The best works of literature speak to the eternal, the human condition, irrespective of historical context, their original language, or the author’s gender. Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary belongs to world literature because it depicts the human situation and because it defies interpretation. Ugly Duckling Presse published Commentary: A Tale in 2013, with an Introduction by Jennifer Moxley, and it includes the preface to the last French edition by Jean Mouton (1986), a preface and then a note from the first and second editions by Charles Du Bos (1933 and 1934, respectively), with Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis as the translators.
(Image from Ugly Duck Presse)
(A Tale) is in parenthesis on the cover, silent and contained as the rage and confusion within. The story is simple: a woman, who is suffering from TB, travels to a sanatorium, where she receives a Dear Jane letter from her boyfriend. She is not only dumped, but he informs her that he is marrying someone else. She faces her illness alone. Imagine if Fanny Brawne had friend-zoned Keats before he departed to Italy to enter “his posthumous existence” (Keats’s own words there). The cruelty is devastating. The rest of the ‘tale’ is her private reflection on and response to the dead relationship. She cycles through all the emotions of grief: forced isolation, anger, not so much bargaining as rationalization, depression, and then acceptance.
Just as the greatest works of literature offer the reader a little bit of everything from the cupboard of genres, Commentary is many things: a funeral wreath of philosophical analyses (St. Augustine’s Confessions and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu); an attempt to explain perception (Montaigne’s Essays); the tell-all un roman à clef such as The Devil Wears Prada, except these are lettres pas envoyées, for the text’s format is that of angry journal entries meant as letters not to be sent to the offending party. Commentary even offers an element of mystery: we do not know the narrator’s name. Readers don’t know if the text is fictional or autobiographical. There are hints, but no real key; it defies definitive interpretation. All that readers know for a name is her nickname for him: ‘Baby,’ and he gets boxed into several corners of her mind. In the end, from her “small corner of conscience,” she is done with him. She has excoriated him, herself, and the inherent blind nature of love. The ‘tale’ is less than one hundred pages long, a novella, and it is a tour de force deconstruction, a meditation, on love and the differences between the genders, and how the eyes deceive the heart.
I read both the translation and the original, which I was shocked to discover is available from Amazon for free. The French text is clean, free of errors, and a true labor of love from the folks at ebooksgratuits.com. Readers who don’t know French have to understand that French is an allusive and elusive language, and literary French is not the same as spoken French. I mention this for one simple reason: Sauvageot’s written French is colloquial, spare and lean, although there are limpid, periodic graces. She is not Proust nor does she want to imitate him or any other writer. She is her own judge and jury. The problem is that none of this is explained to the reader because there are no notes from the translators, which is a great disservice to the reader and an injustice to the author’s prose; in fact, there is little to no biographical information on Marcelle Sauvageot, which is a shame, especially when curious readers discover that her Wiki page is in French. The dearth of biographical information diminishes her accomplishments.
Marcelle Sauvageot was born in 1900 in Charleville. This is significant. Charleville borders Belgium, and readers of French poetry will instantly recognize it as the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, who despised it because it was provincial and parochial. He also disliked the French spoken there. Georges Simenon was another writer who took potshots at Belgian-influenced French in everything he wrote, which says a lot since he was such a prolific writer. Sauvageot, born in ‘the sticks,’ became a professor (un professeur agrégé de lettres), which is a remarkable achievement for a woman in her time. Sense of perspective: Madame Curie was the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in France in 1903. Furthermore, Sauvageot was close friends with several members of the Surrealist movement. Readers learn from the Mouton essay that André Malraux and his wife Clara got into an argument over it. Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry also appreciated it.
Translations revive and revisit classics. John E. Woods rendered Thomas Mann anew. Several translators have refreshed Proust. In Sauvageot’s case, there is more at stake because this is her only work and it appeared and disappeared in the last eighty years. First, the title is a problem in both languages, although that is not the fault of the Ugly Duckling Presse and the translators. The original French title in 1933 and 1934, Commentaire, or Commentary, denotes intellectual analysis, whereas the 1986 title was amended to Commentaire: récit d’un amour meurtri, or, Commentary: a tale of wounded love, which subtitles the intimacy of pain; and then in 2004, it appeared as Laissez-moi: commentaire, or Leave me: a commentary. Confusing, I know, but the Laissez-moi title comes from within the text itself, when the protagonist tells off her boyfriend, but even here the colloquialism is truncated. The lady is polite when she says, “Leave me,” whereas the full expression in French is, ‘Laissez-moi, allez-vous en,’ which is one way of telling someone to go away for good.
To have a better appreciation of Sauvageot’s rage, there should have been a note of some kind to indicate just when the pen as knife turns in the flesh. It is easy to recognize, the French text says, “pirouette.” In French, the intimate form of ‘you’ is tu. You use this form with close friends, family members, and certainly, lovers. Not Sauvageot. In the text, she says, “I have to end my sentence with a pirouette.” She then uses the formal ‘you’ or vous. Yes, she wavers back and forth at times with tu, but vous is the preferred form for her, and it is a crucial decision: it is symbolic for the distance that she has placed between herself and him. There is no footnote, no nothing in the English translation for this critical shift in tone. It would have helped the reader to know how Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis approached the text.
The sick woman has been told in writing that he will marry another, that they have their “friendship.” Cold and cowardly, no doubt, but the reader will discover that the two of them were not in an exclusive relationship. He had women friends and she had male friends; in fact, she is upset at one point with one of her male friends and turns to her boyfriend for comfort. She, in turn, knew of his future wife. Her pain is that of betrayal. He chose Her instead of her. In the text she is capitalized as d’Elle (her). It is inferred that he had chosen a younger woman, someone closer to his age. I am not splitting hairs about morality or hypocrisy. My issue is with the untranslated nuances. The translation does not inform the reader that the French text does not distinguish the nature of the relationship. Petit ami is boyfriend and petite amie is girlfriend. Diction matters to Sauvageot, for she had not written copain (buddy) or copine (female buddy). Clearly, they had friends with benefits. No matter how liberated and carefree she thought she was, his decision hurt her. I can’t help but think of Simone de Beauvoir, who was deeply hurt by Jean-Paul Sartre’s affairs.
The heart of the matter is that he chose someone else. Had they had “an agreement”? We don’t know. What we know is that she was a trophy. He was younger than she was, and his college friends approved of his ‘conquest.’ The narrator informs the reader once that she had been his “gal” – the French text says, “ma grande.” She recalls a time when she visited him at his college and his friends were behind him and she saw their approving gaze. In the Introduction, much is made of the ‘male gaze’ and, while there is merit in that feminist argument, I think that Sauvageot is far more critical of herself and romantic love. She had felt deceived, first by him and then by herself.
This is a feminist text and more. The writer calls out sexism in a curious way: men start to think of social consequences in their choice of a partner, and women see marriage as a merit badge. She finds the ‘my husband…’ phrases out of women’s mouths elitist and tiresome. I also found it strange that Sauvageot put the word “feminist” in double quotes. I’m not sure whether she identified with it or not. She does not take kindly to the notion that a woman’s happiness is dependent on a man, that women are to parrot their husband’s opinions. Women were not made for men, she tells us, although both genders are selfish in love. In a great, dismissive line, she questions the societal construct of relationship, “Is the man caressing a beautiful Siamese cat hoping to find out what the animal’s light eyes are saying?” She had hoped to find her Platonic “double,” so she could be made whole, completed. She realized that that had been a mistake, another false step in “romantic diplomacy.” She does wonder why she had accepted less.
Sauvageot’s protagonist questions love as illusion because lovers see what they want to see in the Beloved, which is why she later says that friendship (amitié) is the highest form of love. In French, there is an etymological connection that traces back to Latin between the words for friend and soul, or l’âme. The Mouton essay and the Du Bos note discuss the Augustinian concept of love and friendship. Authentic love, which she had thought she had for him, accepted him, warts and all. Bébé is not an attractive man. He reminds me of the pedantic dilettante Paul in the movie Midnight in Paris. Paul had insisted that Camille Claudel was Rodin’s wife to the tour guide, played by Carla Bruni, no less! Bébé is that guy. She loves him even when he is gauche. All she wanted was for him to be himself and he was: he thinks of himself as an intellectual, yet she calls him a petit commerçant. The English translation says ‘shopkeeper’ but petit (small) and commerçant is a double insult, for it is akin to calling someone lower middle-class, lest we forget that European society has class distinctions. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet had manners, even if she didn’t have money. In the end, she would conclude that he was “mediocre.”
Moxley alludes to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in that Sauvageot’s anonymous woman is like Hans Castorp: the main character goes away to recover. Commentary belongs to the genre of literature of sickness and recovery, illness and realization. As the text progresses, Sauvageot’s sick woman realizes that life is fragile and precious, that she hopes for health restored, for the cure that never comes. She had hoped that he would be there when she was well again, but he is not. I am reminded of Margaret Edson’s play Wit, except that Sauvageot finds no solace in poetry. She finds resolve and determination within to face her illness alone. That she was forsaken while ill is heartbreaking, yet no one has expressed outrage at this abandonment, though those who face serious illness often find themselves abandoned because those close to them don’t know what to say, or how to comfort them. Like the aged elephants in Babar, she went off alone to die, so as not to be a burden to the herd. Anton Chekhov, John Keats, DH Lawrence, and George Orwell all wrote with their bloodstained handkerchiefs from TB clutched in their hands, to the end. Marcelle Sauvageot, in and out of sanatoriums, would die of the “romantic disease.”
Moxley makes this remark: “Du Bos would have us bathe her in the saintly light of la petite fleur, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who also died young of tuberculosis.” The comment misses the mark, for Moxley ignores the mores of Sauvageot’s day. France then was (and still is) a Catholic country. Both the Du Bos and Mouton essays are dated with respect to the liturgical year. In context, Du Bos mentions Saint Thérèse of Lisieux after he quotes Sauvageot. She was on her deathbed and she had named the prayers that she recited and found comfort in. The two of them received Holy Communion together. Du Bos had traveled to Switzerland to meet her and to get her approval for the Foreword that he had written for the first edition. Sauvageot died the day after he returned to Paris, on 6 January 1934, as he noted, with the church bells calling “believers to salvation in honor of the Epiphany.”
Ugly Duckling Presse has offered English-speaking readers and feminist scholars a milestone text, a canonical piece of literature subject to debate and discussion, as relevant today as it was when it first appeared, almost a century ago. Commentary appeared on several Best Translated lists in 2013.