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Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot – Why This Book Should Win

Monica Carter curates Salonica World Lit. She is a writer and reviewer. Her most recent critical piece appeared in World Literature Today (September 2013).

Consider this: You are a woman living in France during the 1920s and 1930s. You hold the highest teaching awarded in France. In your early thirties, you are in love with a man a decade or so younger than you. It is a deep and passionate love. You become sick with tuberculosis. Your lover distances himself from you. On the train to the sanatorium, you read a letter he has sent you to inform you that a) he is getting married and b) the “love” he has for you has turned into “friendship.” While grieving this loss and fighting the disease that has plagued you, you write a monologue, an epistle, a rumination, a theory, a response to the letter and to the relationship. An editor reads it and wants to publish it. A respected scholar is asked to write a foreword. On your deathbed, between narcotic haziness and lucidity, the foreword is read to you. Feeling that the work is what you want it to be, days later at the age of 34, you peacefully pass away letting go of love and pain. You work is admired by prominent intellectuals of the time such as Paul Valery and René Crevel. Never having received it’s due in the canon of feminist literature, some eighty years later it is finally and masterfully translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis. At last, it is nominated for an award.

If that isn’t reason enough to merit the Best Translated Book Award, I’m not sure what is.

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvegeot enjoyed much resurgence in France but never gained notice until translated into English recently and published by Ugly Ducking Presse. This work is not to be categorized; it is a letter of admission, a monologue to those who love, an intimate philosophical inquiry into a woman’s mind and emotions. From early on, Sauvegeot cops to her feminine nature, but with an unflinching and objective eye, she does not excuse it:

“If only I could have begun the scene again to kiss that face and say: ‘I will not betray you.’ But things do not begin again; and I must not have uttered that sentence, for I don’t know how to speak at the right moment or with the appropriate tone. I am too easily overcome by emotion, and harden myself to avoid giving in to it. How can one convey the full sense of turmoil produce by an emotion at the exact moment it occurs?”

There are other feminist contemporaries who broached the emotional stranglehold of love and the way it changes when relationships change, specifically I am thinking H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, mentioned in the Introduction by Jennifer Moxley) and Djuna Barnes. But Commentary is more immediate and accessible than H.D.’s Kora and Ka and more intimate and analytical than Barnes’s Nightwood. No woman had written on love in such a direct and nuanced manner before this and while it is woman’s story of how an affair ends, it is masculine in its observation:

“Some ballads begin as your letter does: ‘You, whom I’ve loved so much…’ This past tense, with the present still resounding so close, is as sad as the ends of parties, when the lights are turned off and you remain alone, watching the couples go off into the dark streets. It’s over: nothing else is to be expected, and yet you stay there indefinitely, knowing that nothing more will happen. You have notes like a guitar’s; at times, like a chorus that repeats: ‘I could not have given you happiness.’ It’s an old song from long ago, like a dried flower…Does the past become an old thing so quickly?”

Who hasn’t been there? There is nostalgia and analysis present, but not a mawkish sentimentality. It’s not that she is writing like a man, but that she manages to dissect herself and the affair acknowledging her onus for loving the weaknesses of her lover as strongly as she condemns them.

Commentary isn’t a sweeping epic, not intricately plotted, nor is it full of literary devices, yet it is unique in form and so well written that the reader gathers all the necessary information from what Sauvageot conveys. It is a well-intended lament, a response to a call, short and powerful, written by a dying woman who only wanted to understand why love fails.

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