cover image Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice

Michel Butor. Dalkey Archive Press, $19.95 (121pp) ISBN 978-1-56478-077-5

The ape of the title is (at least in part) Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic, the inventor of writing and the record-keeper of the dead. Magic, writing, death, Egypt and apes all come into play in Butor's experimental 1967 novel, now available in English for the first time. The narrator describes a life of study in Paris that is interrupted when a Hungarian professor commands him to speed to Germany to deliver a book to a mysterious poet (here think Jonathan Harker). Once there, he stays in the castle of H--with the Count W--. During the day, he peruses the collection of minerals and an impressive private library (including books on theosophy, alchemy and records of executions); in the evening, he plays bizarre, complicated variations on solitaire with the Count; and at night, he dreams. There is ``no way of detecting a lie or an error in the story of a dream,'' says the narrator, ``I prefer to deliberately reconstruct them.'' His dreams of a beautiful student murdered by a vampire who then transforms the narrator into an ape eventually mingle with stones, alchemy, executions and solitaire, all of them whirling around each other until dreams and reality spin out of control. Given the narrative chaos of the novel, it should come as no surprise that Butor is inevitably mentioned with the likes of Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and other practitioners of the nouveau roman. Although his experiments with structure and blurring the boundaries of reality are admirable, their novelty has worn thin and, unfortunately, what's left doesn't really compensate. (July)