Murder: An Interview with Nathanaël, Translator of Danielle Collobert
Forthcoming from Litmus Press this April, Nathanaël’s definitive English translation of Danielle Collobert’s Murder marks the first ever of this French poet’s debut book. Originally begun in 1960 when Collobert was twenty years old, and published by Gallimard in 1964 under the auspices of Oulipo-founder, Raymond Queneau, this book laid the groundwork for what remains one of the most enigmatic and innovative bodies of work in contemporary French letters. As with the subsequent works of Collobert’s brief but impactful output, which lasted until her suicide in 1978, Murder speaks a language profoundly its own, unlike anything else she was to write, and quite possibly unlike anything else you may have read. Reading this prose gives one the rare impression of being in the presence of a voice speaking from the honest and cutting edge of present urgencies: that is, this is not a voice responding to conventions or trends in literary necessity, but one singularly engaging the emergent necessities of life itself, in all its complexity and danger. Here, in honor of Danielle Collobert and this fantastic new translation, Nathanaël and I discuss her life and legacy with an eye on her first work, Murder.
Kit Schluter: To begin, what drew you to Danielle Collobert’s work? How did you discover it?
Nathanaël: I want to say that it was accidental, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t. Unless one understands friendship as accident. I entered, as did many, into Il donc, and Collobert’s Carnets, though with an eye turned away – perhaps out of a desire not to seek the life in the work, however much it is written there, and with such determinacy; the ‘twenty years of writing’ set against the impending suicide. Still, it is a hazard of hindsight to be able to set the life against the work, though this is so obviously a deformation of the reader, and so I resist as much as I can the tidy narrative of a life fallen from letters. The short answer to your first question is: Collobert’s language. But if the virtuosic remnants of Il donc are almost a perfect epitaph to the twenty years, I was much more viscerally and immediately impelled by Meurtre; I even borrowed an epigraph from this work into We Press Ourlseves Plainly much before the idea even of translating it had presented itself to me. Perhaps most immediately because of a shared concern, or conviction, that the distinction between murder and death is unconvincing and too readily upheld.
KS: What were the circumstances surrounding Danielle Collobert while she was composing Murder? Do you find that the book draws material or imagery from her experience?
N: My knowledge of Collobert’s biography is quite limited. Not unlike her parents and her aunt, who were all actively engaged in the Résistance during WWII, Collobert, a supporter of Algerian independence, was a member of the FLN (Algeria’s Front de libération national) at the time of Meurtre. She chose exile in Italy, where she completed work on the manuscript. It may be worth underscoring the importance of 1961, for the outcome of the war, which, in French contemporary society was never acknowledged under the name of anything other than the euphemistic “les évènements” (“the events” – to do otherwise would have been, not only to have acknowledged, if only semantically, Algeria’s nationhood, but the repressive force employed by France to resist – and as it happened, to defer – decolonization and independence). On October 17, 1961, a peaceful demonstration of many thousands of Algerians living in Paris, protesting the curfew imposed exclusively upon them, and the acts of police violence to which they were systematically subjected, was violently suppressed by Vichyist Maurice Papon’s police force, resulting in the arbitrary deportation of large numbers of Algerian demonstrators, and the summary execution of up to two hundred Algerians, many of whose bodies were pulled out of the Seine in the following days; several thousand Algerians were rounded up during the demonstration and distributed among prisons, the Palais des Sports and area hospitals. Several months later, on February 8th, 1962, what has come to be known as the Charonne Massacre took place at the eponymous Paris métro station; this demonstration, organized by the Left against the paramilitary OAS (the reactionary Organisation de l’armée secrète, which violently opposed Algerian independence), and often conflated in people’s memories (and in historical accounts) with the October massacre, resulted in the death of eight demonstrators at the Charonne métro station. It is not insignificant that French FLN supporter Jacques Panijel’s 1961 film, Octobre à Paris, which documents the moments before, during, and after the October demonstration, was censured by the French government and only shown for the first time in a French cinema in 2011 – half a century after it was made.
The photograph on the cover of Murder accounts, obliquely, and somewhat prochronistically, for these activities – it is a photograph of a bombed out building in Madrid, taken in 1937 by Robert Capa, during the Spanish Civil War.
Meurtre is tempered by the residues of such histories; but the work’s strength is in its ability to evoke them without resorting to explicit accounts, or naming. The generalization of historical violence is embedded in the intimate accounts presented to the reader – seemingly placeless, nameless, they nonetheless achieve historical exactitude through relentless repetition – a reiterative (mass) murder (one is tempted to say: execution), which afflicts and incriminates the gutted bodies that move painstakingly through these densely succinct pages.
KS: The language of Murder‘s passages is slippery, but in a productive kind of way. Although Collobert’s later work seems almost entirely irreverent of traditional genres and forms, the language of this early work, written around the age of twenty, seems to skirt the boundaries between the short story and the prose poem. Nobody is named, no locations are specified, no motives for actions are explained. And yet these prose pieces seem to function toward the development of short narratives that retain these traditional tools of the “short story,” however non-traditionally they might be getting used.
How would you address the issue of genre in this book? What are we dealing with here? Do you sense any influences informing the form of the pieces in Murder, or does this seem to be a mode of writing that Collobert can call entirely her own?
N: I would resist attempting to attribute a generic definition to Meurtre; I would not seek to inscribe it in a lineage, either. Which is not a rejection of eventual antecedents – often Collobert’s work is read against Beckett, for example. But a habitual reliance on lineage as a way of reading seems limiting to me, and a decidedly academic concern. Before even beginning to attempt to make this kind of attribution, one would need to recognize the distances the text has had to travel between French and English, and then acknowledge the divergences between generic constructs in those two (much more than two) literary cultures (though there is increasing adherence to English language delineations in French, which is indicative, perhaps, of a desire for change, but more cynically, of the global influence of specifically American industry, since this direction is distrustful of the generic fluidity for which French literature of the twentieth century came to be known), and take some note of the development of those movements over time, because, like anywhere else, they are not static, whatever limits are imposed to prevent alterations from loosening them from their categorical holds. Which is to say that the bolstering of the boundaries governing generic territories, such as they are defended, is in large part contextual. I would argue that it is no less accurate to categorise Meurtre as prose than it is to categorise Il donc as poetry; Meurtre has a strong poetics, as is Il donc continuing to grapple with the sentence. But one might suggest just as convincingly that all of her work has something of the film script (her language is at times much more succinct than passages in some of Antonioni’s film scripts, for example, which read like prose). I might offer these lines of Derrida’s as more eloquent provocation: “ ‘What / is…?’ laments the disappearance of the poem – / another catastrophe. By announcing that which is /just as it is, a question salutes the birth of prose.” (Tr. Peggy Kamuf)
KS: Collobert, in the final passage of the book, defines the book’s namesake, murder, as follows: “One does not die alone, one is killed, by routine, by impossibility, following their inspiration. If all this time, I have spoken of murder, sometimes half camouflaged, it’s because of that, that way of killing” (96). This, for me, is provocative and explosive language. And, I should say, that goes for the whole book: this isn’t a neutral work, but one that digs in its heels and takes a firm political stance. What political urges do you find central to Murder?
N: You have identified what is for me perhaps the most powerful passage from the work (these are the same lines I borrowed into the afore-mentioned epigraph). Out of this passage, I would signal the unlikely conjunction of routine and inspiration. There is here the suggestion of the sublimation of emotion into bureaucratisation. “That way of killing” is not distinct from the way of language, from a poetics or an aesthetic impulse; ‘inspiration’ is the incipit of murder – the very breath of it. This admission walls the text off from anything resembling hope. And yet it is also anything but nihilistic. It is snared by its own realisations – with emphasis on the real.
KS: Anxiety and contemplations of what may exist outside of life—I don’t know if it would be fair or accurate, exactly, to say “death” in this case, but let’s hold that word in the air—seem to form the backbone of Collobert’s writings. Take the opening passage from Dire II,
the only thing — to begin again — if possible — words again — the equivalent of a death — or even its opposite — or maybe nothing
to be here — the calm — deteriorating from tension — the world around that does not stop — but could stop — the breath that could stop now — one moment after another — same equality hangs — same cold hardness — same taste faint and mild — to put up with going toward the same moments again — to continue only the breath — breathing — lengthen the gaze — simply
Or the opening passage from the tragic Survival, the last book she was to publish before taking her own life in 1978,
only silence answer to other ear never
if to mute the world not a sound
darken into the blue cosmos
more question than vertical travel
I leaving slippage to the horizon
everything the same everything mortal starting from the I
on all legs fleeing the horizon
at last only hearing music in the cries
enter born on debris hardly recognized the ground
emerged from salted vase the fetus from sewer
solar plexus gnawed anguish diffusing lungs breath panting
It’s clear how much formal difference there is between these two passages, though their arguments seem closely related. Murder, at times,seems to be grappling with these subjects, though in a very formally different language. What individuates Murder from the rest of Collobert’s work? What does it share with the rest of this work?
N: Your question raises, for me, one of the problems with complete works, in which an author’s discrete works are presented together, chronologically, and subjected to a regularized form; the distinctions between editions, formats, etc., is belied by the inclusion in a single – edited – volume of otherwise disparate books. In this instance, though formal singularities appear to be respected, the consistency of the typeface and page size, and margins, suggests a continuity between works that I would resist over adherence to. In my reading of her work, Collobert doesn’t appear to be casting herself across volumes and years, through a single project such as Edmond Jabès’s Le livre des questions, for example, in which le livre, though comprised of many volumes, is approached as a single work determinedly extended over most of the writer’s life – however much certain questions continue to return for Collobert. In each instance, the formulations are cast against renewed formal and narrative concerns, evidently resisting uniformity. These considerations aside, even resorting to emblematic concerns can cause problems; you’ve proposed, with some hesitation – and justly so, I would say – that Collobert’s work has as its primary inscription, ‘death’; but one could say without exaggeration, I think, that literature’s first – perhaps only – concern is morbidity. For Collobert, it is against language itself – the French language specifically, that the question must be posed; and it is not enough to have posed it, or, perhaps, to have been deposed by it. In the passages you quote from, death, as I read them, is not outside of life, nor is it outside of language; it is the very stuff out of which the text fails to speak. The anticipation of articulation, breath’s detachedness from ‘the world’, wields silences in the place of what might otherwise be. Language, here, is arguably an ontological impossibility. By the time Collobert arrives at Il Donc, something of language has been irrevocably destroyed – it seems annunciatory of the destruction of the body through which it might otherwise pass (Paul Celan’s work comes to mind as a corollary, a similarly culled language, to the point of near disappearance, if one takes, for example, the early Todesfuge and sets it against a poem like the posthumously published Ein Blatt – A Leaf). Meurtre’s grapple is at the level of the sentence; the accumulation of the many suspended, tortured lives, yields a murderous certainty; killing and being killed partake of the same movement. If one wanted, as you suggest, to read the rest of the work against Meurtre, one might, perhaps too hastily, propose the following works as demonstrations of Meurtre’s proposal.
KS: Let’s keep thinking about this, this constellation of themes, and take a look at some passages from Murder.
These passages, combined with others in the book, add up for me to a certain general existential argument that Collobert’s work continued to make until the end of her life. To boil it down to a few phrases, it seems that she is arguing that to embrace life one must embrace mortality; that to embrace mortality one must embrace the absolute solitude of living; that to embrace this solitude one must confront the fear of what she calls “losing oneself,” even if that lostness be irremediable.
However, something about her understanding of the relationship of life and death reminds me of Rilke’s concept of Das Große, or “The Big Thing,” which he develops in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: the inexpressible fear of the death that is, to paraphrase, growing within us from our birth as a ripening fruit. And yet, there is perhaps a crucial difference between Collobert’s “getting lost” and Rilke’s “The Big Thing”. While Rilke’s term figures death as an existential inevitability of life, Collobert’s term is more politicized and argues that our deaths are imposed on us by social forces over which we have no control. Rilke’s death grows from within and thus one must die alone, while Collobert’s is imposed and thus one is forced in death into the company of an enemy. That is the sort of solitude she is discussing—the solitude we are forced to find when in company we cannot allow ourselves to tolerate, company that is expressly against the freedom of our wills.
N: Your question seems to be calling up an irrevocable rift in the apprehension of death; some would argue that the boundary lies at Auschwitz, others, that it is endemic to modernity. Certainly, Benjamin writes of the loss of an important function of the house once people cease to die within their own walls; Rilke distinguished between ‘serial’ and ‘proper’ death; in the same Notebooks you quote from, he writes: “Now there are 559 beds to die in. Like a factory [fabrikmässig] of course. With production so enormous, each individual death is not made very carefully; but that isn’t important. It’s the quantity that counts.” I am quoting Rilke as quoted by Agamben in Remnants of Auschwitz, in which he writes: “In Auschwitz, people did not die; rather, corpses were produced.” (tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen) In my own stubborn misremembrance, Vladimir Jankélévitch writes (my translation), “Death died in the death camps”. (His actual claim is that forgiveness [le pardon] died in the death camps). The mortality Collobert is grappling with in her work is post-mortal, I would say, in that it is stripped of its ontology, and offered to cold scrutiny (the so-called empiric scalpel); whatever intimations exist in Rilke, and may be fastened to an understanding of modernity, Collobert’s language comes after WWII. It is imprinted by it. But the political dimension of this morbid actuality is not, I would argue, unilateral: the enemy is also oneself. The figures moving through Meurtre are murdered and murderers, they are both executioner and victim; the force driving them to deaths sustained or committed is never made explicit or specific; one might go so far as to say that the vital impulse of this work is stifled by the permanent recognition that one stands ever before a firing squad (a perhaps more temporally torqued version of the vital corpse is Ortega y Gasset’s man who enters into battle with a wound in his temple). I am not convinced however that Collobert’s ‘we’ ever designates a collectivity; there is no indication of a shared plight of solitude; when she writes ‘we’, the we is inhuman in that the individual elements that comprise it have no individuation, they are hulls of selves, like the scraped crab on the beach; they have abandoned themselves to a cadaveric assembly line cum funeral procession.
KS: One of the distinctive traits of Collobert’s work is her play with the grammatical gender of French. There’s a nice story, told by Jean-Pierre Faye, in the foreword to first volume of her Oeuvres (P.O.L.), in which he, upon receiving a copy of Collobert’s Dire, begins editing the text by circling inconsistencies in the narrator’s gender. In one sentence the narrator is referred to with male adjectives; in the next, female; in some, the narrator is referred to with both, by turns male and female. It is only after reading further in the text that he realizes that, in fact, this is a very deliberate part of Collobert’s language, perhaps its singularizing trait. Do you see Collobert as part of a larger tradition of Francophone writers experimenting with gender in their texts? What distinguishes her play from the others’?
N: One might see continuities between Collobert’s refusal to settle on a single gender – a way, perhaps, within the confines nonetheless of French grammar, to unsettle the ‘I’, pluralize and fragment it, and resist the facile habit in the reader to conflate the narrative ‘self’ with that of the writer – and Nathalie Sarraute’s neutral ‘il’. Collobert’s ‘il’ becomes depersonalized (it), while the intent of Sarraute’s ‘il’ (he) is to generalize away from gender specificity, and away from the French grammatical intention which determines that ‘il’ stands in for (erases) ‘elle’ (even when bias indicates otherwise). In an interview with Simone Benmussa, in which Benmussa asks Sarraute to qualify her thinking about ‘le neutre’, Sarraute replies: “For me, the neuter [le neutre] is the human being. There is a word for that in Russian, it’s tcheloviek and in German Der Mensch, the human being, male or female, regardless of age, regardless of sex. In French ‘être humain’ is ridiculous. In fact, in Elle est là, I say: ‘It’s a human being, it’s ridiculous but it must be said.’” Sarraute is adamant her concern is not androgeneity, nor, do I think it is a concern of Collobert’s. Away from the syntactical injunctions of Romance languages – for monolinguistic English speakers, for example – it is nearly impossible to appreciate the grammatical dictatorship under which one lives in such linguistic regimes (Sarraute’s further discussion of Russian indicates the impossibility of avoiding gender altogether in language; and as Benmussa points out, Der Mensch too is gendered masculine). To misapprehend the specific violence done to the mind, and by extension, to thought, under such a regime is to misapprehend much of what has taken place in French thought over the course of the twentieth century, whether Sarraute’s neutre, Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style, Glissant’s Antillanité, Derrida’s Monolinguisme or Jeanne Hyvrard’s Pensée corps, to name but these. To return for a moment to the brief passage quoted from Sarraute, it is utterly telling that these problems become most evident in translation; it is through recourse to other languages (Russian was Sarraute’s first language) that she is able to articulate her concern. A grammar wishes itself to be hermetic; but is rendered porous (or revealed to be thus) precisely through the work of translation.
KS: In your own text, “(Self-)translation: an expropriation of intimacies,” you write, “Syntactically speaking, the sex of the sentence is not (necessarily) transferrable. A body thus destabilised loses sight of its referent when transversing into another language. English’s pronominal preoccupation, for example, singles out the subject’s gender as part of speech, which in French, again for example, is severally located in the sentence. Where one benefits from the ambiguity the other falls into normality. To dislocate gender’s stranglehold in French, one must strive for discord, grammatical disagreement in the place of English’s mis-fitted neutering.”
Did you find these grammatical differences between French and English coming into play in your translation work on Murder? Did you have to bend the rules or experiment with English grammar to make it speak the sense of Collobert’s prose?
N: In translating the Collobert, I resisted such acrobatics, which I tend to resort to far more sparingly in the translations of other authors’ works than I do of my own. To try to reproduce the movement between genders in Collobert’s text would have been to falsify it in English (largely in light of the fact that they are marked adjectivally with the first person pronoun as referent). Because the larger questions of the work remain otherwise transmittable. This may appear as something of a conservative decision, but to have done otherwise would have been to have submitted Meurtre to contortions it itself doesn’t resort to; it would also have been to treat English grammar as though it were interchangeable with French grammatical concerns. It is also worth underscoring the degree to which this tendency is much more prevalent in Collobert’s later works. If I may speak for a moment of Je Nathanaël, a work I published in both French and English versions, the very impetus of the French work, which was to hermaphrodise French (an impossible project, and one which necessitated enormous constraint, such as limiting myself to invariable adjectives, the imperative and the second person singular in the present tense), all but disappears in English in which gender is differently marked – and often suffers from (and is at times priviledged by) being unmarked (the so-called neutral). Rather than try to force the English into a discourse and grammar that weren’t its own, I allowed the text to become something else – at the risk of introducing a possibly (false) universalising strain in the work. In the case of a work like Collobert’s Il donc, Norma Cole’s decision to translate “il” as “it” is a perfect rejoinder to Collobert’s French impersonal pronoun. In Meurtre, there is only one instance in which, mid-passage, I let the sea’s pronoun slide from the more habitual “it” in English, to “she” as it becomes increasingly anthropomorphized in the text.
KS: Françoise Morvan, in her introduction to Oeuvres I (P.O.L.), speaks of a community of French poets who have, since Collobert’s passing, kept her memory alive: François Bon, Jean Daive, Ludovic Janvier, Bernard Pingaud, Jacques Roubaud, Claude Royet-Journoud, Alain Veinstein. Now, Collobert passed away in 1978, and it wasn’t until twenty-six year later, in 2004, that the first edition of her complete works was published in French. In this light, it seems that though her memory has not been dead, it has existed more in the underground. How do you understand Collobert’s influence, in France and abroad? Are there any key figures who have especially helped to keep this influence alive?
N: I’m not in a good position to answer this question, though I am suspicious of the homogeneity of the list of writers such as it is presented. Norma Cole, for example, might have been included among the keepers of Collobert’s memory – her translations have been tremendously influential on poetics and textualities specific to the United States, much as Paul Celan’s have been – producing departures from their initial languages, and localised styles. Collobert’s work was very marginal when she was alive; though Meurtre was originally published by Gallimard with the support of Raymond Queneau, after having been first rejected by Éditions de Minuit, her subsequent works did not meet with such favour; and in fact, Survie was first published in Italian translation before it was published in French. This is indicative of nothing, except that the vagaries a work can be subjected to are legion. One need only sample other near buried works that have met with subsequent irrefutability (Kafka, Benjamin, Robert Walser, etc.)
KS: It seems though that now this work is getting attention from the younger generation of French writers. For example, I first found out about Collobert from two young poets, who live in Marseille and run a wonderful journal of poetry, politics, and aesthetics, La Vie manifeste. One of these poets has actually dedicated much of her personal studies to Collobert’s work, recently writing both her undergraduate and masters theses on her works.
Given this sort of attention from certain contemporary poets and publishers, do you sense that Collobert’s work is experiencing an increase in readership or influence? If so, what about her work do you see as keeping her a vital figure for poets at work today? What alternatives does her work offer that can’t already be found in someone else’s poems? What can we learn from her that we can’t find elsewhere?
N: I would hope that Collobert’s reach would exceed that of so-called poetries, and circulate unencumbered through and outside of prescribed genres (even those which wish themselves to be encompassing – even these end up inventing asphyxiating constraints). I do think, however, that the demands of the text are not consistent with the consumptive speeds our worlds are submitted to today. This may account for some of the time it has taken for Collobert’s work to reach this far. It is quiet, and committed to a degree of precision that language seems nearly incapable of at this time of bulimic production. It may not even be useful to resort to comparatives in search of its specificity. Because this is something it claims without invention; and in my reading it is in time, in the time of (her) writing, and all that it has subsumed into it.
Nathanaël is the author of a score of books written in English or French, including Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal, We Press Ourselves Plainly, and Carnet de somme. Je Nathanaël exists in self-translation, as does the essay of correspondence, Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book), first published in French as L’absence au lieu. Other work exists in Basque, Slovene, and Spanish (Mexico), with book-length translations in Bulgarian and Portuguese (Brazil). A contributing editor to Aufgabe (NY) and Recours au poème (France), Nathanaël’s translations include works by Édouard Glissant, Catherine Mavrikakis and Hilda Hilst, the latter in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo. Recognized by a PEN Translation Fund fellowship, Nathanaël’s translation of The Mausoleum of Lovers by Hervé Guibert will be published in 2014 by Nightboat Books. She lives in Chicago.
Kit Schluter is a poet and translator based in Northampton, Massachusetts. His translation of Marcel Schwob’s 1894 novella, The Book of Monelle, was recently published by Wakefield Press (Cambridge MA).