Changing Track, described on the blurb as “at once experimental and engrossing”, was originally published by Calder Books in 1958 as “Second Thoughts” and has long been out of print in English. Alma Books have relaunched the Calder imprint1 with this, and other works from the Calder backlist are to follow later in the year.
Butor’s best-known work, it tells of a businessman’s train journey from Paris to Rome in order to be with his mistress, who he intends to install in a job and home back in the French capital.
“Engrossing” is the word: told in the second person, you’re immersed in the thought processes of Butor’s character. Of the many nouveaux romans I’ve read, few are difficult at the level of the text: Claude Simon may share a level of obscurity with Faulkner, but Alain Robbe-Grillet’s prose is elegant and precise at all times. Changing Track, though, is the most accessible nouveau roman I’ve come across.
The second person is not a common mode of storytelling, largely because it’s difficult to sustain credibly over a long work, yet Butor manages it here. So, like an avant-garde (not to mention avant-la-lettre) version of an 80s gamebook, YOU are the hero! But who are YOU? YOU are Leon Delmont, and YOU are a bit of a shit, really – unfaithful, self-absorbed, nosy, cheap and cowardly – which may all be a piece of sly humour on Butor’s part.
The book alternates between Delmont’s observations of the people in the carriage around him and the French countryside the train speeds through, with reflections on the decisions and situations that have led him to this point.
At the start, his memories relate to events from longer ago; the closer to Rome he gets, much more recent memories – which are troubling, and begin to undermine the earlier ones – force a change of his plans (la modification is the novel’s original French title). Increasingly, less focus is given to what’s happening around him as he drifts into his memories and they threaten to overwhelm him:
“its too late now, the chain of your thoughts, forged more firmly by this journey, rolls on as relentlessly as the train itself, and in spite of all your efforts…you are caught up and fettered by it”
Narrative mode aside, Butor is subtle in his use of those techniques which define the nouveau roman. He describes scenery as it is seen from a train, relativistically: the train is both a fixed point and constantly moving:
“there [is] a road ahead along which a lorry trundles, moves away, comes nearer again, disappears behind a house, is chased by a motorcyclist who passes it in a fine curve like a slack bow, drops behind him, behind your train, then vanishes from the scene.”
Prior to this, things outside the window are, similarly, given only as much “time” as the passing glance allows: “that cafe where the iron blind is just being drawn up…that tall cracked chimney, that used-tyre dump, those little gardens…” The only relationship between these places is their proximity, and consequently this is a much more “true” sense of how a city looks from a speeding train than an attempt at pathetic fallacy, or reaching for an all-encompassing sense of atmosphere, would provide. The train moves; things are glimpsed.
The mise-en-scene invites comparisons with a film which Changing Track pre-dates by a decade: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ Express. That film portrays a film-maker and his collaborators generating ideas for a film which we, the viewer, then see played out before us. However, it takes on a life of its own as contingencies intervene: events continually force the story into different avenues. The obvious metaphor which both works share is that of a train journey as metaphor for life: things happen, and all plans are thrown askew. The linear movement of the train therefore becomes an ironic comment on the idea of progression.
Similarly to Robbe-Grillet, events in the future are described with the certainty of things that have already happened (what Robbe-Grillet calls “objectivised hypothesis”):
“you’ll lie side by side on her bed…you’ll caress each other…you’ll discuss formalities”
These daydreams become more ridiculous as the book proceeds and it becomes clear that Delmont is not going to do any of these things. What status, then, do these projected meals, walks and conversations, have? They make up a substantial part of the text, yet do not and will not “really” exist, so the narrative undermines itself.
A further ironic comment can be found in Delmont’s memory of a trip to a gallery, where he reflects on the trompe l’oeil effect2 of artworks by Pannini. Like a mise-en-abyme, they act “as though he had wished to represent on his canvas the faithfulness of the dream shared by so many artists of his time: to produce the absolute equivalent of reality, so that a painted capital was indistinguishable from a real capital”. Is this not what Changing Track purports to do?
What it also does, like Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth, is to demonstrate it’s own genesis. Another mise-en-abyme is the book Delmont carries but never opens. “In this book which you haven’t read…you know that there are characters bearing a certain resemblance to the people who have successively occupied this compartment…in this book there must be a character…a man in difficulties who wants to save himself, who is making a journey and realises that the path he has taken doesn’t lead where he expected.” The trip provides him with the idea of writing a book like he imagines this one to be and which is, of course, the one we are reading3.
1again: 2008 saw a welcome return to print of novels by Robbe-Grillet, Duras and Queneau, among others.
2always a sign in a nouveau roman that the author is drawing attention to the purpose of their work. Robbe-Grillet’s novels are full of them.
3an idea Italo Calvino had lots of fun with years later in If on a winter’s night a traveler.