The Widow’s Lament

On December 13, 1927, at 10:15 a.m., Marie-Pauline Murati, a war widow, attempted to kill the mayor of Toulon, Emile Claude, in the course of an interview in his office at the town hall. According to the account given by M. Berry, the head clerk at the mayor’s office, Mme Murati was the last of three ladies to have been shown into M. Claud’s office that morning. Mme Murati, thirty-five years old, entered the office leaving the door ajar. M. Berry, however, who was still on the landing, pushed the door shut for reasons of discretion.

As he did so he heard the sound of quick steps, followed by calls for help from M. Claude. M. Berry pushed the door open, entered the room, and was confronted by an unexpected and tragic spectacle: Mme Murati, clutching a long knife in her hand, was ferociously striking M. Claude on his face, neck, and chest. The mayor, covered with blood, tried to escape the attacker, but she chased him around his desk, arm raised in the air. At this point M. Berry leaped at the would-be assassin, immobilized her, and, following a fierce struggle, managed to disarm her. “Unfortunate woman! What are you doing?” he reportedly said to her. Beside herself, her hands red with blood, Mme Murati cried at him, “Let me go! Let me go!” M. Claude, blinded by the blood streaming from one of his wounds, now approached the woman and asked her: “What have I done to you?” to which she responded furiously: “I’ve been martyred for too long, it’s become a scandal. That’s what it is!” “Better say that it’s an assassination!” M. Berry said to her, at which point the woman suddenly turned pale and fell unconscious on the carpet.

Though stabbed four times, M. Claude swiftly recovered from his injuries. Mme Murati, it was reported, had acted under the spell of a mental crisis, or temporary insanity, to which she had frequently succumbed since the death of her husband, a lieutenant in the colonial infantry, from wounds sustained in battle. While Mme Murati was held in detention and undergoing mental examination by the forensic pathologist Doctor Ernest Rapuc, a search of her domicile uncovered letters written by her to the public prosecutor (the equivalent of a district attorney), and several journalists, in which she wrote: “I pass my days crying; I have looked for the reason in vain. I finally know that it is because strange things are happening in Toulon, and it is necessary to punish the abusers and defend the truth.”

In 1927 the film Napoleon vu par Abel Gance was first screened. But the images that haunted Mme Murati were most probably not those of Gance’s celebrated triptych, which in a fit of (artistic) rage he had once tried to destroy. Napoleon’s melancholy and tragic greatness as seen by this proponent of artistic suffering does not seem to have been of central concern to the French of the interwar period. Rather, it was images of meaningless, horrible death, boundless, inexplicable suffering, inarticulate rage, madness, and violence that surfaced in innumerable forms and means of expression during an era of recovery from one massacre and growing anxiety with the approach of another. This was not a good time for Napoleon, not even when projected on three screens simultaneously. It was a time of guilt, accusation, and fear. Gance’s J’accuse (1919), with its terrifying image of dead soldiers rising from their graves, and Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de bois (1931), based on the novel by Dorgeles, in which a soldier becomes mad at the moment of attack, reflected much better the atmosphere of the period and people’s attitudes to war.

These were not merely artistic hallucinations and creative fantasies. World War I had produced a reality that few minds of the belle Epoque could have conjured up. Both the nature and the scale of the killing stretched the boundary between sanity and madness, perception and distortion to the limit. Mme Murati’s fit of rage and madness, whatever its specific causes, must be viewed within the context of postwar (and interwar) France. Strange things were happening in Toulon; perhaps the strangest of all was the attempt to go back to normality, to forget the events and erase the images that had scarred the consciousness of so many Europeans in the slaughterhouse of the front. Was a war widow’s plea for attention to her suffering madder than society’s indifference? Was her violence less legitimate than that which had taken so many lives only a few years before?

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