Obituary: Marthe Robert

The appearance of a new book by Marthe Robert was always a rare and exciting event for me. Rare, because she published infrequently and wrote essays of exemplary brilliance: exciting because she defended many of the writers I most admired - Heinrich von Kleist, Franz Kafka, Robert Walser, Georg Buchner, Gustave Flaubert, Antonin Artaud.

Her works were illuminating psychological studies of writers who were beyond the pale, the mad, the humiliated and the neglected in the fields of normal literary history.

Kafka was her special love. She translated his works with assured technique and tender care for his very personal voice. Her book Seul comme Franz Kafka (1968) helped sweep away prejudices attached to his work, and rejected the usual laboured analysis of his "symbolism" to reveal his tragic sense of humour, his peculiar irony and his struggle to make a life for himself through the saving grace of a unique individual vision.

She shows Kafka's art as a continual urge to remain alive to his "difference". He wrote: "The writer is the scapegoat of humanity, who grants his fellow- men an almost innocent enjoyment of sin." The price the outcast creator pays is isolation, a loneliness that is the condition of his strivings for self-expression. Marthe Robert begins her study with two quotations. The first comes from Kafka's conversations with a not always very reliable witness, the student Gustav Janouch, who asks him: "Are you then so very much alone?" Kafka just nods. "Like Kaspar Hauser?" Kafka laughs: "Much worse than that. I am alone . . . like Franz Kafka." He also said: "One does not reach one's full development until after death, when one is all alone."

I bought my first book by Marthe Robert in 1955, a deeply sympathetic study of Heinrich von Kleist, Un homme inexprimable - a title inexpressible in English, but perhaps "An Indefinable Man", a man beyond words, expresses something of the general puzzlement most of his critics displayed on their encounters with his unclassified genius.

This revolutionary analysis of Kleist's work and character was to help me immeasurably in my translations of such diverse works as his drama The Prince of Homburg, his novel Michael Kolhaas and his short stories. Robert proved to me that they and his other writings were all of a piece, despite their dif- ferences. Her book was not equalled until the publication in 1989 of Hans Dieter Zimmermann's controversial biography, Kleist, die Libe und der Tod ("Kleist, Love and Death".)

Marthe Robert was largely self-taught in psychiatry; her wide reading in the subject enabled her to estimate at their true value what ordinary literary critics could only see as defects in Kleist's work and personality, demonstrating that it was precisely these "defects" that made his work great. Other critics, trying to "see the whole man" missed the pathetic incompleteness that Robert perceived as essential to "outsider art". It is significant that she ended her book with a chapter on Kleist by the Swiss genius, Robert Walser, another poet of the incomplete and the indefinable, a wryly comic portrayer of failure and inadaptation who spent the last 30 years of his life in psychiatric hospitals. The fate of such visionaries is a profound criticism of a civilisation that cannot accommodate them and rejects their disturbing exceptions to the norm. Kafka read Robert Walser. He also read Freud.

That self-imposed solitude is the only refuge from personal hells few have understood as well as Marthe Robert. Helped by her close friend the dramatist of the absurd, Arthur Adamov, with whom she translated and adapted for the stage the plays of Georg Buchner, she worked to obtain the release of Antonin Artaud from the madhouse. She and Adamov are among a host of famous writers who contributed to the anthology Artaud Vivant (1980). They include tributes to this figure of immense literary and dramatic stature by early admirers like Gide, Colette and Cocteau, extending to the present day's posthumous appreciation by Michel Foucault, Jacques Darrida, Jerzy Grotowski, Susan Sontag and many more.

Another great man who influenced Marthe Robert's life and writings was Sigmund Freud, about whom she wrote an important work, La Revolution psychiatrique (1968). This was the direct outcome of a series of radio talks she gave, La Vie et l'oeuvre de Freud, in which she was guided by Michel Foucault.

She was married to the psychoanalyst Michel de M'Uzan, though she never went through complete analysis herself. There was no Freudian fanaticism in her admiration for the Master, and she never used forbidding psychological jargon, for she was totally undogmatic in her approach to psychiatry. In a later work, Le Puits de Babel (1987), she writes with unusual acerbity condemning writers who err in these respects. Her unorthodox views earned her some enemies. Sartre condemned her linking of Flaubert and Kafka (not "engage" enough), while he himself produced an unreadable elephant of a book on Flaubert in L'Idiot de la famille (1971). Robert protested against the deformations of Freud's ideas by biographers, and deplored "the stubborn anti-Freudian" Vladimir Nabokov's definition of Freud as "the Viennese charlatan".

In her last published book, La Traversee litteraire (1994), Marthe Robert writes of her own "literary passage" through a life spent investigating and illuminating the secrets of artistic creation. She was indeed one of the grandes dames of contemporary literature, and received many awards, including the Grand Prix National des Lettres in 1995. But dismayed by the publishing world that increasingly treats literary works like any other perishable commodity, with an ominously early sell-by date, she fell silent. Like her translation, she was irreplaceable.

James Kirkup

Marthe Robert,essayist and translator: born Paris 25 March 1914; married Michel de M'Uzan; died Paris 12 April 1996.