Murder by Danielle Collobert

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“I’m well versed in murder. I invent several each day. I bring different people to death, old ones for the most part, I don’t know why.”

Danielle Collobert committed suicide when she was thirty-eight years old. It’s amazing to think that her first novel, Murder, which she began writing in 1960 at age twenty, didn’t receive an English translation until 2013—amazing in the true sense of the word, as in, like, causing wonder. Because reading this book will make you wonder why it took so long to find its way into English; it will make you wonder how Collobert could have extracted something so deep, so haunting, while still so young.

Murder was originally published in 1964 by legendary French publisher Éditions Gallimard and championed by none other than Raymond Queneau. Collobert’s style is unique. Her sentences are often heavily segmented by chains of commas, intensely lyrical and enigmatic, effortlessly elevating personal experience to the realm of broader, more universal truths. The “chapters” in Murder, for lack of a better word, are rarely longer than two or three pages. Because the text is so fragmented, it often feels like a cross between a series of short stories and prose poems, or like fleshed-out and gaping photographic stills. There is a sense of the writing functioning both above what’s written, and below, calling to mind the charged and spooky images of Francesca Woodman or the gritty and blood-soaked snapshots from a book on the Algerian War.

Danielle Collobert

Danielle Collobert

Such an analogy isn’t meaningless, either. Collobert was a supporter of Algerian independence and she wrote Murder while in political exile in Italy. This is an important point. Because her writing is so enigmatic, it isn’t always clear what Collobert means—at least not on the surface. But there’s no doubt that the backdrop of the war heavily informs Murder.

Returning, with the brutal passage of time, in the rupture of space, toward this city, suddenly arisen, without reality—our trajectory through it—and its immense disappearance, without reason, because we are going to leave.

What happened in the city is still there, at our feet, without our having given a purpose to that death. Here, now, there is silence, above the city. But over there we can hear a siren wailing.

The translation by Nathanaël is done cleanly and with great nuance. Pains have clearly been taken to retain the sheer and simple quality of Collobert’s language. It’s this delicate balance between real-world horror—i.e., Algeria—and a sort of hovering omniscience that separate Collobert’s writing from lesser material covering similar themes. In an interview with HTMLGIANT, Nathanaël touched on this point, saying “[Murder] 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.”

Nathanaël’s use of the word “incriminate” is of particular interest, considering Murder’s implication that the witness is also guilty: “If the eye looks suddenly behind itself, if it turns around on itself, then there is the rise of each edge of the aqueous and malevolent substance that clouds it, blinds it, and terrifies it, until it can once again forget everything that happened, for it, deep down, without having that great invasive fear to overcome with each degree, with each new step, scaled like the highest of mountains, the steepest of summits.”

Collobert left behind a handful of books, all produced in only twenty years. Like many writers who have chosen to end their own lives, her voice occasionally takes on a gravity that is, if nothing else, alarming, urgent.

Stop. It’s important—important—you mustn’t miss this, the last moments. But you don’t like that. You want to go quickly. You let yourself be carried, removed, killed. And me, in the world that veers behind you, only later will I have the strength to hold you back, only later, after the others—forgive me—when they will have taught me how to stop a piece of earth torn off by the wind—a finished man, a failure, a shadow, a song, a last song—a whole dumbfounded world…


David Peak's most recent book is The River Through the Trees. His blog is davidpeak.blogspot.com. He lives in Chicago. More from this author →