Reading Danielle Collobert

Context N°16

by John Taylor

Collobert (1940–78) is the author of five haunting books of prose and prose-like poetry which the Parisian publisher POL has just brought back from oblivion. It is both moving and fitting that Meurtre (Murder, 1964), Dire I (Say I, 1972), Dire II (Say II,1972), Il donc (It Then, 1976) and Survie (Survival, 1978) are now gathered under one cover, constituting the first volume of Collobert’s collected works, Oeuvres I. A second volume, Oeuvres II, comprising her journal, her several radio texts, and miscellaneous writings, will appear next year.

This is no routine reissue. Pages by Collobert may perplex, but not a single passage leaves indifferent. Her strange and unsettling prose combines dire pessimism, penetrating lucidity, as well as a willingness, as the author puts it in Dire II, to examine the conditions necessary to simply

keep living — to appear to oneself perhaps from time to time still — without an image — without a reflection — only to hear oneself — the breath — the cry — the words — sometimes — before vanishing — to trace out something — somewhere — for nothing — certainly without necessity — to be there — yet — still — to try.

This is a writer who has left all security behind and is inching her way along a frazzled tightrope suspended over the most desolate abyss imaginable. Think of Samuel Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—about which more appears below.

Collobert explores the very slight possibilities of love, the alluring ambiguities of gender, perhaps also schizophrenia, in any case “impersonalization,” and above all death as the source, foundation, and destination of all living. She confronts these themes head on, all the while generalizing her approach by asking whether writing about them is really “possible.” The sparse, stark texts of her last book, the ironically entitled Survival, announce her ominous conclusion: writing is impossible and so is living. She committed suicide on her thirty-eighth birthday in a hotel on the rue Dauphine in Paris.

For the past quarter-century, a handful of important French poets and writers have continued to speak and write about these unusual books, long out-of-print yet once highly regarded. In her brief but sensitive editorial note to Oeuvres I, Françoise Morvan reveals that a “friendship chain” including Jean Daive, Ludovic Janvier, Claude Royet-Journoud, Alain Veinstein, Jacques Roubaud, Bernard Pingaud, and François Bon has kept Collobert’s name from being completely forgotten and has seen this project of a collected works through to completion. As for the single yet strong North American link in this chain, the Canadian poet Norma Cole has labored incessantly for Collobert’s cause. She has translated Il donc as It Then (O Books, 1989), Survie as Survival (for her anthology Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France, Burning Deck, 2000), and has recently rendered Collobert’s journal as Notebooks 1956–1978 (Litmus Press, 2003).

Collobert’s five books form a single “black diamond,” Morvan remarks aptly. The metaphor at once negates and affirms, seemingly giving a definitive answer to a terrifying question and thereafter shining like an awe-inspiring, admonishing lampion. Such is the tension of Collobert’s prose, and such is its ambivalence. Which reminds me of how other French writers—Arthur Rimbaud, Pierre Jean Jouve, Edmond Jabès, Louis-René des Forêt, Pierre Guyotat—contemplating the “end of writing” (and the “ends of writing”), the temptations of “silence,” unanswerable questions, and the riddles of gender have similarly mined the no-man’s land between prose and poetry in order to create a unique work of art out of several specific works. The books of such authors could well be subsumed under the title “Oeuvre”—in the singular—as actually occurred in the case of the 1987 Mercure de France edition of Jouve.

Collobert’s collected works exhibit this unity. From the onset she focuses on death: it is her personal nemesis, as is illustrated by one of her earliest Notebook entries, dated February 1957:

shock at becoming conscious of this obstacle that preceded everything — attached to the obstacle — not an obstacle — not even a breakdown — real fear — of the emptiness — nothingness — fear stronger than anything — I’m putting in time — just putting in time — like the rest of the world.

Probably written four or five years later, one of the interconnected texts of Meurtre notably begins:

I have the impression that I am experiencing a death. I no longer have a center—not that it moves around inside me, in constant, even perpetual motion—but no localizing of it is even possible any more.

Yet however precisely rooted was her personal despair, Collobert’s literary vision displays a universalizing propensity. Motivating her is a downright courageous effort to transcend the gloomy introspection of a specific individual—herself—and to stage “the uncertainty of meaning / the endless distancing / the impossible discourse” (It Then, my translation) as fundamental attributes of the human condition. Although these efforts to transform her individual plight into that of Everyman and Everywoman were ultimately insufficient to save her from an early suicide, her writings depart radically from confessional literary genres. “One does not know, one has never learned, how to write that word, End,” she observes in Meurtre, “to place it in the center, in the middle, to protect it well, not to leave it alone, elsewhere, isolated.” Montaigne viewed philosophy as “learning how to die.” In her writings, Collobert similarly dares to place Death exactly where it dwells in her personal life and where it secretly dwells in any human being: at the very center.

Not surprisingly, the realist imagery and straightforward sentences still used in Meurtre disappear by the time she composes Dire I (the first version dates to 1966) and especially Dire II (written around 1970). Even in Meurtre, she experiments with narrative gender-switching and increasingly “impersonal” representations of herself, her characters or, more accurately, humankind. As the factual world fades from her purview, what is left is a voice, at once resolute and inconsolable; or, rather, voices that are alternatively attributed to feminine and masculine speakers. Sometimes these voices seem disembodied (as the title Dire suggests, with its additional connotations of “saying,” “statement(s),” and with its quasi-theatrical injunction “to say,” “to tell,” “to speak”), while at other times a mere “defeated body” is left; it has lost all capacity to articulate meaning. Collobert’s project fascinates because it pursues this redoubtable contradiction—bodiless speech, speechless bodies—to perilous limits (beyond them looms self-annihilation), all the while presenting this speech-body split as an incontrovertible element of all human experience.

After her death, Jacques Roubaud wrote a halting, strangely punctuated poem about her. He notes how she was incessantly pushed further “down the path. of / poetry towards the impossibility of. / poetry of the impossibility of / personal poetry, towards / [telling] the story of the impersonalization of / poetry.” Collobert’s prose reflects this austere progression, as it evolves from the hard-hitting realist narrative framework of Meurtre (a novel initially published by Raymond Queneau at Gallimard), through Dire I (with its discontinuous story lines), then through Dire II (where she focuses on “each word — to avoid the soft calm sliding — prefer plummeting to that”) and It Then (whose “shreds of articulation” are sometimes arranged into skeletal verse), to the completely broken-up syntax and drastically minimalized grammar of the six harrowing (prose-like) poems of Survie, published by Emmanuel Hocquard at Orange Export Ltd. a few months before her death. The first piece of this sequence begins, in Cole’s translation:

I leaving voice without response to
articulate sometimes words
that silence response to other ear never
if to muteness world not a sound
plunges into blue cosmos
no more question that vertical journey
I leaving slide to horizon
all equal all mortal leaving starting
with the I
at full speed fleeing the horizon
at last to hear only music in the screams
enough enough

For Collobert, everything that is mortal begins with the “I.” Her writing grapples from the beginning with subjectivity; she seeks an “exit” from its grip. Yet the impersonalization that her books trace out does not really parallel the self-transcending, “de-selfing” aspirations of post-war French poets like Yves Bonnefoy, Pierre-Albert Jourdan or Philippe Jaccottet, who seek out luminous presences—beyond or other than the self—most often in nature. Collobert seeks another type of escape from the imprisoning Cartesian cogito ergo sum. Rather like Nathalie Sarraute, she posits an extreme humanism in which she continues to refer to human beings yet makes no specific references to a particular person, especially herself. A person is now “impersonal,” as in an impersonal verb construction, as in “it is raining.”

What is this “it”? A substance like a cloud? A pure phenomenon? Or some sort of vague border between the two ontological categories? Philosophers from Schelling to Sigwart, from Emmanuel Lévinas to P. F. Strawson, have wrestled with this enigma. Similarly, once Collobert’s narrative is no longer predicated on a specific person or on particular characters, she can both emphasize the body as a universal “substance” and focus on the utter phenomenality of human experience, especially as we face up to death and stand across from the “other” (be it another person or our apperception that we are double, that we are witnessing ourselves acting). Hence Il donc construed in English as It Then and not He Then (or Thus He), though Collobert is obviously also playing here with gender: the metamorphosis of she’s into he’s, and back again. In her last writings, “I’s” and “you’s,” when they are retained at all, are given few, if any, recognizable characteristics. They are not really (or fully) characters.

Interestingly, Collobert’s attempt to impersonalize her own “I”—dismissed as meaningless chronological filler, a negligible “time of what” by the final text of Survival—was initially political. During the years 1961–63, she worked clandestinely for the Algerian National Liberation Front. She was even forced to hide out in Italy for a while because of her political involvement in the Algerian War. After this period, her impersonalizing quest became essentially literary as well as “geographical.” She began taking countless trips, both inside herself and to remote foreign countries. On some “inner voyages,” she in fact ventures no less far abroad. Such results from drug-taking, as evinced by the Notebooks. She records her hallucinogenic experiences with the curiosity, if not quite the maniacal precision, of Henri Michaux. “Acid — electroshock,” she writes for example, “variations on the real — deep // following the preceding state — this time very good — no real violent anxiety — just at the moment of trying to write felt the sensation of doubling — ‘government’ of the unconscious speaking ‘with clarity.’ ”

Equally revelatory of her literary quest are the frequent trips outside of France. In Dire II, the narrator (who possesses neither name nor sex) evokes a yearning for “somewhere — that place sought for such a long time — so many attempts.” The Notebooks bear witness to the specifics of her insatiable wanderlust. Collobert shifted constantly between Paris and various sites in the Far East, North Africa, South America, the United States, and Europe. Her longtime friend and collaborator, the Italian writer Uccio Esposito-Torrigiani, testifies—in his perceptive postface to the Notebooks—to an

almost perpetual motion in which contradictory motives fused: the need to escape, the attraction of distant, “exotic” countries as bearers of nameless signs guaranteeing silence, solitude; and simultaneously a sort of proof by geographic exhaustion that she would not be content anywhere, that places were but names, and that, wherever she went, she would “not [be] going towards anything.”

One recalls Pierre Reverdy, for whom “everything is the same, whether here or there.” Which of course is another way of admitting to oneself that one is left, all alone—anywhere and everywhere—in the dungeon of one’s own self.

The Notebooks surely acted as the traveling laboratory in which Collobert distilled her most representative style, those bursts of allusive (and elusive) meaning that are separated by no other punctuation than dashes. In the Notebooks there are subjectless, hence relatively “impersonal” passages like “always on the move — a bag — not much gear no things — no books — only an old copy of Têtes-mortes had for years — Bing Bing // unnecessary this house — bag suffices . . .” This passage is dated November 14, 1975. About the same time in It Then, Collobert depicts this mental and bodily state more abstractly: “always movement // from the violent to the imperceptible — the immobile — immobility never — a semblant settling at best” (my translation).

If there is a remote echo of Sarraute in Collobert, there is an even more distinct one of Beckett. The passage cited above mentions Têtes-mortes (1967/1972), the French volume of Beckett’s short prose that includes Bing (Ping, in English). Collobert’s Notebooks mention a meeting with Beckett as early as June 1967, then in August 1971 “To Berlin — to see Sam” (where Beckett actually was staying at the time), and finally a mysterious 25 May 1976 “with Sam [in Bassano] // at the moment of speaking — death.” There is also a 1974 entry that reads: “S. in the blur — tied to Paris and a certain life — the power of certain words and their lack of weight in other situations — this summer one last try.” But I find no trace of Collobert in either Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (1996) or James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996).

This is not to say that Collobert’s mature style and ideas are derivative. After Meurtre, she especially creates her own particular world. This mainly derives from her eccentric use of pronouns and other grammatical markers of masculinity or femininity. In his preface to Oeuvres I, Jean-Pierre Faye (who published the first edition of Dire I and II at Seghers-Laffont) points out that Collobert bases what he calls her “dialogue of voiceless bodies” (specifically in Dire I) exclusively on the presence or absence of the silent letter (and feminine marker) “e.” Throughout Collobert’s Dire I, this silent “e” is present when one expects it to be absent, and vice versa. Its presence or absence bewilders, though hardly in the same way (or for the same reasons) as the missing “e” in Georges Perec’s novel, A Void, which appeared in France as La Disparition in 1969.

Such grammatical word-play is completely unorthodox and—one must add—dead serious. It is only after close study that apparent solecisms can be interpreted as the keystones of a highly conscious literary construct. For the French reader of Dire I, a misprint seems to mar the very first paragraph. When the first person singular “je” is introduced in the fourth sentence, and because the author is a woman, the reader too quickly assumes that a female narrator is musing. But suffixes reveal that a man is narrating, and this uncertainty about gender increases in perplexity through the third, sixth and finally eighth paragraphs, when a sentence employing a feminine case (“tu est passée ici”) suddenly crops up.

Thereafter, the reader penetrates further and further into a disturbing labyrinth of changing or indeterminable gender. Sometimes “I” and “you”—are in dialogue, while at other times the dialogue arguably occurs within the same body, as when the narrator admits “facing me, [is] myself” or later and even more explicitly: Whom is this about now? As if lost in this sequence flowing from me—liquid losing its shape its precision—slowly but surely having become mud, magma.” In such instances, a conflict seems to have arisen, within the same body, between an “anima” and “animus,” though it is not ultimately of Carl Jung that one thinks in these psychoanalytically evocative passages, suggestive almost of schizophrenia.

With these jousts of gender, Collobert also sometimes mirrors tense amorous dialogues. In these attempts to reach the “other,” the dialogue often results in a single “body over there,” as she writes in Dire II, “knotted / knotted to words / the strangulation of breath / loss of ground / hanged / swaying inside words.” Though such scenes conclude in an utter failure to attain the other, to establish contact, to communicate, it is still “toward another body,” as she declares in It Then, that “words are incessantly projected.” Within the abstractions of Collobert’s writing often can be felt this unmitigable yearning for a safe and embracing harbor that is not the “I.” Christen this harbor the “not-I.”

The grammatical idiosyncrasies with which she first experiments in Dire I increase in the three books that follow. She eventually no longer uses “I” and “you” at all. By Dire II, she has proceeded far down the path, as Roubaud put it in his poem, toward “impersonalization.” During her last eight years, she can only increasingly struggle to surmount those “thousands of words,” as she phrases it, that are necessary “before saying ‘I’ — before something happens.” This path at once to herself and away from herself grew very steep, as she climbed the mountain of words. It was of no return.

Selected Works by Danielle Collobert in Translation:

It Then. Trans. Norma Cole. Out of Print.
Notebooks 1956–1978. Litmus, $12.00.
Survival. Trans. Norma Cole. Burning Deck, $15.00.

Selected Untranslated Works:

Cahiers [Memoirs]. Out of Print.
Chants de Guerre [War Songs]. Out of Print.
Dire I et II [Say I and II]. Out of Print.
Meurtre [Murder]. Out of Print.
Des Nuits sur les hauteurs [Nights in High Altitude]. Out of Print.
Oeuvres I. POL, €28.
Recherche [Search]. Out of Print.

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