Degrees by Michel Butor (Part 1)

by Michel Butor
Trans. Richard Howard
Originally published: Simon and Schuster, 1961
Reprint currently available from Dalkey Archive Press, 2005
351 pages / $13.95  Buy from Dalkey Archive







It is painful to report as much, especially here at the outset of this review, one of whose ostensible purposes is to attract readers to a classic of first-generation French postmodernism, a nouveau roman that was for many years unavailable in English and, even when it was, was not widely discussed. Yet it necessary to reveal that this is a novel [1] concerned with writers and writing. Its main character / protagonist / hero / narrator is a writer, and every dramatic action in the book both originates and terminates in “the literary.” The aesthetic, social and moral quandaries all authors face are accorded some reflection in its pages, and, with the turn of each page, the novel grows in self-consciousness, as if such awareness-of-being-aware could accumulate in measurable deposits, like the nacre in a pearl. And make no mistake: objects matter in the world created by this novel. For this novel proposes to be a manuscript, and a rescued one at that; this manuscript’s (re-)assembly in the form (one both ideal and literal) of a book is not just a plot point which the reader is asked to mark, a scope through which the reader is to track and focus the novel’s action. The making of this particular book (that is, the manuscript “within” the novel) is something only we, as disinterested yet absorbed readers, can achieve. We aren’t just reading pages, reading in the sense of digesting them. A page of this book, once read, is much like a page once it has been written upon. It grows in thickness under the influence of our attention, just as it must have swelled with ink and sweat and  the pressure of the author’s hand as it was being composed. Each page thus acquires a distinct texture and profile, and can be stacked, will lay flat, but each page lends its own disarray to the sequence of pages being so collected. Each page will lay less “true” than it did when it was only blank, and the array of pages each reader puts aside (or places behind him/herself) rests disjointed and askew.

Of course, these analogies hold true in any given reading experience. “My” reading experience is necessarily different from “yours”, and even if we are reading the same title, ours are, at the experiential level, different books. This is no triviality in this novel. No wonder, then, that this novel is ultimately less concerned with the process of writing than one might be led to expect, despite the fact that this novel is never not a novel-within-a-novel, or, more accurately, a book-within-a-book. Rather, this book—not the novel named in the title, but the book bound within the frame demarcated by that title, secured by these covers—is consumed with the aspirations writers have for their work. It is rife with intent and rotten with dreams of efficacy. It is a book conceived of as a book, not a “text”, not “writing”, yet it is acutely aware that its fate is to be construed as such. This book is an instrument, and the novel itself, Michel Butor’s Degrees, is the case in which that instrument sits, secured in its own impression. Even should that instrument go missing in the course of its use, as does occur in Degrees, any given examiner could still identify it by its general contours.

The novel’s plot is rather simple. Its setting is traditional, Balzacian: that space where the domestic and the communal, the family and the polis, overlap. Likewise, read, as one might a conventional novel, for theme, Degrees is another re-staging of the conflict between ambition (or freedom) and obligation (or destiny). There is a man, a schoolteacher, a bachelor, an uncle, a generalist, an author, and thus a specialist, only courtesy the accident of his own choice: he has come to the conclusion that he must do something with his life. There is a woman, one whose love for this man is almost certainly real, yet less substantial to him that the prospect for relatively normative social relations her confidence in him represents. (The uncle’s binary: a book, or marriage.) She becomes a reluctant muse but a willing agent of coercion. And then there is the actual object of the uncle’s affections, a boy, his nephew, the end of his book, the reader the uncle-author-etc. most desires to address even though he is, at least initially, both blind and deaf to this overture, until he is recruited as a collaborator, a schoolboy happy with his scouting and reading of adventure stories ultimately seduced into the adult world of plots, information-gathering (as opposed to learning), dissembling. The man’s name, the uncle, is Pierre Vernier. The woman, Micheline Pavin. And the boy, the nephew, is also named Pierre: Pierre Eller. And there is the project that implicates them all, that, in representing their relationships as “accurately” as possible will inevitable transform those same relationships, a book with Pierre Vernier has begun write. Vernier’s stated intention is to capture, with perfect comprehensiveness, a singular moment in time—occurring on Tuesday, October 12, 1954 [2]—the exact dimensions of which are never clarified, and this moment’s significance for himself, an insight he wishes to pass on to his nephew. Vernier wants to “gift” to Eller his (Vernier’s) own authorial retrospection, an omniscience, even if a limited one: a capacity to exist outside the story yet still be sustained by it. Vernier assumes that his nephew is unable to apprehend (much less comprehend) his situation, and how all the “degrees” or relations of the title touch him.

Of course Vernier’s project quickly exceeds itself. He ignores consciousness altogether at the start, attracted instead to a schematic, one gilded with Euclidean proportions. For he, and he alone, has noticed that, in Eller’s class, a surprising pattern obtains, linking non-exclusive sets of uncles and nephews into “triads” of teachers and pupils. But, by the time Vernier is well into the project, he can no longer avoid the problem of consciousness. His book cannot perfectly replicate these triads without preserving his nephew’s unawareness (or is it inconsideration?) of them. Vernier realizes he must include Eller’s point-of-view in his manuscript, that he must write as if he were Eller, so that his book may also serve as a means of recovering—using the archaeological tools of objectivity—what will be an elapsed subjectivity.

“I was drinking my coffee at the Mabillon, thinking about these notes which I am writing for you [The operative metaphor is one not original to this novel: life is a class, a long, long learning opportunity; or, life is patterned after the lycee.], for the person you will have become in a few years, who will have forgotten all this, but for whom all this and a thousand other things, will come back to mind by reading this, in a certain order and according to certain forms and systems that will allow you to grasp and fix it, to situate and appreciate it, which you are incapable of doing for the moment, lacking that system of references which we are trying to inculcate,

so that a new awareness can be born in you [And there are unsavory hints throughout the Degrees of Vernier's and Eller's relationship being somehow illicit, of it involving a kind of perverse insemination.], and so you will become able to grasp precisely this enormous amount of information in which, as in a muddy and tumultuous river, you move, ignorant, swept away,

that slides over you, wastes itself, loses itself, and contradicts itself,

that slides over us all, over all of your schoolmates and all your teachers who are mutually ignorant of each other,

that slides between us and around us.” (72)

Unfortunately, the experimental protocols of science are incommensurate with the unprovable hypotheses of fiction, and Vernier suffers in his vying to make them achieve some conformity [3]. In order to “capture” his nephew’s point-of-view, Vernier must know what Eller knows, and he enlists his nephew to gather information, largely concerning Eller’s friends and schoolmates, otherwise unavailable to him. The necessary divide between teachers and pupils, even between adults and children that are blood relations, one that ensures the uneasy coexistence of those social orders, has been breached. The great danger, of course, one that Vernier has discounted or accounted himself immune from given the magnitude of his project, is that this boundary that separates childhood from adulthood is one of power. And one does not cross this boundary without exercising some of that power, and thus without unleashing what the pressure between those opposed forces, authority and vulnerability, helps to confine. What Pierre Vernier, Micheline Pavin, Pierre Eller and every other character in this novel is about to experience is worse than any inversion of the accustomed power dynamic. They all must now contend with an author convinced that this dynamic is a phenomenon that can be written over, rewritten, without forfeiting its legibility.



1. Whenever the term “novel” appears in this review, please understand that the reference encompasses not only the genre as we routinely conceive of it—a long-form story—but also the entire social enterprise of such fictions as well, at least here in the West.

2. We sometimes forget how old Postmodernism is—and, by extension, how long the theoretical pillars of our “contemporary intellectual moment” have stood.

3. The nouveau roman has been criticized as phenomenology posing as fiction. This is a case better argued elsewhere, and some other time. When those scales are tipped towards some balance, however, I feel I can predict with some confidence that Degrees will be called as a witness by both the defense and the prosecution.


Joe Milazzo‘s writing has appeared in Electronic Book Review, the anthology Chronometry, Antennae, Drunken Boat, Everyday Genius, Super Arrow, Compost, Black Clock, and elsewhere. He is co-editor of the journal [out of nothing], co-founder of the interdisciplinary arts organization Strophe, and founder of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX.

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