Translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis
(Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013)
Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary begins with a woman who begs herself for words. She can sense that her lover has pulled away. The anticipation of loss boils and she questions how to express the urgency of what she feels. Her thoughts are granular: “How can one possibly convey the full sense of turmoil produced by an emotion at the precise moment it occurs?”
Her relationship with the man she calls “Baby” has been fragile for some time. Its delicacy is rooted in intimacy, roots that cannot wrestle with the weight of individualism, or their differing expectations of gender dynamics. Her pain is further complicated by absence, as she is en route to a sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment. She rereads Baby’s letters on the train and imagines herself returning to him fully cured. Perhaps, she thinks, he will be waiting:
The certainty that someone continues to love and to wait, someone for whom all the rest is but a temporary, impotent distraction, is a great joy for the sick person: she feels the life she left behind has noticed her absence.
After arriving at the sanatorium, she receives a letter from Baby that bears surprising news: he is to be married to another woman. “’Our friendship remains,’” the letter vaguely assures her. And with all the starkness of realism, and a lucid, surrealistic landscape, Sauvageot invites us down narrative neural pathways so vivid, so relevant to the core of woman (and man!), that we wonder, Is she living somehow through this story? Did she cheat death by writing this book?
Commentary is, the genre tells us, a fiction/memoir hybrid. We don’t know who her lover, Baby, is or if he truly existed, or if someone really left her for another woman, while she was sick, after promising to “wait”. We do know, however, that Sauvageot was suffering from tuberculosis and wrote this book from a sanatorium. She died shortly after finishing the manuscript, at the young age of 34, and did not get to see these “intimate writings” published in two more editions over the next two years. The first edition included a forward by Charles Du Bos, who visited her the day before she died. “Marcelle Sauvageot does not remain absent from any of her internal states, “ he wrote of Commentary. “How precious and rare is it today to encounter such a respect for happiness, such a desire that, embalmed in memory’s care, survives exactly the way it was lived.”
She begins with a deconstruction of insecurity—of herself and her lover, and of her lover through her eyes. “It’s true that I am clumsy: I do not know how to express a feeling; by the time I’ve said a few words, I’m making fun of myself.” She describes a discomfort with professing love because when she listens to herself speak, it is “as if another person were speaking, and I no longer believe I am sincere; the words seem to inflate my feelings and turn them into strangers.” She says that she doesn’t admit love out of fear, mostly of failure, and claims no intention towards faithfulness despite turning other men down for dates and kisses. “And thus in denying that my heart loves, I become more attached than the one who says to me: I love you.”
Sauvageot asks difficult questions of herself, but is even harsher towards her former lover. Her anger is palpable as she reconciles the relationship with the way it ended. She confesses his faults—his vanity and snobbism, his, “small, throaty laugh,” and lips that, “recede somewhat over teeth that appear black.” She describes him under a microscope, through the eyes of someone who’s watched him, who’s learned him. “I saw your weaknesses, your insufficiencies; where is the harm in my staying, in my accepting these insufficiencies, in my loving them?”
But Baby does not want her to find his insufficiencies. He wants to be respected, not examined, and finds the narrator too astute, too aware. She laments Baby’s discomfort: “O Man! You always want to be admired…You feel that you have been ‘seen’ and you don’t want to be seen: you only want ‘to be’. Nervously, you ask: ‘What are you thinking?’” It’s in her understanding of Baby’s faults that distrust is born, and this underlying tension lingers throughout the book.
Commentary was written in the early 1930’s, which means that Sauvageot’s open emphasis on feminism is remarkable for her time. Contemporary yearnings for social and personal liberty were alive in this 1930’s French woman, right down to the little things we whisper in our heads and to our friends—what we say quietly to avoid sounding bitter. She’s tired of hearing women talk about their husbands all the time. She’s bored with women defining themselves by the men in their lives—by their desires and habits, by what men have done for them. Worse, she sees a longing for this conventional type of marriage, for “moral and societal principles”, in her lover. It’s a longing she knows she can never end. He tells her so.
Sauvageot is scorned but poised, wild but composed. Her rant employs a poeticism that makes it a tale instead of a tirade, and it truly is a story—the story of a woman who is dying but finding herself, who refuses to give up the most important parts of her individuality. “I tried to hold on to a small support separate from you…I wanted to be able to hold myself tight, along with my pain, my doubts, my lack of faith.”
But this tale is more about illness than Sauvageot lets on. Fading love is a foil for her failing body, for the body of the little boy she mentions only once, who “left us quickly while hiding the blood that filtered through his lips”. There’s a universal sense of betrayal in the reality of young death, when a life that promised to be long ends before the best parts begin. “The past wants to die,” she says, alluding to the process of letting her lover go. But it’s her body that wants to die, leaving her with no choice but to fight:
You are gone but I am finding myself again, and I am less alone than I was during the days when I was looking for you. I have come back to myself, and with myself, I will fight to carry on.
Commentary is more than a book. It’s an invitation to experience the survival of the person who wrote it—you can flip through her mind with your fingers. She died eighty years ago but has cheated death in print, and her analyses of relationships, gender culture, and the human heart have never been more relevant. Sauvageot speaks, for such a time as this, to remind us that love can be equal if we allow ourselves partnership, if we let someone else love us wholly. And when love and life fail, we have ourselves to cradle and be cradled. The comfort we need is in our own arms. On the edge of death, she is able to keep herself.
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Gloria Beth Amodeo’s short fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Helping Orphans Worldwide (H.O.W.) Journal, Carrier Pigeon,Publisher’s Weekly, NY __________, and elsewhere. She is the first place winner of the 2011 H.OW. Journal fiction contest, and she is an online editor for TLR.