Michel Butor’s The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak

Michel Butor’s The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak 2016-11-11T21:48:04+00:00
French Writer Michel Butor (Photo via aucoindelaruedelenfer.com)

“Every word written is a victory against death,” says French writer Michel Butor (Photo via aucoindelaruedelenfer.com)

 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 

La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore (The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak)

by Michel Butor with Translation by Jeffrey Gross

For Jean-François Lyotard to whom I owe the conservation of these texts

 

I

Bernard Dufour's engraving from the original 1968 edition

Bernard Dufour’s engraving from the original 1968 edition

The sea is a fruit without stones
The swallows graze on the raw sky
Far off the automobiles sing
The rain takes a stroll in silk stockings

The camels in the sky
Capsize with melancholy
And long drops of rusty water
Slide slowly down the backs
Of little girls

The pines move away
Like a sad vanquished fleet
And yet they were so much lovelier than we

Your eyes are heavy like coals
And broad perfect
Like cut flints
But the fruit of the trees
Is more beautiful still
And we will never be
Like the fruit of the trees

If I cannot make you more beautiful still
Than all the fruit of the trees
What good would I be to you and you
Are you not impotence itself
If you cannot make me a tree
On which you
Yourself fructify

The flowers have spread into the underworld
A very windy day
And there is nothing left here but dead leaves
The boats themselves will disappear

As far as I may go
I won’t succeed in wearing out
My earth sandals
Huge sunflowers will ravish me
But you still more foreign to me
Than I am
What familiarity could you establish
Between things and my gestures
In the world that you bring me
Desolation has eyes as big
As in the Greek myths
The sky is as white and implacable
As on the two mountains Terror and Erebus

You
Who are as little as everyone
You hide the world from me

There are crows here
Beautiful crows which I prefer to you
And fires and hares
The shadows
Around the marshes
Tame me and condemn me

Do you see the day
Is always formed of fishes
Rubbing their scales against each other
Must we be miserable
In the laundry-rooms
Dry our itchings

I fear the wolf
Who insinuates himself into the laundry rooms
During half-opening hours1
He has teeth in tatters
But the more effective for that believe me

I am a wolf who haunts
The places of purification and crime

I am a wolf
 
 

II

The barred street
Barely a little cry to say farewell
That old reality goes home to bed
It turns out the light

The displays in the butcher shops
Are decorated with little birds of pine-cones
With multi-colored ribbons
And with goose-liver pâtés
Representing St. Theresa of the Child Jesus
Napoleon and Gutenberg
Holding in his hand a little inkwell of lard

Pretty voyage in perspective
As far as I may go

The barley-sugars are decidedly less good
Agate marbles are getting hard to find
The Eiffel Tower leans its head
With a smile nineteen hundred
Leg-of-lamb holder salad basket nervous breakdown
We’re just in time

Still no signal
Wait a moment
Don’t get impatient

Automobile horns
Improvise with ease
Policemen
Wear in their button-holes
Light-bulbs of many colors
Which make them look at least twenty years younger

On the trucks tanks
There are orchestras
Of every race
High-school windows
Are covered with hyacinths
On the hospital roofs
They’ve installed immense screens
And everyone can see movies
That are so luminous
The day itself succeeds only for a few moments
In outshining them

It is these moments
That indicate
The beginning of the festivals

All the children join in them
And for three whole days they have
Out-and-out supremacy
Over their parents who are forced to obey them
In everything punctually
Before getting permission
To go back to work
 
 

III

As soon as she had realized that she was ugly
She became intolerably beautiful

They try to smother her
They drop carpets on her in the dark
They beat them
They hurt her
They tear her stockings
They stain her dresses
They glue her sheets
They throw flaming bolsters
Right in her face

She flees along a rocky course
That climbs in switchbacks
Along ramparts of basalt and scree

She crosses mirrors
And her clothes are planted with
Flashing fragments

She is drenched with a rain of oil
She penetrates a tunnel of dust
Crosses enormous seashells
And sources of mineral water
Falls to the bottom of a well
And one can see long legs on the horizon
Which confuse the route for the sea

The echo of her voice disturbs the beasts
She tears a hole in the roof of a bank
Shatters the glass cases
And scatters the papers
In a whirlwind of rustlings

And then she disappears into the shadows
Like a cloud of flashing hair
She is distant in a desert of points
And of distant flashes
Calm and moving

It’s like a cymbal that complains
With contempt and dissatisfaction
Altered

And yet her face still appears
Imperturbably
At the windows of the town of puddles and ladders
And the Eiffel Tower of this town
Has become transparent almost invisible
And we hear the wind singing in its ribs
So fragile that only a child could climb them
To see the world
 
 

IV

In the gardens
In the schools
Full of noise and heavy bags
And ancient
Where the sun
Only penetrates once a year
With hilarity
Schools blue as whitewash
Or old figs dry and acidic
A little water
Some chestnut buds

Like liners
On which no one will ever go
Despite wanting
And saving
With towers that smoke
Pineapples and winter gardens

And like missals torn
With rage and resentment and disarray
One Easter
Like scruffy surplices stained with blood
Like dirty pajamas
And like prayers that we stifle
And that strangle you
Heavily
Sagely
With bland sweets
And desolation

Like a wolf who has a dream and says
I am a town and a train
Like parents who try to interest their children
In their unsolvable histories
Like drinking
Like talking
Like keeping quiet
Like sweating
Like falling
Like promises
The old promises

The white day
Over the countryside
That we won’t look at
 
 

V

A copy of Bernard Dufour's drawing from the original edition

A copy of a Bernard Dufour drawing from the original edition of La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore

Freewheel

The forests of rifles light up on the coasts
The sea is full of nails
Like an old dirty tent
The inside of the somersaulters
Is rose like a shell
They take refuge in the churches
The prie-dieus genuflect and go astray
The combs smooth and polish themselves
They have hats and voices
They talk of pipes
My father awaits the coming of the smoke

Besides it won’t happen
Like that
She’ll die first
I’ll make of it what I can

In her glass
There is a straw
In her shoes
A pinpoint
She dances on carafes
She swims in the mould of eyes
Which a grille shuts
Rusting
Her birds are playing cards
And geography maps
Transform themselves for her
Into the windows of compartments of railroad trains

The millstones follow one another
The coast of pearl
Plays with a very bright fire
It’s a sail that becomes moist
And the rats sing their melancholy
The place is taken
The hunt is closed
The feathers fall from the sky
Rose petals that catch flame
Drops of oil that freeze
The house it is a vertical hole

The town it is a great scarab
The windows are pierced
Through its wing-sheaths
And one sees the transparence
Of its interior wings
A unicorn passes
In the middle of the streets
The garbage cans move aside
The bicycles become radiant
The lamps light up ahead and behind
The walls are shields of ivy
All is lost I’m hungry I’m cold
My hands stretch out
And the heaped tables
Disappear into the shadow
The great transparent buildings
Are the prey of flames
And of tremblings
The headlights collapse
In an atmosphere of
Yellow metallic powder
And the windows melt
Into burning tears
And bitterness explodes
In a combat of blades
Just above us

The sea is full of bells
That chime sweet images
In the interiors of all her cathedrals
Swim fish of red coal
In the middle of the air
The stained-glass windows are blue
Like country cemeteries
And splinter apart in the gusts

They are there
The cannon is on the altar2
Pointed at the public
Who go to bed on the paving stones
And outside
Great eagles plunge
To raise again the crosses
That drowned themselves
It’s All Saints Day
 
 

VI

A copy of a Bernard Dufour drawing from the original edition

A copy of a Bernard Dufour drawing from the original edition

A new pair of crimson gloves
Woven as in bygone days
Under the bridges of the Seine
An enormous scarab
Whose legs produce
A strange scraping
When boats pass
And who only appears
During twilight3
Every evening at a different square

A tent full of circles and loops
A lamp burns there
And quantities of little mirrors
Are suspended
By long red hairs

All around
The beautiful automobiles breathe
Always new
And the cloth trembles
With the song of their horns

Of the women nothing can be seen
But their stockings
And almost at midnight
The cats come to steal furs
Coffers
Little hammers of black wood
Graven with signs
Representing the earth and the heavens
The sun and the moon
The sea and the birds
A midnight-blue man
With a red and green woman
Holding a sickle

So the noise becomes
Shall we say transparent
The reverberations burst and die
Covering themselves with a fleece of gray fur
The restaurants close up
And we hear nothing but their music
Of glasses and silverware
The jewels sparkle
Through cracks and curtains
Old ships of wood and silk4
Start to come out again
Start to bend down again
Slowly
Blankly
Almost buried under nets
Covered with dust
With great cattle skulls and horns
With very faint lanterns
At the end of each of their yardarms
Balancing

It is then that we are alone
In the middle of an ocean of snow
Where the great splendid black cars
Circulate very rarely
Avoiding us
Making beautiful turns
Softened and silent
As if they were empty

At the port
A big stain
On some posters
A bottle of dry ink
And a necklace of glass marbles
Poured around fruit-stones
Collected patiently
All over the world

But that was the sole of the angels
The ring of the philosophers
And if it were in the heart of my hand
Could I see it
Tell me
Could I even
Keep my hand
 
 

VII

A copy of a Bernard Dufour drawing from the original edition

A copy of a Bernard Dufour drawing from the original edition

I am in tears
My hands are antennae
It’s hot
The boats pass through the trees
Today or tomorrow
We will tremble together in grottos
You have beautiful hair
But you are very far from my
Hot black country
With great fanfares on the cliffs
With pavilions of copper

The distant chimneys smoke in the puddles
The ditches close themselves up
Under the tractor-tires
Pieces of chalk
Lie in the stubble for all to see
All the tiles on the roofs
Are pheasants taking a dust-bath

Gather all the summits together in your hands
And wash them
And make them more brilliant than the snow
All the trees pointed with copper and tin
Will step aside when you breathe
And your breast will disturb
And lift
The furrows of your dress
The fingers of your hand unfold
Like rays around a cloud that dwells
And the telegraph poles remain alone in the fields
While the men wearing caps
Move off dragged by horses
Time passes

In my childhood
The town was a barque
Among leaves studded
With lively insects
We tie and untie
The strings of our old times
Our heads almost submerged
By the debris and the dust
Along the ramparts
Long shadows flower
The geraniums become exasperated
Like trepanned skulls
Abuzz with flies
The fields are a great carcass turning blue
With swollen veins
And somersaults of hairs on end
Your hair rolls
In the midst of stones and thistles
Turns back and the waves move off
While the cocks utter their cries
In the bramblebushes

There is a person blue and bread
Who opens the shutters
The street resonates
When one looks at the sky
It’s a great chariot wheel
The birches mingle
At the dooryards of the farms
The pigs dig in the roots
And snuffle at the gates

It’s a lizard bigger than a village
Who crushes the stones and drinks up the ponds
He cries a great lizard-cry
As if he were the sky
After a downpour

It’s a pigeon as big as an eagle
With a beak as cruel as a gull
And a dark tail and claws
With a fraying shadow in the form of a cross

But perhaps there is a rest with you
Although I’m too afraid of you

 

VIII

At the heart of the flints
Sleeps the water of May
The long spines
Drip from a dew of blood
And black banderoles
Are hoisted on the factories

Outskirts
Eye of asphalt

Upon the telegraph poles
Burn quantities of candles
Christmas trees
Flame at the crossroads
Rosebushes
Sparkle on the roofs
The gold of the chimneys unrolls
The dogs bark kitchen knives
With furs of purple
Like seashells exploding

In every hare’s eye
Flows a source
Green fish pass very slowly there
The rails are covered with snow
Some coals with a radiance
Of living amethyst
Punctuate the frozen marshes

From the tops of sky-scrapers
Hangs electric hair
In space the sun and the moon
Reunite in a sumptuous eclipse
In the middle of the somber violet of the air
And the cashiers awaken
In their trams

With long pikestaffs
Policemen in scarab hats
With enormous antennae of laurel
Scrutinize the pavements
From which clots of water surge

In the plaster
Grow transparent leaves
And the facades are covered with efflorescences

The lanterns arranged
Along the sidewalks
Change intensity
With a scraping of drums
And on the heavy coats of men
Wings flutter

The metro burns
Great scraps of carbonized air
Rise like towers and black windows

Crabs
Rags
In porcelain containers
Pieces of wax
Flakes of dust
Parings
That the snow covers again

Across the white squares
We descry lamps
And their crowns of droplets
We hear violins
They are priests getting drunk
And birds that beat
Like clocks

The glasses are covered with prayer-beads
The cards are striped with crosses
With wine-stains
The rings represent open beaks
That break diamonds

In the middle of the floor there is a lake
The corals from the stench diminish there
The reeds among the tables
Become weighed down with silica
And through the holes in the ceiling
We see slats and nests
The shop signs are covered again
With sleeves embroidered with prayers
The weathervanes wear gloves
That grasp the leading-strings of clouds

Under every tile
A hare’s eye
Under every chair-leg
A hand ready to flower
 
 

IX

A copy of a Bernard Dufour drawing from the original edition

A copy of a Bernard Dufour drawing from the original edition

It is Asia which arises
From its bed of lava
With its blue plumage
And its voices booming out

It’s an overturned locomotive
In the middle of a town which it sets afire
Which it massacres
Twisting its carriages
And oozing rain
Onto the wreckage

O echo of the countryside
Where the earth is only a suburb
Great bears will come and graze in my hands
Will leave their wool
At the pins of the hawthorn

And the great enclosures whirling
And transparent
Will open before our sheaves of thistle
And our procession of crows

You see how the towns
Stand entirely apart
From my view of the world
A little luminous geometry
At the edge of the great frost
Radiating smoke

Barks pass by there
Without masters or sextants
And we follow their destinies hesitating
Hidden in the reeds
In water and mud
Up to the chest

From time to time
The bark of the trees
Cracks

From time to time upon the hills
The soldiers sound their forceful fanfare
And one sees bayonets
Shine like the grass

The rolling of cannons
Sweeps over the horizon
Which a vague yellow glimmer
Traces

And fires are lighted in the forests
Which the birds slowly leave
With movements solemn and stricken
And with cries

It’s the sky
The lapwings and the grebes
In droves take flight from
Windows of printing-shops

Hares go out the gable windows
And apartment buildings sink into the water
Which clarifies in a quickening vegetative wriggling

One can see now
In the middle of the trees
Immense mirrors
That one can traverse
The inside of the churches
Has become black and red
The cemeteries are covered with flowers
With violent odors
That make us fall
From the cellars leave wolves and calm tigers
Who tear wall-hangings that burst into flames
At the candles of the horizon
At the new isles
Which the vessels carry here
And during this time the bells
Ring continuously
And the distant machine-guns
Demolish the sentry-boxes and the agents

An immense and isolated tree of hoar-frost grows indefinitely
On the spot where their kepis fell
Trembling and scintillating
Metros that thrum in the interior
Like the echos of the jungle
The sun will melt them
It will pour over the houses
The icebergs and the clouds
Very dry gravel
That will splinter under our shoes
When we go to put sulfate on the vines

And ears of corn in whose interiors
We can live and die and watch
The boats heading off for New York

It’s the sky
But it’s Asia which is that root of ivy
That lifts up the roofs
And fights in the children
And sinks in great gouts
And covers with slime
Barques born yesterday or today
Barques without tenacity
Which submit themselves to its counsel
And children without a future
Children of bricks and dust
Let themselves be invaded by its indefinitely
Intertwining hands and cry
Our hands are black and white
And our blood will run in the cold

The dead fish in the markets
Will see us burn statues
And run on the roofs
With new guns
And tear the great chests of the cattle
That cover the entrance-gates of the roads
With instruments mathematical and sure

And she tears herself away
And she bruises herself
She is proud and hard
And her skin flashes like tempered steel
Like a midnight-blue panther
And she is enormous
And she sleeps and dreams
Like a red and black sea of mercury

 

 

Notes

1 The original, “aux heures d’entrouverture,” contains a play on the standard phrase “aux heures d’ouverture,” referring to a shop’s opening hours.
2 The pun in the original is, unfortunately, untranslatable for the eye, since French “canon” can mean English “canon” or “cannon.”  Luckily it works for the ear.
3 The original has an idiom, “entre chien et loup

[between dog and wolf],” which has no exact English equivalent: the hour when it’s not possible to tell a dog from a wolf.  This transitional time has a connotation of romance and mystery, for example as a time for trysts.
4 The internal rhyme which ends the line, “de bois et de soie,” is difficult to capture in English. “Of wood and of wool” suggested itself, but I preferred to retain the sense of the original.

 
 
 
 

About Michel Butor

Michel Butor (Photo via Wikipedia)

Michel Butor (Photo via Wikipedia)

Michel-Marie-François Butor was born in 1926 in Mons-en-Baroeul, France. A novelist, poet, and essayist, he is one of the leading exponents of the nouveau roman (“new novel”), the avant-garde French novel that emerged in the 1950s.

Butor studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and from 1951 to 1953 was a lecturer at the University of Manchester. He was subsequently a teacher in Thessaloníki, Greece, Geneva, Switz, and numerous other cities in the United States and France. After an early experimental novel, Passage de Milan, Butor won critical acclaim with L’Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time), a complex evocation of his gloomy season in Manchester. With his third novel, La Modification (1957; Second Thoughts, or  A Change of Heart), Butor perfected his experimental technique and was considered to have arrived at his full powers. The work won the Prix Renaudot.

Butor, who regarded the novel as a blend of philosophy and poetry, owed much in his fiction to the influence of James Joyce. A feature common to all his novels is a rigid structure. Passage de Milan takes place in a single day in a tenement building, and in La Modification the setting is a journey in a compartment of the Paris-Rome express. Degrés (1960;Degrees), his fourth novel, imposes on the action the rigid pattern of a college timetable.

His subsequent fiction includes Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape), Intervalle (1973), and Explorations (1981; with verse). Outstanding among his nonfiction works are Mobile (1962; Eng. trans. Mobile), a prose-rhapsody aiming to capture the spirit of the United States, and Description de San Marco (1963; Description of San Marco). He also published several collections of poetry and critical essays, including Répertoire, 5 vol. (1960–82), Improvisations sur Flaubert (1984), L’Utilité poétique (1995), and Octogénaire (2006). Other works include the novel Boomerang (1978) and the long essay Improvisations sur Rimbaud (1989).

 

 

About Jeffrey Gross

Translator Jeffrey Gross (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Translator Jeffrey Gross (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

A former PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, Jeffrey Gross has worn several chapeaux, including software developer, CFO, and singer. He lives in the village of Brooklyn, New York, where he “does a little writing [and translating] on the side.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore © Michel Butor. Introduction to and translation of La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore © Jeffrey Gross. Drawings © Bernard Dufour. All Rights Reserved. This translation was published with permission from Jeffrey Gross. Michel Butor biography adapted from the Encyclopedia Brittanica website.