Description de San Marco

Year: 1963

Author: Michel Butor (1926 - 2016)

Publisher: Gallimard

Description de San Marco, title page

Based on the title, the unsuspecting reader would probably assume that Description de San Marco by Michel Butor is a travel guide, but the opening lines reveal that this work is something quite different: 'Ah! - La gondola, gondola! - Oh! - Grazie!' The information is presented in a manner quite unorthodox for a tourist handbook.

It consists of fragments of conversations and impressions of tourist activities on the famous Venetian square, alternated with architectonic descriptions. The story's pivotal element is the cathedral on San Marco square; it is connected to the history of Venice and with the modern state of affairs in the lagoon city. The genesis of mankind is woven through this, based on the biblical tale of Adam and Eve. The book ends exactly as it began, with incoherent tourist exclamations: 'Perles rouges. - Meraviliose! - Oh!...'

Text as a cathedral

The work's typography supports the various intermingling registers. The bystanders' cries are printed in broad italics; the descriptions of people and buildings are indented. The most 'objective' kind of information is indented even further: quotes, Latin phrases and texts that do seem to be taken from a travel guide: 'Downstairs, cupboards that have been inlaid according to the pattern of a Tuscan master.' The three kinds of descriptions are alternated, making the turbulent type page appear like the presentation of many voices in a play. It is no coincidence that a foldout map of the San Marco has been included. The map also indicates the text's structure, for Butor has attempted to raise a cathedral with his words: 'the texts imitate the form of the building, they follow its architecture.'

Nouveau roman

French novelist and essayist Michel Butor was one of the leading figures of 'le nouveau roman', together with writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras. After studying at the Sorbonne, he taught in several countries. From 1958 onwards, he was an advisor to publisher Gallimard. In 1975 he was appointed associate professor at the University of Geneva. Butor became known mostly as a novelist with postmodern works such as Passage de Milan (1954) and La Modification (1957), but his discourses about dreams and travels also became famous. An important element in Butor's work is the way he appeals to the reader to seek out the text’s meaning himself. Description de San Marco is a good example of this: in this text that is constructed of fragments, the reader is given no foothold by story or intrigue.

A small part of the first edition of Description de San Marco was printed as 'édition originale': this is number 65 of the 68 copies printed on special paper. The book was printed in November, and the author wrote a personal dedication to Koopman in it a bare two months afterward. The book-block has not been cut off. The work was published by Gallimard under the aegis NRF. The renowned publisher continued to produce small deluxe editions like this for collectors for a long time, but the time that special copies were printed on five or more different kinds of paper ended with the demise of the French bibliophile 'industry' after World War II.

Bibliographical description

Description: Description de San Marco / par Michel Butor. - Paris: Gallimard, 1963. - [111] p. : ill. ; 25 cm

Printer: Firmin-Didot et Cie. (Mesnil-sur-l'Estrée, Eure)

Edition: 90 copies

This copy: Number 68 of 65 (numbered 26-90) on vélin pur fil Lafuma-Navarre

Bookbinder: Verschoor (Voorburg)

Note: With autograph dedication by the author

Shelfmark: KW Koopm A 716


  • Els Jongeneel, Michel Butor et le pacte romanesque: Ecriture et lecture dans 'L'emploi du temps, Degres, Description de San Marco et Intervalle'. [No place: no name, 1986]
  • Mary Lydon, Perpetuum mobile: A study of the novels and aesthetics of Michel Butor. Alberta, The University of Alberta Press, 1980
  • Skimao et Bernard Teulon-Nouailles, Michel Butor. Lyon, La Manufacture, 1988