13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Peter Biello on Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated by Anna Moschovakis (and introduction from Jennifer Moxley), published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Peter not only runs the Burlington Writers Workshop, but is also a friend to Open Letter—we had the pleasure of meeting him in person at AWP a couple weeks ago, and saddle him up with some great books.

Commentary, as many of you will know, is one of the 25 books that made the 2014 BTBA longlist.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

For the rest of the review, go here.

13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

In her responses to different aspects of his letter, Sauvageot paints the portrait of a woman trying to understand not only a relationship that has failed, but also the nature of love in general. Baby says that it isn’t his fault she’s in a sanatorium; that he couldn’t have made her happy anyway; that friendship should be sufficient going forward. The narrator doesn’t let him off the hook. She writes:

You scoured the past for a sentence in which I seemed to say I no longer loved you: “You always told me that what you had loved in me was ‘Baby’ and you did not conceal from me that ‘Baby’ no longer existed.” And you shield yourself with this sentence without wanting to remember how you did not accept it. Now, you welcome it with glee, because it enables you to escape reproach for your infidelity. (67)

She goes on to say that, in his absurd justification for leaving the relationship, she sees “a petty salesman reneging on a deal he no longer wants to close.” (68) Her assessment of this man is honest, apt, and fair.

Along with her assessment of the relationship is her attack on the gender dynamics at play. “Is a woman in love not delighted when a man chooses her as a reward for her total love?” the narrator asks, with no small amount of snark. She goes on to say, in earnest, “what you are saying is the eternally idiotic, but eternally true, song of those who love and are loved.” (52) The narrator, in short, is critical of the superficiality of modern love—a criticism that remains relevant today.

In her introduction to this new edition, Jennifer Moxley refers to Baby as a “failed human being.” One could call Baby lots of things: insensitive, blind to his own male privilege, and self-serving to name a few. But to call him “failed” pronounces him dead, which he is not. The triumph of this book is that the narrator, while gravely wounded, sees through what Moxley would say makes him a “failed human being”—his weak attempts to justify his insensitivity. She knows him better than he knows himself. “I know you better, and that is not to love you less,” she writes (49). Could this narrator truly love a “failed human being”?

The story ends optimistically, with a dance. The narrator attends a dance party, finds a partner, and spends a lovely evening with him. “Lightly intoxicated by this rhythm, accompanied by my partner for the night, who by tomorrow will have forgotten this late evening, I slowly mounted the stairs to my door; and we took leave of each other after a kiss, without saying anything” (97). That kiss, after so much discussion of love, puts a cap of silence on a long meditation on the subject.

Why should we read this meditation in 2014? In a world in which social media encourage us to hide our flaws, this book attempts to remind us that those who love us because of our flaws, not in spite of them, are those who love us best.

1 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Selections by Nicole Brossard. Translated from the French by Guy Bennett, David Dea, Barbara Godard, Pierre Joris, Robert Majzels and Erin Moure, Jennifer Moxley, Lucille Nelson, Larry Shouldice, Fred Wah, Lisa Weil, and Anne-Marie Wheeler. (Canada, University of California)

This guest post is by Idra Novey—poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University. Idra also served as chair of the poetry committee, and did an amazing job keeping things organized and on time. I know how hard this can be . . . But wow, the poetry committee seemed to run even smoother than the fiction one . . .

In a 1998 essay, the Canadian writer Nicole Brossard declared that she liked to keep herself in the untranslatable, at the limit between “I exist” and the poem on the page. For Brossard’s translators in this superb selected collection of her work, she presented the challenge of how to recreate that untranslatable voice in English and to assume that by “untranslatable” Brossard meant the impossibility of translating the full complexity of sensation into any language, as opposed to between languages.

The various translators who contributed to this book make a strong case for this interpretation. Throughout the selections, the translations recreate all the lively complexity and lyricism of Brossard’s investigation of language and its limits as she presents them in French. In an excerpt from Shadow: Soft Et Soif, translated by Guy Bennett, Brossard writes:

a few night syllables
through leafy words
let’s watch
our dream muscles move
our eyes outstripped by nostalgia
let’s watch
tears, palms and fists like thirst
the ever vague idea that living is
necessarily a plus dans le langage

Through the driving rhythm of the repetitions here and the lyrical specificity of “dream muscles” and “fists like thirst,” Bennett’s translation gives the reader a rich sense of the pleasure and mystery of Brossard’s work. Well-known as an essayist and novelist as well, the selections in this book include several essays and interviews along with a long series of prose poems translated by Lucille Nelson in which Brossard speaks in a section called Ultrasounds of “navigating at night by means of milky arms and igniters of syntax.”

As in the poem excerpted above, Brossard has a wonderful talent for mixing evocative bodily descriptions of milky arms with abstracts like “syntax.” Her poetry is avant-garde but not to the point that her experimentation makes any discernible meaning hard to grasp. Brossard is a poet, as she says in an essay at the end of collection, interested in “vision” rather than “subversion,” in speaking with clarity about where patriarchy, language, and sexuality converge and explode. That explosion, and the untranslatable place in which Brossard likes to keep herself, are wholly present in these excellent translations.

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