history both impressive and obsolescent, while the New Cathedral aligns with town fairs and cheap cinemas to challenge the modern town's blatant commercialism. The reading is, as always, thorough, well-researched, and clear-eyed vis-à-vis its critical predecessors, though one might not fully agree with Duffy's assessment of L'Emploi du temps as a fundamentally optimistic novel. The third chapter extends work Duffy has previously done on Michelangelo and La Modification; here, she applies her impressive breadth of art historical knowledge to a reading of Western Christian culture (in the art and architecture of Italy and France) as backdrop to the protagonist's personal spiritual quest. In...